Tag Archives: Assurance of Salvation

The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 14: Epilogue and Closing Exhortations

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

“Direction 14: That you may seek holiness and righteousness, only by believing in Christ, and walking in him by faith, according to the former directions, take encouragement from the great advantages of this way, and the excellent properties of it.”

This final direction serves as an epilogue or conclusion to the preceding thirteen directives, with five closing motives for employing everything taught therein. Before sharing those weighty motives, Marshall exhorted his readers to remember the way of sanctification laid out in directives 1-13, namely via:

“union and fellowship with Christ, and by faith in Christ, as discovered in the gospel; not by the law, or in a natural condition, or by thinking to get it before we come to Christ, to procure Christ by it, which is striving against the stream: but that we must first apply Christ and his salvation to ourselves, for our comfort, and that by confident faith; and then walk by that faith, according to the new man, in Christ, and not as in a natural condition; and use all means of holiness rightly for this end.”

The five desirable properties or motives for following the preceding 13 directives which Marshall provided were:

  • This way tends to the abasement of the flesh, and exaltation of God only, in his grace and power through Christ.
  • This way consists well with other doctrines of the gospel, which contrary errors do not (doctrines such as original sin, predestination, justification and reconciliation by faith, union with Christ, and perseverance of the saints).
  • This way is the never-failing, effectually powerful, alone sufficient, and sure way to attain to true holiness.
  • This way is a most pleasant way to those who are in it (Prov. 3:17) in several respects.
  • This is a high exalted way, above all others, for these are the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that God has set us in (Eph. 2:5-6).

When developing the fourth property, above, Marshall made five points, the third being it is a way of peace, wherein he cited Prov. 3:17: “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” (ESV) And then he made this observation:

“The doubts of salvation that people meet with arise from putting some condition of works between Christ and themselves; as hath appeared in this discourse. But our walking in this way, is by faith, which rejects such fears and doubtings (John 14:1; Mark 5:36; Heb. 10:19, 22). It is free from fears of Satan, or any evil (Rom. 8:31, 32); and free from slavish fears of perishing by our sins (1 John 2:1, 2; Phil. 4:6, 7); faith laying hold on infinite grace, mercy, and power to secure us; the Lord is the keeper and shade on the right hand (Ps. 121:5). Free and powerful grace answers all objections.”

May the Lord grant grace for us to take these truths to heart and walk by faith accordingly!


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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 10: Having True Assurance of Salvation

[This is the 10th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 10: That we may be prepared by the comforts of the gospel to perform sincerely the duties of the law, we must get some assurance of our salvation, in that every faith whereby Christ himself is received into our hearts: therefore we must endeavor to believe on Christ confidently, persuading and assuring ourselves, in the act of believing, that God freely giveth to us interest in Christ and his salvation, according to his gracious promise.”

This tenth direction is something of an elaboration of the ninth, wherein Marshall contends that one of the comforts of the gospel requisite to performing the duties of the law is an assurance of salvation. Marshall began with four clarifications at the outset, to establish a right understanding of this doctrine.

First, in regard to the nature of assurance intended by this direction: The assurance directed unto here is not a persuasion that we have already received Christ and his salvation, but only that “God is pleased graciously to give Christ and his salvation unto us.” Hereby he distinguished between the direct vs the reflex act of faith, the latter being what we typically think of when we mention assurance (the direct act being the belief that God is ready to receive us for salvation which is inherent to saving faith, and the reflex act being a well-grounded assurance that one is in a state of grace, a thing which many precious saints are without).

Second, the assurance directed to is not what is nowadays commonly referred to as “once-saved-always-saved” wherein a person can live any way they please because they have prayed the prayer, walked the aisle, or what have you. Rather, the assurance Marshall has in mind is a persuasion “in a limited way, through mere free grace in Christ, by partaking of holiness as well as forgiveness, and by walking in the way so holiness to the enjoyment of the glory of God.”

Third, Marshall warns against “thinking so highly of this assurance, as if it were inconsistent with any doubting in the same soul.” As long as saints remain here with indwelling sin, there will inevitably be doubts that linger about one’s state. As Marshall put it: “Can any on earth say, they have received any grace in the highest degree, and that they are wholly free from the contrary corruption? Why then should we think, that assurance cannot be true, except it be perfect, and free the soul from all doubtings?”

Fourth, Marshall notes the priority of faith in obtaining assurance: “In the last place, let it be well observed, that the reason why we are to assure ourselves in our faith, that ‘God freely giveth Christ and salvation to us particularly,’ is not because it is a truth before we believe it, but because it will never be true, except we do, in some measure, persuade and assurance ourselves that it is so.” He went on to say that “our assurance is not impressed on our thoughts by any evidence of the thing; but we must work it out in ourselves by the assistance of the Spirit of God, and thereby we bring our own thoughts into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” Practically this comes down to taking God at his word and trusting on Christ alone for salvation, for there is no under name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved. To seek any other method of salvation is vain idolatry, and to doubt God’s willingness or ability to save impugns His character. Hence we are bound to come to Him as helpless beggars, seeking our all in Him. When we take Him at his word, he proves to be faithful.

