The Promotion of J. Alec Motyer

I was saddened to learn this past week about the death of J. Alec Motyer (pronounced mah-teer) on August 26, 2016, at age 91.

He was used of God right up to the end, in that his devotional on the Psalms, Psalms By the Day, only came out earlier this year.  Terry Johnson posted A Personal Remembrance of Motyer on the Reformation21 website on August 30th, which I discovered only this past week.  Johnson shared a glimpse into Motyer’s personal life, gleaned while sitting under his tutelage in Hebrew exegesis class:  “At times he would refer to the comments on the psalm made to his young daughter as he put her to bed the night before; we all glanced around knowingly, as if to say, ‘Oh to be a fly on the wall for those lessons!'”

Perhaps those sorts of sentiments from his students prompted him finally to publish a daily devotional on the Psalms.  I know I have thoroughly enjoyed his commentary on Isaiah, as well as Isaiah By the Day.  The first book of his I ever encountered was his commentary on Amos, and I am thankful for that first recommendation and introduction to this godly man, who now has entered into the presence of the One he served so faithfully for nearly a century, and yet still speaks through his many works.

It is fitting to pay tribute to Motyer here, because, as Johnson put it, he was very much like a modern day Puritan.  Referring to both J. I. Packer and Motyer he noted:  “They are like the extraordinary 17th century Puritans, such as Owen, Baxter, Gurnall, Charnock, etc., whose writings live on and on and on. Given the combination of scholarship, piety, and wit, I don’t know if we’ll see their like again.”

Take up and read, and be blessed indeed!

 

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J. Alec Motyer, 1924-2016

 

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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 6: Salvation Is Impossible By Works Righteousness

[This is the 6th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 6: Those that endeavor to perform sincere obedience to all the commands of Christ, as the condition whereby they are to procure for themselves a right and title to salvation, and a good ground to trust on him for the same, do seek their salvation by the works of the law, and not by the faith of Christ, as he is revealed in the gospel; and they shall never be able to perform sincere and true holy obedience by all such efforts.”

The natural man is hard-pressed to come to terms with salvation by free grace, because of his longstanding love affair with works righteousness. As Marshall put it, the natural man is addicted to the idea of salvation by works, and it is impossible for him to give up that method on his own:

“And though we have a better way revealed to us in the gospel, for the enjoyment of the favour of God, and holiness itself, and all salvation, without any procuring condition of works, by the free gift of God’s grace through faith in Christ: yet it is very difficult to persuade men out of a way they are naturally addicted to, and that hath forestalled and captivated their judgments, and is bred in their bone, and therefore cannot easily be gotten out of the flesh. Most of those that live under the hearing and profession of the gospel, are not brought to hate sin as sin, and to love godliness for itself, though they be convinced of the necessity of it to salvation; and therefore they cannot love it heartily. The only means they can take to bring themselves to it, is to stir up themselves to an hypocritical practice in their old natural way, that they may avoid hell, and get heaven, by their works.”

There is an underlying principle here, namely, that salvation requires man to come to terms with his utter dependence on God for everything, and to renounce all self-righteousness. The most succinct way to state the essence of Reformed soteriology is: God saves sinners. God is the active agent who performs the action. Sinners are the recipients of that action. The subject and direct object are diametrically opposite in relation to the verb. And yet our own depraved hearts as well as Satan seek to get us to reverse that sequence in order to miss the narrow path that leads to eternal life.

Marshall made this point in response to those in his day who held out “sincere obedience” as the condition for salvation:

“Let us now examine the modern doctrine of salvation by the condition of sincere obedience to all the commands of Christ, and we shall quickly find it to be a chip of the same block with the former legal way of salvation, in the same manner destructive to the means of holiness, and to holiness itself. It requireth of us the performance of sincere obedience, before we have the means necessary to produce it, by making it antecedent to our justification, and persuasion of eternal happiness, and our actual enjoyment of union and fellowship with Christ, and of that new nature which is to be had only in him by faith. . . . By this devised conditional faith, Satan keepeth many poor souls at bay, poring upon their own hearts for many years together, to find whether they have performed the condition, and whether they have as yet any right to Christ for their salvation, not daring to venture to take him as their own.”

