Tag Archives: Communion With God

The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 12: Making Use of Faith for the Immediate Performance of the Duties of the Law

[This is the 12th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 12: Make diligent use of your most holy faith, for the immediate performance of the duties of the law, by walking no longer according to your old natural state, or any principles or means of practice that belong unto it; but only according to that new state, which you receive by faith, and the principles and means of practice that properly belong thereunto; and strive to continue and increase in such manner of practice. This is the only way to attain to an acceptable performance of those holy and righteous duties, as far as it is possible in this present life.”

I’m going to try to connect some dots as I consider this twelfth direction. I’m forever indebted to Marshall for his emphasis on the doctrine of union with Christ as he has unpacked the gospel mystery of sanctification. I read somewhere that books are like friends which introduce you to other friends. Sometimes they open new vistas to a particular topic, and this was the case with Marshall. While being familiar with the concept of union with Christ, Marshall made me aware of how deficient my understanding of it was in terms of sanctification and living out of the fullness of Christ, particularly from the Reformed perspective. Having discovered this gap, I sought out additional works on this doctrine and recently acquired J. Todd Billings’ book, Union with Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011) and I have finished all but the last chapter.

As I have reflected on Marshall’s twelfth direction and tried to crystalize it in my thinking, the second chapter from Billings’ book has loomed large, so much so that I think his chapter title serves as a good re-statement of Marshall’s twelfth direction: “Total Depravity in Sin, Total Communion in Christ: How the Bondage of the Will Mirrors a Theology of Salvation as Communion.”

So let me see if I can connect the dots clearly to make the case for this assertion. In direction twelve, Marshall teaches us that a person can perform the duties of the law only according to that new state, which he defined as “that which we receive from the second Adam, Jesus Christ, by being new-born in union and fellowship with him through faith; and it is called in scripture, the new man; and, when we are in it, we are said to be in the Spirit” (bold emphasis mine). We need to note that this new state consists essentially of being in union with Christ, that is, made alive, regenerated by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Marshall went on to describe the “practice” he had in mind in this direction:

“So the manner of practice here directed to, consists in moving and guiding ourselves, in the performance of the works of the law, by gospel principles and means. This is the rare and excellent art of godliness in which every Christian should strive to be skillful and expert.”

Then applying all due diligence, as the Puritans are always inclined to do, Marshall proceeded to describe the manner of this practice (in six points no less!), followed by some necessary instructions for this practice (in eight points!). In the sixth point characterizing the manner of this practice, Marshall emphasized the primacy of union with Christ:

“6. This is the manner of walking which the apostle Paul directeth us unto, when he teacheth us, by his own example, that the continual work of our lives should be, ‘to know Christ’, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his death; if by any means we may attain unto the resurrection of the dead, and to increase and press forward in this kind of knowledge (Phil. 3:10-12, 14). . . . And he would hereby guide us, to make use of Christ, and his death and resurrection, by faith, as the powerful means of holiness in heart and life; and to increase in this manner of walking, until we attain unto perfection in Christ.”

As an aside, when referring to “perfection in Christ”, he was referring to the eternal state, not sinless perfection in this life. In his first of eight necessary instructions he slew that idea outright:

“1. Let us observe, and consider diligently, in our whole conversation, that though we are partakers of a new holy state by faith in Christ, yet our natural state doth remain, in a measure, with all its corrupt principles and properties.”

In other words, the Christian has a renewed nature, albeit an imperfectly renewed nature, as long as he remains in this body. Marshall described the remnants of indwelling sin as penal evils stemming from the first sin of Adam:

“Now, though some penal evils may be said to remain in us, yet we cannot suppose, that his original pollution is continued in us as considered in Christ; but as considered in our old state, derived from the first Adam.”

“Therefore, the first sin of Adam is imputed, in some respect, even to those that are justified by faith; and they remain, in some measure, as aforesaid, under the punishment and curse denounced (Gen. 2:17).”

Marshall noted that this awareness of the believer’s condition was very useful in preparing for the practice of holiness because of its alignment with gospel principles and means that belong to those who are in union with Christ by virtue of the indwelling Holy Spirit. As he posited, which view promotes holiness more: the idea that perfect holiness may be attained in this life, or the view that it is impossible for us to keep the law perfectly and to purge ourselves from sin as long as we live in this world? Marshall contended that this latter view promotes holiness more, and I agree. His wisdom and insight here may be proven from a simple illustration: No one calls for an exterminator unless he thinks he has a pest problem. Similarly, the only person who yearns and strives most earnestly for holiness is the one who perceives his need for it. And this is where a right use of the law comes in (connecting the dots, if you’re still with me).