Marshall then provides seven arguments to prove that “there is, and must necessarily be such an assurance or persuasion of our salvation in saving faith itself.” I will deal only with the first and the fifth one here.

In the first argument, Marshall contends that this “assurance of salvation is implied in the description before given of that faith whereby we receive Christ and his salvation, into our hearts.” His main point here is that coming to faith in Christ involves a full reliance upon Him alone for salvation, trusting in Him completely and utterly, and that such trust will not be in vain:

“If you will rest in the Lord, you must believe that he dealeth bountifully with you (Ps. 116:7); or else, for ought you know, you may make your bed in hell. And you will show little regard of Christ, and of your soul, if you dare to rest under the wrath of God, without any persuasion of a sure interest in Christ. . . . The soul that liveth in such wavering and doubting concerning salvation, doth not stay itself, nor rest at all; but is like a wave of the sea, driven with the wind, and tossed; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways (James 1:6, 8). – If you continue on the mere suspense and doubtfulness of salvation by Christ, your desire to trust, us but a lazy woulding, without any fixed resolution, and you dare not yet venture to trust on him steadfastly.”

In the fifth argument, Marshall underscores the importance of the assuring one’s self in the enjoyment of Christ:

“The chief office of this faith in its direct saving act, is to receive Christ and his salvation actually into our hearts, as hath been proved; which office cannot be rationally performed, except we do, in some measure, persuade our hearts, and assure ourselves in the enjoyment of him.”

There can be no fence-sitting here where the direct act of faith is concerned, in terms of whether or not Christ is willing and able to save those who come to him. In the direct act of faith, there is no doubt about where salvation is to be found, offered, and freely given:

“If we do not make choice of Christ as our only salvation and happiness, or if we be altogether in a state of suspense, doubting whether God will be pleased to give Christ to us or no, it is evident, that our souls are quite loose from Christ, and have no holdfast or enjoyment of him. They do not so much as pretend to any actual receiving, or laying hold, or choosing of him, neither are they fully satisfied that it is lawful for them so to do: but rather they are yet to seek, whether they have any good ground and right to lay hold on him or no. Let any rational man judge, whether the soul doth, or can put forth any sufficient act for the reception and enjoyment of Christ, as its Saviour, Head, or Husband, while it is yet in doubt, whether it be the will of Christ to be joined with it in such a near relation? Can a woman honestly receive any one as her husband, without being assured the he is fully willing to be her husband? The same may be said concerning the several parts of Christ’s salvation, which are to be received by faith. It is evident, that we do not aright receipt the benefit of remission of sins, for the purging of our consciences from that guilt that lieth upon them, unless we have an assured persuasion of God’s forgiving them. We do not actually receive into our hearts, our reconciliation with God, and adoption of children, and the title to an everlasting inheritance, until we can assure ourselves, that God is graciously pleased to be our God and Father, and take us to be his children and heirs.”

This reminds me of something that John Bunyan mentioned in his autobiography, Grace Abounding. Bunyan described himself as a great sinner before his conversion, and went to some length to describe the struggles he went through at the outset of his conversion. Satan confronted him with his sin, suggesting that his transgressions were such that there could be no grace sufficient enough for his salvation. Bunyan discovered that when he shared his struggles with mature saints who had been in the Lord many years, they were encouraged. Bunyan concluded that this was because Satan uses the same tactics with “lesser sinners” later on in their Christian walk that he does with “great sinners” early on, just with a different focus. Rather than holding up all those sins committed before conversion, with “lesser sinners” Satan accuses them for all their sins since conversion, seeking to call into question the genuineness their salvation, suggesting something to the effect that “there is no more grace for you.” In this way Satan seeks to separate the saint from the object of his direct act of faith (the assurance Marshall has been describing).  But the answer to this attack is the same on the first day on the narrow road of faith as it is on last, as expressed in the words of John Newton’s hymn, Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat:

“Be thou my shield and hiding place, that, sheltered near thy side, I may my fierce accuser face, and tell him thou hast died.”