But we know that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). Glory be to Him!

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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 5: Holiness Is Impossible For the Unregenerate

[This is the 5th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 5: We cannot attain to the practice of true holiness, by any of our endeavours, while we continue in our natural state, and are not partakers of a new state, by union and fellowship with Christ through faith.”

All mankind, Marshall, observed, falls into one of two states at present: a spiritual state (those regenerated by the Holy Spirit), or a natural state (consisting in those things as we have either by natural birth or can attain to by natural power through divine assistance). Marshall then listed nine considerations that confirm the truth of this fifth direction. While some might find Marshall redundant, a more charitable reader will discover a pastor’s heart as the motive for Marshall’s steady plodding. His goal here, we note, was to free “ignorant zealots from their fruitless tormenting labors” toward moral reform and good works apart from first being regenerated and having their lives changed from sin to righteousness. The stakes were high in his day as they are in ours, since those who attempt to reform their lives apart from union with Christ, as Marshall put it: “when they have mis-spent many years in striving against the stream of their lusts, without any success, do at last fall miserably into despair of ever attaining holiness, and turn to wallowing in the mire of their lusts, or are fearfully swallowed up with horror of conscience.”

Space will not permit review of all nine of his considerations, so I want to focus on the fifth, sixth, and ninth ones.   In his fifth consideration Marshall identified four properties of the natural state which wholly disable such a one from the practice of holiness and rather enslave him to the practice of sin. Those four properties are:

  1. the guilt of sin,
  2. an evil conscience from which gives rise to a hatred and abhorrence of God as an enemy rather than love for Him,
  3. an evil inclination, tending only to sin, and
  4. subjection to the power of the devil.

In his sixth consideration, Marshall argued against the Arminian doctrine that Christ’s death has restored the freedom of the will for all men:

“Sixthly: We have no good ground to trust on Christ to help us to will or to do that which is acceptable to him, while we continue in our natural state; or to imagine that freedom of will to holiness is restored to us by the merit of his death. For, as it hath been already showed, Christ aimed at an higher end, in his incarnation, death, and resurrection, than the restoring the decay and ruins of our natural state. He aimed to advance us to a new state, more excellent than the state of nature ever was, by union and fellowship with himself; that we might live to God, not by the power of a natural free-will, but by the power of his Spirit living and acting in us. So we may conclude, that our natural state is irrecoverable and desperate, because Christ, the only Saviour, did not aim at the recovery of it.”

In other words, the goal in salvation is not to return us to a state of innocence of neutrality, but rather to union and vitality with Christ in all its fullness (Eph. 4:13).  As Marshall went on to observe: “Our old natural man was not revived and reformed by the death of Christ, but crucified together with him, and therefore to be abolished and destroyed out of us by virtue of his death (Rom. 6:6).” I think I should point out that Marshall is here speaking of the corruption of the old man being destroyed, and he is not decrying the resurrection of our self-same bodies (WCF 32.2).

In his ninth consideration, Marshall anticipated and answered an objection that many might raise: what about examples of heathen philosophers or Jews or Christians by outward profession who may have lived without the saving knowledge of God in Christ and yet lived outstanding moral lives and were famous for their wise sayings and attainments? His answer was simple enough, beginning first with the Apostle Paul. Despite his former boastings about keeping the law, once he came to the knowledge of Christ Paul judged himself to be the chief of sinners. In addition, efforts at self-reform lack love for God, which make them utterly vapid since loving God with all one’s heart is the greatest commandment. And Marshall closed by exhorting his readers to be thankful, because things could always be worse if God stopped restraining the sinful desires of natural men:

“If God should leave men fully to their own natural corruptions, and to the power of Satan (as they deserve) all show of religion and morality would be quickly banished out of the world, and we should grow past feeling in wickedness, and like the cannibals, who are as good by nature as ourselves. But God, who can restrain the burning of the fiery furnace, without quenching it, and the flowing water, without changing its nature, doth also restrain the working of natural corruption, without mortifying it: and through the greatness of his wisdom and power, he maketh his enemies to yield to feigned obedience to him (Psa. 66:3); and to do many things good for the matter of them, though they can do nothing in a right holy manner. . . . As vile and wicked as the world is, we have cause to praise and to magnify the free goodness of God, that it is no worse.”

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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 4: Find Holiness and Union With Christ By Means of the Gospel

[This is the 4th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 4: The means of instruments whereby the Spirit of God accomplisheth our union with Christ, and our fellowship with him in all holiness, are the gospel, whereby Christ entereth into our hearts to work faith in us; and faith, whereby we actually receive Christ himself, with all his fullness, into our hearts. And this faith is a grace of the Spirit, whereby we heartily believe the gospel, and also believe on Christ, as he is revealed and freely promised to us therein, for all his salvation.”

Marshall built precept upon precept in the fourteen “directions” required to unfold the gospel mystery of sanctification. Direction four deals with the nature of saving faith, since it is one of two means used by the Spirit of God to affect the believer’s union with Christ (the first being the gospel of the grace of God, and the second being faith).

Marshall identified two acts necessarily found in saving faith: 1) believing the truth of the gospel; and 2) believing on Christ as promised freely to us in the gospel, for all of salvation. He also asserted that these two acts of saving faith must be performed heartily, with an unfeigned love to the truth and a desire for Christ and his salvation above all things. He elaborated on the manner of such hearty performance by asserting:

  1. Our assenting must not be forced by mere conviction of the truth, such as devils and wicked men may have.
  2. Our believing in Christ must neither be only a constrained fear of damnation, without any hearty love and desires towards the enjoyment of Christ.
  3. This love must be to every part of Christ’s salvation: to holiness as well as forgiveness of sins.

When comparing Marshall’s definition of saving faith here with that of Calvin, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Confession of Faith (follow this link to an earlier, related blog), we find common ground with respect to what it means to believe on Christ (i.e., trusting in and resting upon Christ for salvation). Marshall’s treatment, though, includes an aspect of repentance. In coming to Christ, the repentant sinner turns from sin to God for happiness and life and everything. Repentance isn’t a superficial matter of obtaining “fire insurance” in order to continue on a path of ungodliness, but a total renunciation of all that is contrary to God, and so is never ending this side of heaven. Marshall puts it more succinctly:

“We must desire earnestly, that God would create in us a clean heart and right spirit, as well as hide his face from our sins (Ps. 51:9, 10); not like many, that care nothing in Christ but only deliverance from hell. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled (Matt. 5:6).

So a key observation to be gleaned here is how specious are the claims of many so-called Christians today who care little for being conformed to the image of Christ. How silly would it be for someone to say, “I really love Sally, but I can’t stand to be in her presence because of the way she looks, moves, talks, thinks, and basically everything about her.  She is so embarrassing.”

Just as Sally will not be taken in by such vapid sentiments, neither will the Lord, in that those who are His will be conformed to His image in holiness, without exception (Heb. 12:14). Or as the Psalmist warns (Psa. 50:16-23, ESV):

16 But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips?

17 For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.

18 If you see a thief, you are pleased with him, and you keep company with adulterers.

19 “You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.

20 You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son.

21 These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.

22 “Mark this, then, you who forget God, lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!

23 The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!”

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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctificaton – Direction 3: Union With Christ

[This is the 3rd of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 3: The way to get holy endowments and qualifications necessary to frame and enable us for the immediate practice of the law, is to receive them out of the fullness of Christ, by fellowship with him; and that we may have this fellowship, we must be in Christ, and have Christ himself in us, by a mystical union with him.”