Now here comes what may be a paradigm shift for some in regards to the law. Billings provides an interesting and somewhat unfamiliar quote from Calvin’s sermons and his commentary on Isaiah (pp. 109-110 of Union With Christ);

“As Calvin states, the law contains commands ‘whose purpose is to unite us to our God. And that [union with God] constitutes our happiness and glory’. Indeed, ‘the principle end and use of the Law’ is ‘to invite men to God; and indeed, their true happiness lies in being united to God.’”

While it would be interesting to have more of the context of those citations from Calvin, one doesn’t have to think very hard for Scriptural support for those statements. If we go back to the Garden, as long as Adam as Eve obeyed the command to abstain from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they enjoyed unbroken fellowship and communion with God. As soon as they disobeyed, that fellowship was broken and every unhappiness descended upon them. After the Lord delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, he prefaced his pronouncement of the Ten Commandments by declaring the people’s relationship to him: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2, ESV). As long as they kept the Lord’s commandments, they would experience his blessing: everything would be well. Of course it was impossible to them to do so, and the Lord provided for forgiveness (Ex. 24). Consequently everything in the Old Testament foreshadowed the need for the Messiah, the Anointed One, who would come to save God’s people from their sins. And when Messiah came, he came to do the will of God, so much so that the Psalmist (Psa. 40:6; cited in Hebrews 10:5-7) uses “ears you have dug for me” as a metonym for the incarnation, thus showing that the very thing mankind needed most was a hearing and obedient ear! The Messiah, the God-Man, kept the law perfectly, and had perfect, unbroken communion with the Father (John 17:22-23) until the point when he took the sins of his people upon himself to make atonement through his sacrificial death. In light of this and so many other passages we can appreciate the sentiment of the Psalmist when he associates blessedness and happiness with obedience to the law: “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord” (Psa. 119:1, ESV).

And this brings us to the next dot to connect between Marshall and Billings. Marshall’s and Billings both underscored total depravity, the idea that everything about us is corrupted by sin. Total depravity doesn’t mean that everyone is as bad as they can possible be, nor that “we see no good in human beings unless they are Christian,” as Billings put it (p. 38). Rather, total depravity means that “humans cannot perform any good for the sake of salvation apart from the Spirit” (Billings, p. 38). But too much of the time, sadly, enough, people tend to think that TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints) is an exhaustive summary of Reformed theology, and it is not. And this is where we are indebted to Billings for recovering the other side of the coin, so to speak, of the doctrine of total depravity, and that is total communion!

As those who are joined to Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit, believers are the temple of God, collectively as the church (Eph. 2:19-22) and individually (1 Cor. 6:19). Christ is the vine, and believers are the branches in union with the vine. All spiritual sustenance comes from the vine, and apart from the vine, the branches can do nothing. It is only as we take to heart the truths illustrated by this metaphor that we can begin to carry out the duties of the law and live the Christian life as the Lord instructed. And this is only possible when we have a clear understanding of our own condition before God (the two types of knowledge Calvin identified as essential in the opening section of the Institutes: knowledge of God and knowledge of self).

The gospel frees us to face the reality about ourselves, namely, that there is nothing good that dwells in us, that is, in our flesh (Rom. 7:18). And this is because we find everything good and needful for salvation in our Savior, Jesus Christ, who also dwells within (Christ is our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 1 Cor. 1:30). Despairing of all efforts of “self-salvation” in this way, as Billings put it, is essential to saving faith, as he quoted Luther here:

 “Now you ask, ‘What then shall we do? Shall we go our way with indifference because we can do nothing but sin?’ I would reply, By no means. But, having heard this, fall down and pray for grace and place your hope in Christ in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection.” (Billings, p. 54, citing Luther’s Works, 31:50).

Over the years Billings has found many people to be surprised by the notion of total communion, and he offered a snapshot worth sharing here (p. 50):

“A student said that she had heard about total depravity in TULIP for many years, but she had no idea that this doctrine actually affirms a rich notion of salvation as communion with God. Her response? ‘Why didn’t anyone ever tell me this? This actually sounds like good news!” She wondered where the Reformed tradition had gone wrong in losing this key part of its teaching.”