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Week 33 of 50 in the Institutes: The Right and Wrong Way of Seeking Assurance

In 3.24.4 Calvin describes the great peril a soul hazards when seeking assurance “outside the way” (McNeill-Battles rendering), or “out of the proper way” (Beveridge) by seeking to inquire into the secret things of God:

Among the temptations with which Satan assaults believers, none is greater or more perilous, than when disquieting them with doubts as to their election, he at the same time stimulates them with a depraved desire of inquiring after it out of the proper way.  By inquiring out of the proper way, I mean when puny man endeavors to penetrate to the hidden recesses of the divine wisdom, and goes back even to the remotest eternity, in order that he may understand what final determination God has made with regard to him. In this way he plunges headlong into an immense abyss, involves himself in numberless inextricable snares, and buries himself in the thickest darkness. For it is right that the stupidity of the human mind should be punished with fearful destruction, whenever it attempts to rise in its own strength to the height of divine wisdom. And this temptation is the more fatal, that it is the temptation to which of all others almost all of us are most prone. For there is scarcely a mind in which the thought does not sometimes rise, Whence your salvation but from the election of God? But what proof have you of your election? When once this thought has taken possession of any individual, it keeps him perpetually miserable, subjects him to dire torment, or throws him into a state of complete stupor. I cannot wish a stronger proof of the depraved ideas, which men of this description form of predestination, than experience itself furnishes, since the mind cannot be infected by a more pestilential error than that which disturbs the conscience, and deprives it of peace and tranquillity in regard to God. Therefore, as we dread shipwreck, we must avoid this rock, which is fatal to every one who strikes upon it.

Instead of seeking to pry into the secret things of God, Calvin counsels his readers to seek assurance in Christ alone by resting on the promises found in Him (3.24.5), that is, the revealed things:

For though a belief of our election animates us to involve God, yet when we frame our prayers, it were preposterous to obtrude it upon God, or to stipulate in this way, “O Lord, if I am elected, hear me.” He would have us to rest satisfied with his promises, and not to inquire elsewhere whether or not he is disposed to hear us. We shall thus be disentangled from many snares, if we know how to make a right use of what is rightly written; but let us not inconsiderately wrest it to purposes different from that to which it ought to be confined.

By a right use and reliance upon the promises of God to receive all who come to him for mercy, the believer may safely navigate the perilous waters of predestination and find comfort and consolation therein, knowing that salvation is of the Lord:

And though the discussion of predestination is regarded as a perilous sea, yet in sailing over it the navigation is calm and safe, nay pleasant, provided we do not voluntarily court danger. For as a fatal abyss engulfs those who, to be assured of their election, pry into the eternal counsel of God without the word, yet those who investigate it rightly, and in the order in which it is exhibited in the word, reap from it rich fruits of consolation.The_calm_after_the_storm_-_Port_Lincoln_-_South_Australia_(Explored)

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Aug. 17: 3:24.1 – 3.24.5

Aug. 18: 3.24.6 – 3.24.11

Aug. 19: 3.24.12 – 3.24.17

Aug. 20: 3.25.1 – 3.25.3

Aug. 21: 3.25.4 – 3.25.6

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Week 20 of 50 in the Institutes: The Holy Spirit of Promise

Those who are up to date with the reading assignments are in for a real treat tomorrow! Calvin provides us with a jewel of exegetical insight in 3.2.36 with regard to understanding the phrase, “the Holy Spirit of promise”, found in Ephesians 1:13 (“In him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation – having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise – NASB)

I am currently teaching through Ephesians in Sunday school, and I regrettably missed Calvin’s insights when we covered that passage last year.  Consider Calvin’s treatment in 3.2.36 (Beveridge’s translation, emphasis added), wherein he shows that faith is a matter of the heart:

The next thing necessary is, that what the mind has imbibed be transferred into the heart. The word is not received in faith when it merely flutters in the brain, but when it has taken deep root in the heart, and become an invincible bulwark to withstand and repel all the assaults of temptation. But if the illumination of the Spirit is the true source of understanding in the intellect, much more manifest is his agency in the confirmation of the heart; inasmuch as there is more distrust in the heart than blindness in the mind; and it is more difficult to inspire the soul with security than to imbue it with knowledge. Hence the Spirit performs the part of a seal, sealing upon our hearts the very promises, the certainty of which was previously impressed upon our minds. It also serves as an earnest in establishing and confirming these promises. Thus the Apostle says, “In whom also, after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance,” (Eph. 1:13, 14). You see how he teaches that the hearts of believers are stamped with the Spirit as with a seal, and calls it the Spirit of promise, because it ratifies the gospel to us. In like manner he says to the Corinthians, “God has also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts,” (2 Cor. 1:22). And again, when speaking of a full and confident hope, he founds it on the “earnest of the Spirit,” (2 Cor. 5:5).

None of my commentaries picked up on any association of sealing having anything to do with the promises.  The closest anyone in my collection came was Peter O’Brien (The Pillar New Testament Commentary, The Letter to the Ephesians), in that he pointed out that “the believing and being sealed were two sides of one event” (p. 119).  But to equate the Spirit communicating and applying the gospel to believers personally at conversion with the essence of the seal itself is profound, and a perfect example of why Calvin’s works are still consulted for his insights both as a theologian and a commentator.