In this third direction for the pursuit of sanctification, Walter Marshall’s closing thought provides a nice summary:

Christ’s “incarnation, death, and resurrection, were the cause of all the holiness that ever was, or shall be given to man, from the fall of Adam, to the end of the world; and that by the mighty power of his Spirit, whereby all saints that ever were, or shall be, are joined together, to be members of that one mystical body whereof he is the head.”

In the first church I ever attended several decades ago, a guest speaker used a latex glove to illustrate how many Christians attempt to live the Christian life. Holding the empty glove by the tip of the middle finger, he would admonish it: “Ok now, Christian, live the Christian life.”  Then he would let go, and the empty glove collapsed onto the table. He did this several times, to convey the idea that it is impossible to live the Christian life by one’s own effort. Only when Christ dwells within, illustrated by putting a hand inside the glove, is it possible to live the Christian life. That is essentially the lesson Marshall held out in this third direction.

What is so obvious in the object lesson, however, tends to be overlooked many times in actual practice. Marshall saw this back in his day as well:

“One great mystery is, that the holy frame and disposition whereby our souls are furnished and enabled for immediate practice of the law, must be obtained by receiving it out of Christ’s fullness, as a thing already prepared and brought to an existence for us in Christ, and treasured up in him; and that as we are justified by a righteousness wrought out in Christ, and imputed to us; so are we sanctified by such a holy frame and qualifications, as are first wrought out, and completed in Christ for us, and then imparted to us. And as our natural corruption was produced originally in the first Adam, and propagated from him to us; so our new nature and holiness is first produced in Christ, in making or producing that holy frame in us, but only to take it to ourselves, and use it in our holy practice, as made ready to our hands. Thus we have fellowship with Christ, in receiving that holy frame of spirit that was originally in him: for fellowship is, when several persons have the same thing in common (1 John 1:1-3). This mystery is so great, that, notwithstanding all the light of the gospel, we commonly think that we must get a holy frame by producing it anew in ourselves, and by forming and working it out of our own hearts.”

The “endowments” Marshall mentioned in Direction 3 refer back to the four endowments enumerated in Direction 2 (an inclination and propensity of heart to the duties of the law; a persuasion of reconciliation to God; a persuasion of future enjoyment of everlasting heavenly happiness; and a persuasion of sufficient strength to will and perform our duty acceptably). In this third direction, Marshall identified the source of these endowments as Christ Himself. Hence, it is impossible for someone to be a true Christian and to be totally indifferent to the pursuit of holiness. Why? It is because the indwelling power of Christ is always effectual to bear fruit to one degree or another.

Marshall’s spoke at some length about the “great mystery in the way of sanctification” in terms of “the glorious manner of our fellowship with Christ, in receiving a holy frame of heart from him.” This mystery consists of the mystical union between Christ and the believer (one of three mystical unions in Scripture, the other two being the union of the trinity of persons in one Godhead, and the union of the divine and human nature in Jesus Christ). Marshall described the nature of this union and its effect masterfully:

“Though Christ be in heaven, and we on earth; yet he can join our souls and bodies to his at such a distance without any substantial change of either, by the same infinite Spirit dwelling in him and us; and so our flesh will become his, when it is quickened by his Spirit; and his flesh ours, as truly as if we did eat his flesh and drink his blood; and he will be in us himself by his Spirit, who is one with him, and who can unite more closely to Christ than any material substance can do, or who can make a more close an d intimate union between Christ and us. And it will not follow from hence, that a believer is one person with Christ, any more than Christ is one person with the Father, by that great mystical union. Neither will a believer be hereby made God, but only the temple of God, as Christ’s body and soul is; and the Spirit’s lively instrument, rather than the principal cause. Neither will a believer be necessarily perfect in holiness hereby; or Christ made a sinner: for Christ knoweth how to dwell in believers by certain measures and degrees, and to make them holy so far only as he dwelleth in them. And though this union seem too high a preferment for such unworthy creatures as we are; yet, considering the preciousness of the blood of God, whereby we are redeemed, we should dishonor God, if we should not expect a miraculous advancement to the highest dignity that creatures are capable of, through the merits of that blood.”