Despite the length of this entry, I need to add here that Billings does his homework in pointing out tracing out the prominence of total communion (union with Christ) throughout his book, Union With Christ. He points out that the Canons of Dort, on which TULIP is based, were never meant to be a complete confession of faith. Rather, the Canons were provided as a supplement to the Belgic Confession, and the Belgic Confession contains a rich theology of communion with God, before the fall (article 14) and after (articles 22-24, 28-29, 33-35).

So if we have strayed from the mark by missing the emphasis on communion with God through union with Christ, we have only confirmed what Marshall observed. Apparently there were few in his day who were masters of this spiritual art of godliness, just as there are today:

“Some worldly arts are called mysteries; but above all, this spiritual art of godliness is, without controversy, a great Mystery (1 Tim. 3:16); because the means that are to be made use of in it are deeply mysterious, as hath been showed; and you are not a skillful artist, till you know them, and can reduce them to practice. It is a manner of practice far above the sphere of natural ability, such as would never have entered into the hearts of the wisest in the world, if it had not been revealed to us in the scriptures; and, when it is there most plainly revealed, continueth a dark riddle to those that are not inwardly enlightened and taught by the Holy Spirit; such as many godly persons guided by the Spirit, do in some manner walk in it, yet do but obscurely discern: they can hardly perceive their own knowledge of it, and can hardly give any account to others of the way wherein they walk; as the disciples that walked in Christ, the way to the Father, and yet perceived not that knowledge in themselves: ‘Lord, we know not whither thou goest, and how can we know the way? (John 14:5). This is the reason why many poor believers are so weak in Christ, and attain so small a degree of holiness and righteousness.”

May the Lord grant grace that we may grow in this area, and learn, as Billings put it, that “only by communion with God can we move toward communion with God.” (p. 49)


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Week 46 of 50 in the Institutes: The Definition of “Is”

Reading this week’s assignment reminded me of a bit of parsing a former American President did with the English language when giving testimony under oath: “It all depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is”.

Calvin went to some length to show that the Lord’s assertion that “this is my body” (Mt. 26:26; Mk 14:22 1 Cor. 11:24) must rightly be understood as a figure of speech, namely, a metonymy.  Any failure to recognize the expression as such results in the absurdity of the literal (4.17.21):

I say that the expression which is uniformly used in Scripture, when the sacred mysteries are treated of, is metonymical. For you cannot otherwise understand the expressions, that circumcision is a “covenant”—that the lamb is the Lord’s “passover”—that the sacrifices of the law are expiations—that the rock from which the water flowed in the desert was Christ,—unless you interpret them metonymically.  Nor is the name merely transferred from the superior to the inferior, but, on the contrary, the name of the visible sign is given to the thing signified, as when God is said to have appeared to Moses in the bush; the ark of the covenant is called God, and the face of God, and the dove is called the Holy Spirit.  For although the sign differs essentially from the thing signified, the latter being spiritual and heavenly, the former corporeal and visible,—yet, as it not only figures the thing which it is employed to represent as a naked and empty badge, but also truly exhibits it, why should not its name be justly applied to the thing? But if symbols humanly devised, which are rather the images of absent than the marks of present things, and of which they are very often most fallacious types, are sometimes honoured with their names,—with much greater reason do the institutions of God borrow the names of things, of which they always bear a sure, and by no means fallacious signification, and have the reality annexed to them.

Dr. Derek Thomas did a nice job describing the literary nature of Scripture in the blog for Nov. 18th.  Many exegetical fallacies would be avoided if these literary devices occurring throughout Scripture were taken into account routinely.

As for Calvin’s own view of the Lord’s Supper, he takes the reader to sacred ground which consists of the very presence of Christ himself, rooted in the believer’s union and communion with Him. Rather than thinking that Christ comes down to us (either in transubstantiation or consubstantiation), we must realize that believers are lifted up to him through the working of the Spirit which unites us to Christ, as Calvin put it.  How this happens, he says, is mystery which is more to be experienced than fully comprehended or declared (4.17.32):

Now, should any one ask me as to the mode, I will not be ashamed to confess that it is too high a mystery either for my mind to comprehend or my words to express; and to speak more plainly, I rather feel than understand it. The truth of God, therefore, in which I can safely rest, I here embrace without controversy. He declares that his flesh is the meat, his blood the drink, of my soul; I give my soul to him to be fed with such food. In his sacred Supper he bids me take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I have no doubt that he will truly give and I receive.