In his Commentary on Ephesians 1:13, Calvin emphasized the efficacious work of the Spirit in convincing men of the truth of the gospel (emphasis added):

Our minds never become so firmly established in the truth of God as to resist all the temptations of Satan, until we have been confirmed in it by the Holy Spirit. The true conviction which believers have of the word of God, of their own salvation, and of religion in general, does not spring from the judgment of the flesh, or from human and philosophical arguments, but from the sealing of the Spirit, who imparts to their consciences such certainty as to remove all doubt. The foundation of faith would be frail and unsteady, if it rested on human wisdom; and therefore, as preaching is the instrument of faith, so the Holy Spirit makes preaching efficacious.

This work of the Spirit in affirming the truth of the gospel on the hearts of believers is such that even those who admit to a lack of assurance will not trade what little hope they have for anything in the wide world.  Such confidence, albeit weak at times, stems from the work of the Holy Spirit of promise upon the heart, sealing a sense of forgiveness in a mysterious yet indefatigable way which manifests itself in a cry of “Abba! Father!” in times of need (Rom. 8:15). And this is because, deep down, the Spirit bears witness with the believer’s spirit that he is a child of God.  What’s more, the work of the Spirit in applying the promises personally to the heart only begins at conversion, and ceases only when we reach the Celestial City where faith ends in sight.  Glory be to Him!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

May 18:  3.2.32 – 3.2.37

May 19:  3.2.38 – 3.2.42

May 20:  3.2.43 – 3.3.4

May 21:  3.3.5 – 3.3.10

May 22:  3.3.11 – 3.3.15

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Week 19 of 50 in the Institutes: A Right Definition of Faith

This week’s assignment overflows with Calvin’s pastoral concern for his readers, and Carl Trueman’s blogs on the Reformation 21 website are not to be missed either (see links at bottom of post).

I want to draw attention to Calvin’s definition of saving faith in 3.2.7 and note its agreement with the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession.  So let’s begin with Calvin’s definition:

We shall now have a full definition of faith if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit. (Beveridge)

The notable feature of this definition of faith for twenty-first century Christendom is the role of the Holy Spirit in assurance of salvation (as opposed to man, or the mere utterance of a prayer).  As Trueman observed (May 11 blog), assurance is indeed central to Christianity.  But today, I’m afraid that assurance is taken for granted in a presumptive, automatic, name-it, claim-it approach: “I prayed the prayer, so I’m saved.  Why the concern about assurance?”  Calvin went on in the next section (3.2.8) to assert that faith goes beyond a mere assent to certain truths, and that true assent itself is more “a matter of the heart than of the head, of the affection than the intellect”.

When we compare Calvin’s definition of saving faith to that found in the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 21), we find assurance worked by the Holy Spirit common to both:

Question 21. What is true faith? Answer: True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter 14) elaborates more, but contains the same emphasis on the Holy Spirit, with an acknowledgement that there may be saving faith where full assurance is lacking:

  1. The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the word: by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.
  2. By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding and embracing the promises, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come.  But the principal acts of saving faith are, accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.
  3. This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed and weakened, but gets the victory; growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

For his part, Calvin balanced the certainty inherent to true faith with the weakness found therein as well, due to indwelling sin.  Hence the need to work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling (3.2.23), which is a far cry from “name-it, claim-it.”

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

May 11:  3.2.7 – 3.2.10

May 12:  3.2.11 – 3.2.15

May 13:  3.2.16 – 3.2.21

May 14:  3.2.22 – 3.2.27

May 15:  3.2.28 – 3.2.31

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Week 12 of 50 in the Institutes: The First Step Toward Godliness

This week’s assignment affords many vistas for reflection, but I will limit myself to two.  The first is 2.6.4, where Calvin notes that faith in God is faith in Christ, and requires the following admission from his reader:

but what I wish to impress upon my readers in this way is, that the first step in piety is, to acknowledge that God is a Father, to defend, govern, and cherish us, until he brings us to the eternal inheritance of his kingdom; that hence it is plain, as we lately observed, there is no having knowledge of God without Christ, and that, consequently, from the beginning of the world Christ was held forth to all the elect as the object of their faith and confidence. In this sense, Irenæus says, that the Father, who is boundless in himself, is bounded in the Son, because he has accommodated himself to our capacity, lest our minds should be swallowed up by the immensity of his glory (Irenaeus, lib. 4 cap. 8).

Instead of “the first step in piety” as Beveridge rendered it above, the McNeill-Battles edition translates that phrase as ‘the first step toward godliness.”  Calvin’s point, in either translation, is well taken.  One cannot make much progress in sanctification where there is a lack of assurance of salvation.  One Puritan we read compared the doubting Christian to someone who is given a plot of land to farm, but instead of working the ground, he continually goes back and forth to the land office repeatedly, checking to see if his deed is valid.  So when harvest time comes, such a one has a meager return because all the time which should have been spent planting and harvesting was wasted in relentless questioning and doubt.