The more progress a believer makes in sanctification the more he realizes his need of Christ in everything. As Wilhelmus à Brakel observed with regard to spiritual growth: “He who is of the opinion that he only needed Christ at the outset of his spiritual life and that he is now beyond that and thus leaves Christ alone, only focusing upon holiness – or if he solely makes use of Christ as an example for holiness – has gone astray and regresses more than he progresses.” (Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service; Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books; vol. 4, p. 146)

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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 2: The Prerequisites of Repentance and Faith

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[This is the 2nd of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 2: Several endowments and qualifications are necessary to enable us for the immediate practice of the law. Particularly we must have an inclination and propensity of our hearts thereunto; and therefore we must be well persuaded of our reconciliation with God, and of our future enjoyment of the everlasting heavenly happenings, and of sufficient strength both to will and perform all duties acceptably, until we come to the enjoyment of that happiness.”

This second direction lists four endowments which are required for the practice of holiness. We need to keep in mind the lessons of the first direction which defined holiness essentially in terms of conforming to the moral law in its entirety, which may be summed up via two greatest commandments: to love the Lord with all one’s heart mind, and strength, and one’s neighbor as himself. This is no small task, in that is it beyond one’s natural ability to perform, hence the need for divine assistance, beginning with regeneration.

Lest we rush past them, the four endowments Marshall identified here as prerequisites to the practice of holiness (sanctification) are:

  1. An inclination and propensity of heart to the duties of the law;
  2. A persuasion of our reconciliation with God;
  3. A persuasion of our future enjoyment of the everlasting heavenly happiness; and
  4. A persuasion of sufficient strength both to will and perform our duty acceptably, until we come to the enjoyment of the heavenly happiness.

We may find some of these prerequisites to be akin to putting the cart before the horse. But if we understand justification by faith correctly, Marshall’s counsel here will resonate with our understanding of the truth, and our own frustrated efforts if we attempt sanctification any other way.

I want to focus on the second endowment (persuasion of our reconciliation with God) in this short space, in no small part because Marshall himself gave more attention to it. He described it as a great mystery, and then gave five arguments in support of it:

“This is a great mystery (contrary to the apprehensions, not only of the vulgar, but of some learned divines) that we must be reconciled to God, and justified by the remission of our sins, and imputation of righteousness, before any sincere obedience to the law; that we may be enabled for the practice of it.”

  1. The first Adam was framed for the practice of holiness at his creation without any sin imputed to him, and this was a great advantage to him for the practice of holiness. The second Adam was the beloved of the Father. Can we then expect to be imitators of Christ, by performing more difficult obedience than the first Adam was before the fall?
  2. Those who know their natural deadness under the power of sin and Satan, are fully convinced, that if God leave them to their own hearts, they can do nothing but sin; and that they can do no good work, except it please God, of his great love and mercy, to work it in them.
  3. The nature of the duties of the law is such as requires an apprehension of our reconciliation with God, and his hearty love and favor towards us for the doing of them.
  4. Our conscience must of necessity be first purged from dead works, that we may serve the living God.
  5. God has abundantly discovered to us, in his word, that his method of bringing men from sin to holiness of life, is, first to make them know that he loves them, and that their sins are blotted out.

That first argument is insightfully persuasive, and we are indebted to Marshall for such an astute comparison. Unlike his progeny, the first Adam didn’t have a sin nature to contend with prior to the fall. Marshall pressed the point here by asking: “can we reasonably expect to be imitators of Christ, by performing more difficult obedience than the first Adam’s was before the fall; except the like advantages be given to us, by reconciliation, and remission of sins, and imputation of a righteousness given by God to us, when we have none of our own?”

