Tag Archives: Evangelical Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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