Such a one needs to learn to look fully unto Him who is an all sufficient Savior (Heb. 7:25), able to save to the uttermost all who come to him, Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.  As we sit at Calvin’s feet in 2.7.8 we find this glorious invitation for refuge in Christ:

But while the unrighteousness and condemnation of all are attested by the law, it does not follow (if we make the proper use of it) that we are immediately to give up all hope and rush headlong on despair. No doubt, it has some such effect upon the reprobate, but this is owing to their obstinacy. With the children of God the effect is different. The Apostle testifies that the law pronounces its sentence of condemnation in order “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God,” (Rom. 3:19).  In another place, however, the same Apostle declares, that “God has concluded them all in unbelief;” not that he might destroy all, or allow all to perish, but that “he might have mercy upon all,” (Rom. 11:32) in other words, that divesting themselves of an absurd opinion of their own virtue, they may perceive how they are wholly dependent on the hand of God; that feeling how naked and destitute they are, they may take refuge in his mercy, rely upon it, and cover themselves up entirely with it; renouncing all righteousness and merit, and clinging to mercy alone, as offered in Christ to all who long and look for it in true faith. In the precepts of the law, God is seen as the rewarder only of perfect righteousness (a righteousness of which all are destitute), and, on the other hand, as the stern avenger of wickedness. But in Christ his countenance beams forth full of grace and gentleness towards poor unworthy sinners.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Mar. 23:  2.5.18 – 2.6.2

Mar. 24:  2.6.3 – 2.7.1

Mar. 25:  2.7.2 – 2.7.7

Mar. 26: 2.7.8 – 2.7.13

Mar. 27: 2.7.14 – 2.8.1

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Week 4 of 50 in the Institutes: Idolatry Is the Epitome of Weakness

If asked to describe, as briefly as possible, the marks of a strong Christian, what comes to mind?  Would it be faith?  Love?  Assurance of salvation?

We do well to consider the prayer what Paul prayed for the Ephesians, as found in Eph. 4:14-19, when defining spiritual strength, because that text paints a picture of spiritual strength that catches the casual reader off guard, and at the same time it reveals how diametrically opposed spiritual strength is to every form of idolatry.  So keep reading and I will show how it ties in with the origin of idolatry which Calvin exposes in 1.11.8 of the Institutes.

Let’s consider briefly the context of Ephesians 4:14f.  Paul wrote this epistle to the church at Ephesus during his first Roman imprisonment, so it would seem natural for the believers there, the recipients of his letter, to be concerned, not only about Paul, but about themselves.  After all, if the apostle Paul himself wound up in prison for believing and preaching the gospel, what is to prevent any disciple of his from experiencing a similar fate?  Paul seems to have anticipated this concern, since he added in 4:13 “So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” (ESV) Thereafter Paul shares his prayer for them:

14 Because of this I bow my knees to the Father, 15 by whom every family is named, in heaven and on earth, 16 that he would grant you, according to the wealth of his glory, to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, 17 so that Christ would settle down in your hearts through faith, having been rooted and grounded in love, 18 in order that you may be strong enough to grasp with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and so to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, in order that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  (my translation)

I have translated the first part of verse 17 “so that Christ would settle down in your hearts” which more accurately reflects the meaning of the verb in its context here, and is key to understanding the picture of spiritual strength which I think Paul has in mind here.  Paul is not praying that the Ephesians would come to faith in Christ in 3:17.  The larger context prohibits such an interpretation.  We see this in the opening of the letter which began with praise to God for the salvation they have experienced (1:3-14).  He also described the Ephesians as those who were formerly dead in trespasses and sins (2:1-3), but who now have been made alive, raised with Christ, and seated with Him in the heavenly places (2:4-6), all because of God’s almighty work of salvation in their lives.  So it is unthinkable that he is praying for their conversion in 3:17.

Rather, Paul is praying that the Ephesians will come to know Christ in such a way that, despite whatever circumstances in which they may find themselves, they will be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ with the result that nothing can ever call into question His love for them.  This is the essence of what it means to be spiritually strong, and is so far removed from what I’m going to call the weak, immature, daffodil believer.  Like a child plucking petals from a daffodil, when bad things happen, the daffodil believer concludes God doesn’t love him.  When good things happen, he concludes God loves him.  So he goes through life never settled in the love of God, like so:  “He loves me . . . He loves me not . . . He loves me . . . He loves me not . . . Oh, I don’t know whether He loves me or He loves me not!”  So how is it possible to move beyond this doubtful state?  How does a person become assured of God’s love?  The answer isn’t found in circumstances.  Rather, we must look to one place only: the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.  There is the place we know the love of God: But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8, ESV)

But the next two words in the passage are very important: so that Christ would settle down in your hearts through faith. The way a person comes to know the love of Christ is by faith.  This is what it means to be spiritually strong.  But it takes a work of the Spirit in our heart, as Paul puts it, to be strong enough to grasp with all the saints what is truly inexhaustible and unknowable: the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.