When explaining his fourth argument with regard to the necessity of having our conscience cleansed from dead works prior to the practice of holiness, he underscored even more the need for a right understanding of justification by faith:

“I have often considered, by what manner of working any sin could effectually destroy the whole image of God in the first Adam: and I conclude, it was by working first an evil guilty conscience in him, whereby he judged, that the just God was against him, and cursed him for that one sin. And this was enough to work a shameful nakedness by disorderly lusts, a turning his love wholly from God to the creature, and a desire to be hidden from the presence of God (Gen. 3:8, 10) which was a total destruction of the image of God’s holiness.”

So in the final analysis, coming to Christ in repentance and faith is the prerequisite for the practice of holiness. Abiding in Him is the key to sanctification, for apart from Him we can do nothing.

 

 

 

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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 1: Learning About Powerful and Effectual Means

Out of all the Puritan works I have read thus far, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification (GMS hereafter) by Walter Marshall  is one of my favorites (easily within the top 5).  I gauge my affinity for a particular work by the number of times I find myself referring back to it and by the insights gained therein.

I read GMS back in 2013, and recently completed outlining it.  I am forever indebted to Marshall for a greater appreciation of the mystery of the believer’s union with Christ.  And since that spiritual reality is unfathomable, the truths contained in the book deserve perpetual study.

In his endeavor to unfold the mystery of sanctification Marshall presented his reader with fourteen directions.  I’m only going to touch on the first one in this post, leaving room for future installments as time allows.

“Direction 1: That we may acceptably perform the duties of holiness and righteousness required in the Law, our first work is, to learn the powerful and effectual means whereby we may attain to so great and end.”

Marshall made two main points when unpacking this direction, the first being clarification of the objective in view.  Sanctification aims for a spiritual objective, which can only be obtained by spiritual (i.e., supernatural) means.

Secondly, in order to be sanctified, a person must be well acquainted with the means required thereunto.  Marshall then presented his reader with eight considerations in regard to these means (summarizing here):

  1. We are all by nature incapable of performing that holiness and righteousness which God’s law requires.
  2. Those who doubt or deny the doctrine of original sin must realize that the exact justice of God is against them (in other words, they are in deep trouble!).
  3. General revelation is insufficient to save or sanctify.  Special revelation is indispensable in this regard.
  4. Sanctification is a grace of God communicated to us as well as is justification.
  5. Since God has taken the trouble to give us plentiful instruction in righteousness in the holy scriptures, it is incumbent on us to sit down at his feet and learn it.
  6. The way to attaining godliness is not a mere matter of education, but rather a supernatural work whereby the dead are raised to life, and therefore far above all the thoughts and conjectures of men.
  7. The knowledge of the means of sanctification is of utmost importance for the establishment of true faith, because we cannot rationally doubt that love to God and our neighbor are absolutely necessary to true religion.
  8. Knowledge of these means is of great importance and necessity for establishment in holy practice, because one cannot apply himself to the practice of holiness with hope of success without some expectation of divine assistance, which one cannot expect without using the means God has appointed.

Take up and read!  If you need a copy, it is available from Reformation Heritage Press here.

Gospel Mystery of Sanctification Marshall cover

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Hiatus

This blog was created to serve as a repository of reflections on Puritan readings taken up by a men’s small group, which met for the first time on March 20, 2009 and most recently on December 10, 2015: a span of 6.7 years!  Since the small group has disbanded, this blog has run its course, and is on hiatus, for now at least.

 

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Week 50 of 50 in the Institutes: Kiss the Son

I kicked around a couple of titles for this final blog on the Institutes: God Be Praised vs Kiss the Son. Kiss the Son obviously won out, so let me explain.