In his book, The Lord’s Supper, Thomas Watson noted how carnal persons fail to “discern the Lord’s body”, being totally oblivious to what Calvin described above:

“The manna lay round about Israel’s camp, and they knew it now: ‘They wist not what it was’ (Exod. 16:15).  So carnal persons see the external elements, but Christ is not known to them in his saving virtues: there is honey in the Spiritual Rock, which they never taste.  They feed on the bread, but not Christ in the bread: ‘They eat the bread of the Lord, but not the Bread which is the Lord.’  Isaac ate the kid, when he thought it had been venison (Gen. 27:25).  Unbelievers go away with the shadow of the sacrament; they have the rind and the husk, not the marrow.  They eat the kid, not the venison.” 

Until we put off this flesh, may we truly know and experience often the blessed truth of our Lord’s command: “Take, eat, this is my body.”

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes

Nov. 16: 4.17.12 – 4.17.15

Nov. 17: 4.17.16 – 4.17.20

Nov. 18: 4.17.21 – 4.17.24

Nov. 19: 4.17.25 – 4.17.28

Nov. 20: 4.17.29 – 4.17.32

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Week 45 of 50 in the Institutes: High Maintenance Christianity

An owner of a Harley Davidson recently told me that those bikes are nice to have and ride, but that they are high maintenance.  So unless you have deep pockets and can pay to have the maintenance done regularly by someone else, be prepared to turn a wrench yourself, he warned.  Owning a Harley has never been a dream of mine, and that sage advice snuffed out whatever sliver of a notion of Harley ownership that may have lurked deep down in my subconscious.  I can think of a thousand other things I would rather do in my spare time besides doing motorcycle, car, house, or any other kind of maintenance, for that matter.

Fortunately for us all, it is not so with our Lord and Savior, because every Christian is “high maintenance”.  The sacraments illustrate this truth vividly. As Sinclair Ferguson pointed out (Nov. 10 blog, below), both baptism and the Lord’s Supper point to Christ, just with different emphases on union with Him.  Baptism points to a once-for-all initiation into Christ, underscoring something done to us, not something that we do ourselves.  The Lord’s Supper points to communion which involves discerning the Lord’s body, examination, proclaiming the Lord’s death, and celebrating in remembrance of Christ.  Both sacraments underscore a total dependence on the Lord: the epitome of high maintenance.

So let’s “ride” with this analogy for a moment.  A Harley has a gas tank that can be filled so that it can at least run a while without being tethered to a gas pump.  But apart from Christ, we can do nothing: there is no life, no vitality, no sustenance, nothing at all, except the vast emptiness of death. Christ alone is the bread of life.  How appropriate and kind it is of our Lord in instituting the Supper to provide us with a vivid reminder of this truth, and to sustain us with spiritual food regularly through its observance.

Harley’s can have all kinds of problems.  A search of the internet turns up several items (tail lights, fuel tanks, brake light and fluid, etc.).  Mankind, on the other hand, only has one problem: sin.  Every problem in this world ultimately falls under that category, and sin entered by the transgression of the first Adam.  But life and light are found exclusively in the second Adam, Jesus Christ.

Consequently, being the high maintenance people that we all are, the only way to honor and glorify the Savior, as depicted in the sacraments, is to own our brokenness.  This is the message of Psa. 116:12-14 (part of the Egyptian Hallel comprised of Psa. 113-118, used during the Passover):

“What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?  I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.” (ESV)

Here we see that the Lord’s goodness is first repaid by taking ever more and more of it!  No other response is rooted in reality, for He alone has the words of life, and He is the only Savior.  So the person with true knowledge of himself and God engages in daily “commutation” with the Lord Jesus Christ.  He recognizes and confesses his sin, looking unto Christ’s righteousness in a glorious exchange, John Owen put it:

“They hearken to the voice of Christ calling them to him with their burden, ‘Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden;’ – ‘Come with your burdens; come, thou poor soul, with thy guilt of sin.’  Why?  What to do? ‘Why, this is mine,’ saith Christ; ‘this agreement I made with my Father, that I should come, and take thy sins, and bear them away: they were my lot.  Give me thy burden, give me all thy sins.  Thou knowest not what to do with them; I know how to dispose of them well enough, so that God shall be glorified, and thy soul delivered.’”  (John Owen, On Communion With God, vol. 2 of The Works of John Owen, p. 194; available online here)