And now we come to consider the origin of idolatry which Calvin identified in 1.11.8, and I hope we can perceive it as the epitome of spiritual weakness, because it must operate by sight instead of the currency of true spiritual strength, which is faith:

That idolatry has its origin in the idea which men have, that God is not present with them unless his presence is carnally exhibited, appears from the example of the Israelites: ‘Up,’ said they, ‘make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wet not what is become of him’ (Exod. 22:1). They knew, indeed, that there was a God whose mighty power they had experienced in so many miracles, but they had no confidence of his being near to them, if they did not with their eyes behold a corporeal symbol of his presence, as an attestation to his actual government. They desired, therefore, to be assured by the image which went before them, that they were journeying under Divine guidance. And daily experience shows, that the flesh is always restless until it has obtained some figment like itself, with which it may vainly solace itself as a representation of God. In consequence of this blind passion men have, almost in all ages since the world began, set up signs on which they imagined that God was visibly depicted to their eyes.  (1.11.8)

And while Calvin was directing his comments against the use of images found in the worship of the Roman Catholic Church, we must not fail to recognize the idolatry that is alive and well throughout secular society today in the 21st century.  Man’s heart is a perpetual idol factory, as Calvin also noted in 1.11.8, and the output is so immense that I cannot chronicle it here.  But any image used in the worship of what the Puritans called the carnal trinity, known as the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is an idol, whereby significance, status, prestige, security, sensuality, power or acquisition is pursued.  In this generation they are manifest as any number of fortune 500 company trademarks or those of their products, team logos (be it NFL, NBA, NHL, NCAA, etc.), or the obscene images spewed out by peddlers of the multibillion dollar porn industry.  Yes, idolatry thrives in our midst today such that we fool ourselves if we attempt to relegate it to the past or to less developed cultures.

So we must pray fervently and frequently, as Paul did: Your face, full of grace and truth, Lord, do I seek.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes (all by Phil Ryken for this week):

Jan. 26:  1.9.3 – 1.11.1

Jan. 27:  1.11.2 – 1.11.6

Jan. 28:  1.11.7 – 1.11.12 

Jan. 29:  1.11.13 – 1.12.2 

Jan. 30:  1.12.3 – 1.13.3 


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Week 6 of 8 in Bunyan: Rightly Appraising Union With Christ

I was delighted again to discover Bunyan’s esteem for the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ in this week’s assignment (paragraphs 215-253 of Grace Abounding), in paragraph 233:

Further, the Lord did also lead me into the mystery of union with the Son of God, that I was joined to Him, that I was flesh of His flesh, and bone of His bone, and now was that a sweet word to me in Eph. 5.30. By this also was my faith in Him, as my righteousness, the more confirmed to me; for if He and I were one, then His righteousness was mine, His merits mine, His victory also mine. Now could I see myself in heaven and earth at once; in heaven by my Christ, by my head, by my righteousness and life, though on earth by my body or person.

Bunyan, like every believer, found no peace of conscience until he was assured that he was indeed a recipient of the grace of Christ. He started gaining his footing with John 6:37 (paragraph 215) after his protracted, twelve month season of despair during which he thought himself guilty of the unpardonable sin. But, surprisingly enough, the passage that afforded him the most assurance was Joshua 20 in regard to the terms of entry into the city of refuge (paragraphs 219-222). Bunyan’s pilgrimage is an illustration of Martin Luther’s observation that “The heart of religion lies in its personal pronouns.” That is, in the reality of being able to say truly that the Lord is my God.  Or, as Calvin put it (Institutes, 3.1.1, online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.v.ii.html, emphasis added):

We must now see in what way we become possessed of the blessings which God has bestowed on his only-begotten Son, not for private use, but to enrich the poor and needy. And the first thing to be attended to is, that so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us. To communicate to us the blessings which he received from the Father, he must become ours and dwell in us. Accordingly, he is called our Head, and the first-born among many brethren, while, on the other hand, we are said to be ingrafted into him and clothed with him, all which he possesses being, as I have said, nothing to us until we become one with him. And although it is true that we obtain this by faith, yet since we see that all do not indiscriminately embrace the offer of Christ which is made by the gospel, the very nature of the case teaches us to ascend higher, and inquire into the secret efficacy of the Spirit, to which it is owing that we enjoy Christ and all his blessings.

Calvin went on to define saving faith to include a “sure knowledge” of God’s benevolence towards us (3.2.7, available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.v.iii.html, emphasis added):

We shall now have a full definition of faith if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.