God Be Praised had at least three things going for it. In the first place, thankfulness is always becoming since it is only by God’s grace that we go from one day to the next. Beginning any project is one thing, but finishing it is another. Thanks be to Him who sustained us throughout the year so that we were able to complete this richly rewarding reading assignment! Second, Calvin ended the Institutes with God Be Praised, and I was tempted to borrow that phrase as a tip of the hat to him. Third, I think God Be Praised does a decent job summarizing the legitimate role of all governments as Calvin has laid it out for us here.

But I picked Kiss the Son because Psalm 2 kept coming to mind as I read through chapter 20 of the Institutes, and I think the admonition therein more succinctly states the accountability and only proper response of all governing entities toward King Jesus:

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.   Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.  Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.  Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psa. 2:10-12, ESV)

If that quote makes anyone nervous, let’s establish something up front: Calvin was not a theonomist (nor am I)!  Calvin’s position on that subject is clear enough (4:10.14), so don’t get tripped up by the double use of the negative:

For there are some who deny that any commonwealth is rightly framed which neglects the law of Moses, and is ruled by the common law of nations. How perilous and seditious these views are, let others see: for me it is enough to demonstrate that they are stupid and false. We must attend to the well known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law, and we must attend to each of these parts, in order to understand how far they do, or do not, pertain to us.

By way of a slight digression, the orthodox view is that the moral law (the Ten Commandments) is still binding, but the ceremonial and civil laws of Israel are not. Theonomy (which may literally be defined as the rule of God through his law) holds that the civil laws are also equally binding on all nations in perpetuity. Theonomists are fond of pointing out that the civil laws in the Old Testament were merely extensions of the moral law, and as such are applicable today as they ever were to all nations and rulers. The major flaw in such an assertion lies in its failure to take into account the contextualization of the civil laws as they were given to Israel (Calvin noted this contextualization as well, see last sentences of 4.20.16). Space will not permit me to give a critique of theonomy, so I refer the interested reader to acquire and read Theonomy: A Reformed Critique.

Now that we have theonomy out of the picture, we need to be clear about something else. Although Calvin was not a proponent of theonomy, he still thought government had a role to play in maintaining the right worship of God, in keeping with the first table of the moral law. And he also saw the responsibility of government to uphold the second table of the law by doing everything according to the law of love (4.20.15):

The moral law, then (to begin with it), being contained under two heads, the one of which simply enjoins us to worship God with pure faith and piety, the other to embrace men with sincere affection, is the true and eternal rule of righteousness prescribed to the men of all nations and of all times, who would frame their life agreeably to the will of God. For his eternal and immutable will is, that we are all to worship him and mutually love one another. . . . But if it is true that each nation has been left at liberty to enact the laws which it judges to be beneficial, still these are always to be tested by the rule of charity, so that while they vary in form, they must proceed on the same principle. Those barbarous and savage laws, for instance, which conferred honour on thieves, allowed the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, and other things even fouler and more absurd, I do not think entitled to be considered as laws, since they are not only altogether abhorrent to justice, but to humanity and civilised life.

We may take a few other observations from our study of this final chapter of the Institutes. One is that Calvin was not a proponent of principled pluralism or secularism as a form of government either. Another is that Calvin was not a proponent of sedition or insurrection where bad or undesirable forms of government existed. He exhorted men to obey and suffer under a wicked ruler rather than revolt (4.20.31). At the end of the day he was no ivory-tower theologian theorizing on the best form of civil government, always pining for it to come along (i.e., waiting on the world to change!). He condemned such speculation as an idle pastime (and in the following one may detect the seed thoughts for western democracies):