Harley’s are big bikes.  In the sacraments we are confronted with the enormity of our sin, but, wonder of wonders, we discover an ever larger Savior.  So in the final analysis, “high maintenance Christianity” is the only authentic kind there is.  Glory be to Him!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes

Nov. 9: 4.16.20 – 4.16.24

Nov. 10: 4.16.25 – 4.16.30

Nov. 11: 4.16.31 – 4.16.32

Nov. 12: 4.17.1 – 4.17.5

Nov. 13: 4.17.6 – 4.17.11

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Week 14 of 50 in the Institutes: An Empty Tomb to Fill Empty Places in the Heart

Since this is Easter Sunday, I couldn’t resist latching onto some of Calvin’s comments in the coming week’s assignments, 2.8.58, in particular where he mentions impulses coming from “some empty place in the soul” (McNeill-Battles rendering), or “some empty corner” as we find in Beveridge:

We are forbidden to have strange gods. When the mind, under the influence of distrust, looks elsewhere or is seized with some sudden desire to transfer its blessedness to some other quarter, whence are these movements, however evanescent, but just because there is some empty corner in the soul to receive such temptations? And, not to lengthen out the discussion, there is a precept to love God with the whole heart, and mind, and soul; and, therefore, if all the powers of the soul are not directed to the love of God, there is a departure from the obedience of the Law; because those internal enemies which rise up against the dominion of God, and countermand his edicts prove that his throne is not well established in our consciences.

In this section (2.8.58) in the Institutes Calvin points out the illegitimacy of any attempt to  distinguish between mortal and venial sins, because all sin is deadly: it only takes one to bring eternal death (Rom. 6:23).  His comments here about some empty corner/place in the soul remind me of how John Owen said, at least in one instance (loose quote, cited in a sermon I heard), that when we sin we have become bored with God (if anyone finds that exact quote, I will be indebted to whoever provides).  This passage makes me wonder if Owen wasn’t partly inspired by Calvin.

Today churches around the world celebrated the empty tomb, vacated by a risen Savior two thousand years ago, in His victory over sin and death and the grave.  And a wonder of wonders is that He now dwells in the heart of every believer (John 14:23).  At the same time, however, the believer still has indwelling sin, as Calvin pointed out back in 2.2.27.  Contemplating both of these truths may lead us to agree with St. Augustine and confess together with him that we are a complete mystery to ourselves!

Calvin is helpful here again in this regard.  Further on in this week’s assignment (2.9.3) when pointing out that the promises are not abrogated for NT believers (an erroneous teaching by Servetus) he describes a wonderful reliance on Christ:

Indeed we have no enjoyment of Christ, unless by embracing him as clothed with his own promises. Hence it is that he indeed dwells in our hearts and yet we are as pilgrims in regard to him, because “we walk by faith, not by sight,” ( 2 Cor. 5:6, 7).  There is no inconsistency in the two things—viz. that in Christ we possess every thing pertaining to the perfection of the heavenly life, and yet that faith is only a vision “of things not seen,” (Heb. 11:1).

This brings us to the title of this blog.  Christ’s tomb is empty, so that every believer’s heart would not be.  Herein we find the key to sanctification and the discovery of our true identity as followers of Christ.  Collectively we are fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household of God, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole building being fit together grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom we also are being built together into a habitation of God by the Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22).  Individually we each have the indwelling Holy Spirit given as a seal of promise, the down payment of our inheritance before redemption of the purchased possession (Eph. 1:14).

In closing, I encourage rich meditation as we ask ourselves and others: So what (or better yet, who) is in your heart today? Take up and read!  The sight is glorious!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Apr. 6:  2.8.33 – 2.8.38

Apr. 7:  2.8.39 – 2.8.46

Apr. 8:  2.8.47 – 2.8.52

Apr. 9:  2.8.53 – 2.8.59

Apr. 10:  2.9.1 – 2.9.5

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Midweek Rambling: Sermon Recommendation Related to Week 4 Post

As a follow up to some of the things I discussed in this week’s post on the Institutes, I recommend Ligon Duncan’s sermon delivered this past Sunday at FPC Columbia, SC: “How Jesus Gives Us Peace.”  His starting text was 1 Thessalonians 3:16, and he eventually touched on Ephesians 4:14-19 as it relates to the difficulties many Christians encounter when it comes to experiencing both God’s peace and love.    Wonderfully encouraging sermon!