I encourage you again, as I did in this past week’s Midweek Rambling (previous post), to listen to the talk Dr. Derek Thomas gave on union with Christ as you have opportunity (http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=9111491210).

Reformed confessions and catechisms include several references to the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ (see WSC Q30; WLC Q66; HC Q1 & Q54), and hymnody abounds with them. I leave you with the first stanza from the hymn Loved with Everlasting Love as a prime example:

Loved with everlasting love,

Led by grace that love to know;

Spirit, breathing from above,

Thou hast taught me it is so.

Oh, this full and perfect peace!

Oh, this transport all divine!

In a love which cannot cease,

I am His, and He is mine.

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Week 5 of 8 in Bunyan: Wielding the Sword of the Spirit

As I read this week’s assignment (paragraphs 169-214) in Grace Abounding I underlined in green (symbolizing life) the Bible verses Bunyan found to be some means of comfort to his tender conscience in his parleys with Satan.  I counted eight (paragraph number followed by citation or reference): 173: Isa. 44:22; 190: Jer. 31:3; 193: Psa. 130:3-4; 194: Ezek. 16:63; 202: Psa. 77:7-9; 203: Heb. 7:25; 206: 2 Cor. 12:9; 213: Jas. 2:13.  There were many more passages he cited which were means of doubt and consternation, but these were the ones which shined as lights on his dark path.

John Bunyan learned how to wield the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17) in his protracted struggle to gain peace of conscience and assurance of salvation.  There is a lesson for us here today, as well as a challenge. The lesson is that one cannot wield a sword, unless it is kept at hand on the hip.  Scripture memorization is a must in order to engage in spiritual warfare successfully, and therein is the challenge.  The Holy Spirit can’t do a whole lot to mortify the flesh or engage the enemy if the only passage in one’s memory is John 3:16!

Fortunately for him, Bunyan memorized many more passages besides John 3:16.  When we consider all of the references from Genesis to Revelation that Bunyan cited we may begin to agree with Charles Spurgeon’s observation that Bunyan “bled Bibline”:

Oh, that you and I might get into the very heart of the Word of God, and get that Word into ourselves! As I have seen the silkworm eat into the leaf, and consume it, so ought we to do with the Word of the Lord—not crawl over its surface, but eat right into it till we have taken it into our inmost parts. It is idle merely to let the eye glance over the words, or to recollect the poetical expressions, or the historic facts; but it is blessed to eat into the very soul of the Bible until, at last, you come to talk in Scriptural language, and your very style is fashioned upon Scripture models, and, what is better still, your spirit is flavored with the words of the Lord.

I would quote John Bunyan as an instance of what I mean. Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like the reading the Bible itself. He had read it till his very soul was saturated with Scripture; and, though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress—that sweetest of all prose poems — without continually making us feel and say, “Why, this man is a living Bible!” Prick him anywhere—his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God. I commend his example to you, beloved.  (http://theoldguys.org/2013/05/03/charles-spurgeon-may-we-bleed-bibline/)

Spurgeon, by the way, made it a point to read Pilgrim’s Progress twice a year because of the insights it contained to Scripture.

William Gurnall, author of the classic work, The Christian in Complete Armour, showed great insight and awareness of how God alone must apply the salve of the word to tender consciences, as he does for every believer:

The distress of an afflicted conscience ariseth from the dismal sense of divine wrath for sin.  Now none can remove this but he that can infallibly assure the soul of God’s pardoning mercy; and this lies so deep in God’s heart, that God alone ‘who only knoweth his own thoughts’ can be the messenger to bring the news; and therefore the word which doth this can come from none but him.  And, that is able not only to do this, but also to fill the soul with ‘joy unspeak­able and full of glory,’ is a truth so undoubted, that we need not ascend up to heaven for further confirm­ation.  That Spirit which first indited the word, hath sealed it to the hearts of innumerable believers.

         Indeed all the saints acknowledge their comfort and peace to be drawn out of these wells of salvation. ‘In the multitude of my thoughts within me thy com­forts delight my soul,’ Ps. 94:19.  Nay, he doth not only tell us his own experience, whence he had his joy, but also to have had theirs from the same tap.  ‘Fools, because of their transgressions, are afflicted’ Ps 107:17. And what then can ease them?  Will all the rarities that can be got by sea or land make a diversion to their thoughts, and ease them of their pain?  No; for ‘their soul abhorreth all manner of meat; and they draw near unto the gates of death,’ ver. 18.  What cor­dial then have they left to use, or way to take for their relief?  Truly none, but to betake themselves to prayers and tears, ‘Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he saveth them out of their dis­tresses,’ ver. 19.  And with what key doth God open their prison door?  It follows, ‘He sent his word, and healed them,’ ver. 20.  If you shall say all this is meant of outward trouble; yet surely you must grant in holds more strong concerning that which is inward.  What but a word from God’s mouth can heal a distres­sed spirit, when the body pineth and languisheth till God speaketh a healing word unto it?  (available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/gurnall/armour/files/gurnal04b.htm).