And certainly it were a very idle occupation for private men to discuss what would be the best form of polity in the place where they live, seeing these deliberations cannot have any influence in determining any public matter. Then the thing itself could not be defined absolutely without rashness, since the nature of the discussion depends on circumstances. And if you compare the different states with each other, without regard to circumstances, it is not easy to determine which of these has the advantage in point of utility, so equal are the terms on which they meet. Monarchy is prone to tyranny. In an aristocracy, again, the tendency is not less to the faction of a few, while in popular ascendancy there is the strongest tendency to sedition. When these three forms of government, of which philosophers treat, are considered in themselves, I, for my part, am far from denying that the form which greatly surpasses the others is aristocracy, either pure or modified by popular government, not indeed in itself, but because it very rarely happens that kings so rule themselves as never to dissent from what is just and right, or are possessed of so much acuteness and prudence as always to see correctly. Owing, therefore, to the vices or defects of men, it is safer and more tolerable when several bear rule, that they may thus mutually assist, instruct, and admonish each other, and should any one be disposed to go too far, the others are censors and masters to curb his excess.”

 So if anyone’s interest has been piqued by this deep subject of God and politics, I recommend another resource: God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government. Appendix B therein lists twelve points of agreement among the four views, of which I will share seven in light of Psalm 2 (finally getting to it):

  1. The Word of God is authoritative.
  2. The ascended Christ is King over all creation.
  3. God requires civil officials to conduct their offices as His servants, ruling justly and recognizing the dignity of all persons as created in His image.
  4. Christians should resolutely resist the secularizing of society, as we presently see it, for example, in humanistic state education and disrespect for unborn life.
  5. Christians should obey and promote biblical precepts in political life, including its institutions and policies.
  6. To promote the goals in [4] and [5], Christians should develop strong families, churches, and organizations.
  7. Persuasion, not violence, is the only legitimate means to form and correct the civic mind in favor of a biblical position on issues or to obtain religious conversions.

We do well during this season of advent, as well as year round, to remind ourselves that King Jesus rules and reigns over all. The wisest course of action for kings and plebes everywhere in this life is to kiss the Son, and take refuge in Him, lest He be angry, and ye perish in the way.
Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Dec. 14: 4.20.2 – 4.20.7

Dec. 15: 4.20.8 – 4.20.11

Dec. 16: 4.20.12 – 4.20.18

Dec. 17: 4.20.19 – 4.20.26

Dec. 18: 4.20.274 – 4.20.32

 

 

 

 

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Week 49 of 50 in the Institutes (belated): Products of the Idol Factory

If in this week’s assignment Calvin referred his reader back to his earlier section (1.11.8) where he described man’s heart as a perpetual idol factory, I missed it. That quip kept coming to mind during this tour of what Calvin aptly described as five false sacraments, namely: penance, confirmation, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction.

John Owen said (quoting loosely here) that when we sin, we are bored with God. The empty ritualism exposed by Calvin with regard to those five Catholic “sacraments” comprises a similar boredom and dissatisfaction with the all-sufficient atonement of Jesus Christ, even of Jesus Christ himself, which is the essence of all idolatry. At the end of his treatment of these affronts to the Lord Jesus, Calvin alluded to Aesop’s fable of the donkey in the lion’s skin, without mincing words (4.19.32):

“At length, we must extricate ourselves from their mire, in which our discourse has already stuck longer than I should have liked. Still, I believe that I have accomplished something in that I have partly pulled the lion’s skin from these asses.” (McNeill-Battles)

But rather than pile on here by focusing on the idolatry inherent in empty rituals, we will do better by remembering that anything or anyone we esteem and love more than the Lord Jesus Christ is an idol. Anyone interesting in a right appraisal of his own affections in this regard would do well to acquire and imbibe a book by Alexander Grosse (1596-1654), The Happiness of Enjoying and Making a True and Speedy Use of Christ, recently published by Soli Deo Gloria Publications as an imprint of Reformation Heritage Books. Add this to your Christmas list while there is time and you won’t regret it.

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Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Dec. 7: 4.19.7 – 4.19.13

Dec. 8: 4.19.14 – 4.19.19

Dec. 9: 4.19.20 – 4.19.25

Dec. 10: 4.19.26 – 4.19.32 (Skipped! No Reformation21 blog for this day)

Dec. 11: 4.19.33 – 4.20.1

 

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