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Week 4 of 9 in Winslow: Declension in Prayer

This week’s assignment in Octavius Winslow’s book, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, is chapter 4, “Declension in Prayer”.

Winslow asserted at the outset of chapter 4 the importance of prayer, presenting it as a prime indicator of the soul’s spiritual vitality. One could say that prayer serves as a sort of “canary in the coal mine” in that respect. This trait was singled out as the primary evidence of the genuineness of Saul’s conversion, when Ananias was told to seek out the former persecutor of the church. To assuage Ananias’s reluctance, the Lord, speaking of the recently converted Saul, assured him: “Behold, he prays” (Acts 9:11). In enumerating sure marks of the true Christian, prayer was at top of a list prepared by J. C. Ryle:

“A habit of prayer is one of the surest marks of a true Christian. All the children of God on earth are alike in this respect. From the moment there is any life and reality in their religion, they pray. Just as the first sign of life in a newborn infant is the act of breathing, so the first act of men and women when they are born again is praying.” (J. C. Ryle, Practical Religion, available online at http://www.gracegems.org/Ryle/a_call_to_prayer.htm)

And yet even though we will all agree on the primacy of prayer in the life of the believer, prayer is also an area where we tend to feel inadequate. In one of his sermons I heard via the web over a year ago, Sinclair Ferguson shared an experience he had as a young minister in this regard. He was approached by a publisher to consider writing a book on prayer. Ferguson told the publisher that he felt inadequate to write such a book at the time. The publisher said that was understandable, and asked whom he would recommend instead. Ferguson mentioned a few names, and after each one, the publisher, somewhat sheepishly, let him know that those individuals (well known, household names in the Christian world) had also been approached, and had also declined. It became apparent that Ferguson wasn’t very high on their list, and so as the conversation continued, he finally asked how many people they had already consulted before asking him, since they were apparently scraping the bottom of the barrel!

Despite our own similar misgivings and feelings of inadequacy, Winslow encourages us to draw near to God frequently in prayer, lest we begin to harbor unwarranted suspicions of his love and affection for us:

“If the simple axiom be true, that the more intimate we become with any object, the better we are prepared to judge of its nature and properties, we may apply it with peculiar appropriateness to our acquaintance with God. The encouraging invitation of is word, is, ‘Acquaint now thyself with God, and be at peace.’ Now, it is this acquaintance with God that brings us into the knowledge of his character as a holy, loving, and faithful God; and it is this knowledge of his character that begets love and confidence in the soul towards him. The more we know of God, the more we love him: the more we try him, the more we confide in him. Let the spiritual reader, then conceive what dire effects must result from a distant walk from God. The farther the soul gets from him, the more imperfect must be its knowledge of him.”

John Bunyan, a great Puritan largely due to his prayer life, wrote a book on prayer, part two of which was titled “The Throne of Grace”. Taking Hebrews 4:16 as his text, Bunyan took every opportunity to encourage the believer to come with confidence to this throne of grace:

By this word grace, we are to understand God’s free, sovereign, good pleasure, whereby he acts in Christ towards his people. Grace and mercy therefore are terms that have their distinct significations; mercy signifies pitifulness, or a running over of infinite compassion to objects in a miserable and helpless condition. But grace signifies that God still acts in this as a free agent, not being wrought upon by the misery of the creature, as a procuring cause; but of his own princely mind.”

“Were there no objects of pity among those that in the old world perished by the flood, or that in Sodom were burned with fire from heaven? Doubtless, according to our apprehension, there were many. [He went on to list several instances in the OT.] These, with many more places, show that mercy is God’s place of rest, and thither will retire at last, and from thence will bless his church, his people.”