Like Bunyan, John Owen found much solace in Psalm 130, so much so that he wrote a 322 page exposition on it!  I have found Hebrews 7:25 to be great comfort against the Accuser as well:

Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (ESV)

Next week we get to the passage that served to anchor Bunyan’s soul more securely, over which Satan contended fiercely with him, John 6:37, so stay tuned.  But in the meantime: Take up and read!  Take up and read!

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Week 4 of 8 in Bunyan: Unveiling One of Satan’s Devices

By the time I came to this week’s reading assignment in Grace Abounding (paragraphs 128-168), I found myself wanting to speak a word of encouragement in Bunyan’s ear, exhorting him to look to Christ, dear brother!

Perhaps this response on my part stemmed from the insights gleaned from an earlier reading selection of ours: Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, by Thomas Brooks which was first published in 1652, fourteen years before Bunyan wrote Grace Abounding.  Before reading Brooks I thought Satan never bothered with me very much, because I had my hands full contending with my own fallen nature, the flesh.  Brooks changed my mind on that entirely.  So if you haven’t read that wonderful book, I urge you to take up and read it as soon as possible!

In the fallout of Bunyan’s fleeting, momentary thought in which he yielded to the temptation to “sell Christ,” he seems to have encountered a common device Satan uses to keep Christians in the pitiful condition he so movingly described.  Thomas Brooks identified eight devices Satan uses to keep Christians in such sad, doubting, questioning, and uncomfortable conditions, and the first one he mentioned is the one John Bunyan encountered: 

Device #1: By causing them to be still poring and musing upon sin, to mind their sins more than their Savior; yea, so to mind their sins as to forget, yea, to neglect their Savior.

Remedy (1) To consider, That though Jesus Christ hath not freed [believers] from the presence of sin, yet he hath freed them from the damnatory power of win.

Remedy (2) To consider, That though Jesus Christ hath not freed you from the molesting and vexing power of sin, yet he hath freed you from the reign and dominion of sin.

Remedy (3) Constantly to keep one eye upon the promises of remission of sin, as well as the other eye upon the inward operations of sin.

Remedy (4) To look upon all your sins as charged upon the account of Christ, as debts which the Lord Jesus hath fully satisfied; and indeed, were there but one farthing of that debt unpaid that Christ was engaged to satisfy, it would not have come into heaven and sit down at his own right hand.

Remedy (5) Solemnly to consider, Of the reasons why the Lord is pleased to have his people exercised, troubled, and vexed with the operations of sinful corruptions; and they are these: partly to keep them humble and low in their own eyes; and partly to put them upon the use of all divine helps, whereby sin may be subdued and mortified; and partly, that they may live upon Christ for the perfecting the work of sanctification; and partly, to wean them from things below, and to make them heartsick of their absence from Christ, and to maintain in them bowels of compassion towards others that are subject to the same infirmities with them; and that they may distinguish between a state of grace and a state of glory, and that heaven may be more sweet to them in the close.

Remedy (6) To consider, That believers must repent for their being discouraged by their sins.  Their being discouraged by their sins will cost them many a prayer, many a tear, and many a groan; and that because their discouragements under sin flow from ignorance and unbelief.


Writing long after Bunyan’s day in 1847, Octavius Winslow had this to say about doubting the sufficiency of God’s grace, in Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul

The moment a believer looks at his unworthiness more than at the righteousness of Christ, – supposes that there is not a sufficiency of merit in Jesus to supply the absence of all merit in himself before God, what is it but a setting up his sinfulness and unworthiness above the infinite worth, fullness, and sufficiency of Christ’s atonement and righteousness.  There is much spurious humility among many of the dear saints of God.  It is thought by some, that to be always doubting one’s pardon and acceptance, is the evidence of a lowly spirit.  It is, allow us to say, the mark of the very opposite of a lowly and humble mind. That is true humility that credits the testimony of God, – that believes because he has spoken it, – that rests in the blood, and righteousness, and all-sufficiency of Jesus, because he has declared that ‘whoever believes in him shall be saved.’  This is genuine lowliness, – the blessed product of the Eternal Spirit.  To go to Jesus just as I am, a poor, lost, helpless sinner, – to go without previous preparation, – to go glorying in my weakness, infirmity, and poverty, that the free grace and sovereign pleasure, and infinite merit of Christ, may be seen in my full pardon, justification, and eternal glory.  There is more of unmortified pride, of self-righteousness, of that principle that would make God a debtor to the creature, in the refusal of a soul fully to accept of Jesus, than is suspected.

 The urgent appeal of Isaiah 45:22 is as powerful as ever until the end of this age:

 Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else. (KJV)

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