“But yet the term ‘throne’, ‘the throne of grace’, does more exceed in glory: not only because the word shows that God, by all that he does towards us in saving and forgiving, acts freely as the highest Lord, and of his own good-will and pleasure, but also because he now says, that his grace is become a king, ‘a throne of grace’.  A throne is not only a seat for rest, but a place of dignity and authority. This is known to all. Wherefore by this word, a throne, or the throne of grace, is intimated, that God rules and governs by his grace. And this he can justly do: ‘Grace reigns through righteousness, unto eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom. 5.21). So then, in that here is mention made of a throne of grace, it shows that sin, and Satan, and death, and hell must needs be subdued. For these last mentioned are but weakness and destruction; but grace is life, and the absolute sovereign over all these to the ruling of them utterly down. A throne of grace!”

“But this then God plainly declares, that he is resolved this way to rule, and that he points at sin as his deadly foe: an if so, then, ‘where sin abounds, grace must much more abound’ (Rom. 5:20). For it is wisdom and discretion of all that rule, to fortify themselves against them that rebel against them. Wherefore he saith again, ‘Sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law, but under grace (Rom. 6.14). Sin seeks for the dominion, and grace seeks for the dominion; but sin shall not rule, because it has no throne in the church among the godly. Grace is king. Grace has the throne, and the people of God are not under the dominion of sin, but of the grace of God, the which they are here implicitly bid to it for help: ‘That we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help; to help in time of need’. For as from the hand and power of the king comes help and succour to the subject, when assaulted by and enemy; so from the throne of grace, or from grace as it reigns, comes the help and health of God’s people.”

And so when we are discouraged, or tempted, or dejected for whatever reason such that we feel unworthy to go to God in prayer, that is the very instant we are to approach the throne of grace confidently, just as we are, as Winslow exhorted at the end of our chapter:

“Satan’s grand argument to keep a soul from prayer, is – ‘Go not with that cold and insensible frame; go not with that hard and sinful heart; stay until you are more fit to approach God.’ And listening to this specious reasoning, many poor, distressed, burthened, longing souls have been kept from the throne of grace, and consequently from all comfort and consolation. But the Gospel says, — ‘Go in your very worst frames’; Christ says, — ‘Come just as you are’: and every promise and every example but encourages the soul to repair to the cross whatever be its frame or condition.”

“Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.  For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”  (Hebrews 4:14-16, KJV)


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Week 8 of 8 in Bunyan: A Wonderfully Glorious Conclusion

This final assignment (paragraphs 300-339 & Conclusion) in Grace Abounding takes us within sight of the Celestial City, whereby we discover clearer views of ourselves and greater longings to enjoy unbroken communion with our dear Savior.

The last two paragraphs in the Conclusion afford us such inspiring vistas, in the form of seven abominations magnificently ordered by God’s wisdom for the saint’s good far beyond what anyone would ever imagine possible:

  1. I find to this day seven abominations in my heart: (1) Inclinings to unbelief. (2) Suddenly to forget the love and mercy that Christ manifesteth. (3) A leaning to the works of the law. (4) Wanderings and coldness in prayer. (5) To forget to watch for that I pray for. (6) Apt to murmur because I have no more, and yet ready to abuse what I have. (7) I can do none of those things which God commands me, but my corruptions will thrust in themselves, ‘When I would do good, evil is present with me.’  
  2. These things I continually see and feel, and am afflicted and oppressed with; yet the wisdom of God doth order them for my good. (1) They make me abhor myself. (2) They keep me from trusting my heart. (3) They convince me of the insufficiency of all inherent righteousness. (4) They show me the necessity of fleeing to Jesus. (5) They press me to pray unto God. (6) They show me the need I have to watch and be sober. (7) And provoke me to look to God, through Christ, to help me, and carry me through this world. Amen.

It seems that Bunyan is ending with a seven-fold exposition of the illustration he employed in the preface addressed to his children:

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.

I think it was Thomas Brooks in Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices who cited someone by the name of Hooper as saying:  “Lord, I am hell, but you are heaven.”  The believer who, by grace, comes to perceive the plague of his heart will heartily agree with Hooper’s assessment as well as Bunyan’s, and those lessons well-learned will send the soul regularly to Jesus, emptied of all self-righteousness and resolutions to do better; for apart from Him, we can do nothing.  So it isn’t surprising that the person who knows himself and his desperate, daily need of the Savior becomes keenly aware of the need for prayer.

I remember how John Piper (sorry for the citation of a current author on this dead theologians blog!) compared prayer to air support.  Ground troops on the battlefield call in air support via walkie-talkies.  The “shock and awe” that the air support brings is stunning.  So it is when the humble soul calls upon the Lord for aid against enemies too strong for him.  The strongest believer is no match for either the flesh, the world, or Satan, much less all three combined, wherein is the saint’s constant conflict.  And the “shock and awe” that ensues in response to prayers for aid all flow from Mount Zion, which Bunyan also referred to in paragraph 5 of the Conclusion:

  1. Of all tears, they are the best that are made by the blood of Christ; and of all joy, that is the sweetest that is mixed with mourning over Christ. Oh! it is a goodly thing to be on our knees, with Christ in our arms, before God. I hope I know something of these things.

I hope I know something of these things as well, although far more infrequently than I would like.  It is truly a taste of heaven to be simultaneously so convicted of sin and so assured of the forgiveness and acceptance of God that tears of joy flow profusely down the face and all you can say is GLORY as His presence seems to saturate the heart.  At times like that, one can enthusiastically join John Newton’s retort in the face of every accusing dart hurled by the evil one:

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!

Glory be to Him, through whom grace is ever abounding!

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Week 22 in Fisher: Communing With Your Own Heart

A few weeks ago I heard about a recent study which surprisingly concluded that men would prefer an electric shock to spending time alone with their thoughts (full article is available at: http://www.futurity.org/alone-thoughts-pain-729012/). I suspect that such aversions to introspection arise from the absence of a vital spiritual life, and yet, a majority of Christians will confess to having a prayer life that is lackluster, and less than they would like it to be. However, it is only a true knowledge of God that enables us to look within honestly, deeply, and relentlessly without despairing.

Two prerequisites to meaningful communion with God involve a knowledge of God, and a knowledge of ourselves. Calvin revised his Institutes several times, but one thing he never revised was the opening section wherein he identified the need for these two types of knowledge, thus demonstrating his ability to get to the kernel of true wisdom early on:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty. In particular, the miserable ruin into which the revolt of the first man has plunged us, compels us to turn our eyes upwards; not only that while hungry and famishing we may thence ask what we want, but being aroused by fear may learn humility. For as there exists in man something like a world of misery, and ever since we were stript of the divine attire our naked shame discloses an immense series of disgraceful properties every man, being stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness, in this way necessarily obtains at least some knowledge of God. Thus, our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us, that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him. (Institutes, 1.1, available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.ii.html)

At the end of end of the section dealing with the uses of the law in The Marrow of Modern Divinity, Edward Fisher exhorts his reader to commune with his own heart especially before receiving the Lord’s Supper for the following reason:

Because the more sinful you see yourself to be, the more need you will see yourself to have of Christ; and the more need you see yourself to have of Christ, the more will you prize him; and the more you prize Christ, the more you will desire him; and the more you do desire Christ, the more fit and worthy receiver you will be.”

Being honest with ourselves as we relate to God is at the heart of communion with him. I’m indebted to John Owen for depicting this honesty in what he described as the daily commutation that occurs between every believer and his Savior:

“They [believers] hearken to the voice of Christ calling them to him with their burden, ‘Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden;’ – ‘Come with your burdens; come, thou poor soul, with thy guilt of sin.’ Why? what to do? ‘Why, this is mine,’ saith Christ; ‘this agreement I made with my Father, that I should come, and take thy sins, and bear them away: they were my lot. Give me thy burden, give me all thy sins. Thou knowest not what to do with them; I know how to dispose of them well enough, so that God shall be glorified, and thy soul delivered.’ Hereupon, —

“They lay down their sins at the cross of Christ, upon his shoulders. This is faith’s great and bold venture upon the grace, faithfulness, and truth of God, to stand by the cross and say, ‘Ah! He is bruised for my sins, and wounded for my transgressions, and the chastisement of my peace is upon him. He is thus made sin for me. Here I give up my sins to him that is able to bear them, to undergo them. He requires it of my hands, that I should be content that he should undertake for them; and I heartily consent unto.’ This is every day’s work; I know not how any peace can be maintained with God without it.” (Volume 2 of The Works of John Owen, On Communion With God, Chapter 8, p. 194; bold emphases mine, available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/owen/communion.i.vii.viii.html).

Yes, sadly, as long as we are in this body, this commutation is every day’s work. But, blessed be the Lord, he commands us to come to him as we are, with all our sins, asking him as our King to overcome all his and all our enemies. I prefer this communion with Him to an electric shock any day!

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