I recently listened to an interview of a well-respected pastor/theologian on one of my favorite podcasts. I was quite excited to see that he was a guest on the show and had been looking forward to the episode. But they didn’t get very far into the podcast before I was hit with a very disappointing blow. When the interviewer asked the Pastor about what he felt was at the root of the error of the gospel of easy-believism, his answer was, unbelievably, Jonathan Edwards!
His reasoning went along these lines. Jonathan Edwards used the same terminology that Moses Amyraut (founder of Amyraldianism, often called 4 point Calvinism) had used in describing man’s will with his distinction between man’s natural ability and moral inability. He said that those who introduced the false gospel in the Second Great Awakening claimed to be following Edwards when they taught that since man has the natural ability to believe in Christ, we can therefore manipulate him into making a decision for Christ. The pastor concluded by stating that more investigation needs to be done to discover if this is indeed what Edwards taught. Now I have no desire whatsoever to discredit this pastor in any way. (hence, no name) However, I think we can set the record straight in regards to Jonathan Edwards having any responsibility in this case. The only “further investigation” that needs to be conducted here is to read Edwards’ treatise on Freedom of the Will.
While the terms natural ability or moral inability do not appear in the Scriptures as such, the distinction they convey is both Biblical and Confessional. These terms accurately convey the fact that when we teach that God commands all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel, yet no men anywhere have the ability to repent and believe the gospel, it is not as if God gave a man muscles that could only jump 2 feet high, yet commanded him to jump 100 feet in the air.
I think the clearest Biblical example of what we are talking about is found in Genesis 37:4.
But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.
Joseph’s brothers could not speak peaceably to him. This was not because their lips and tongues lacked the ability to produce the noises necessary to express kindness to the brother they so dearly loved. They could not speak well of Joseph because they hated him. They had the natural ability to speak well of Joseph, but they were morally unable because of the sinfulness of their hearts.
The London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 also sets forth this distinction, though not in the exact terms. Paragraph 1 of Chapter 9 addresses the issue of natural ability when it says:
God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.
God did not give man a will that was by nature unable to choose to please God, so that even though his heart would desire to do so, he would be unable to make that choice. God gave man a will that is perfectly capable of choosing whatever it is that his heart desires. It is not as though God asked man to choose A, B, C or D, but then punished him because he should have chosen Q. Or to put a more modern spin on the idea, it is not as though 3 of the required fields on a web based form have been greyed out and cannot be filled.
Paragraph 3 goes on to discuss the other side of this equation, man’s moral inability, when it says:
Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.
Man is utterly and completely unable to do any spiritual good. This is a moral inability, because the reason he cannot do good is precisely because he has no desire to do so. He hates God and seeks only to faithfully serve his master: sin (John 8:34). His will is perfectly capable of choosing what pleases him, but quite simply, it never pleases him to please God.
The fact that man has the natural ability to trust, believe and turn, does nothing to negate the fact that he is morally unable to trust Christ, believe God or turn from his sins. The fact that he has natural ability does absolutely nothing to negate the fact that he is morally unable. No one could possibly read Edwards on this subject and walk away thinking that he was teaching that men can be manipulated into coming to Christ because of their natural ability. The entire point of his treatise is the absolute proof that man’s moral inability has rendered him utterly and entirely incapable to making any motion whatsoever toward pleasing God or forsaking sin. The regenerating work of the Spirit of God is absolutely necessary before man can even see the kingdom of God, let alone make any motion toward it.
Those who believed that the fact of man’s natural ability meant that they could manipulate him into turning to Christ may very well have claimed Edwards was on their side, but they could not possibly make that claim without taking his terminology from its context and using it in such a way that Edwards own words utterly repudiated. If you haven’t read Edwards’ Freedom of the Will, please do. It is a masterpiece.
John Calvin is renowned for his inflexible stance against the errors of Rome, the “Spirituals”, and others whose teachings compromised the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately many do not realize that while he so staunchly stood against errors from those who oppose the gospel, he also worked tremendously hard to establish and maintain peace and unity among the Reformed. He was a brilliant example of the peacemaker of Matt. 5:9.
For instance, a Synod was held at Berne in 1537 in order to establish unity among the German and Swiss Reformed churches concerning the Lord’s Supper. Zurich, Basel, Strasburg, Geneva, and Berne each sent representatives. Bucer, the Strasburg Reformer, had always been sympathetic to Luther’s view. He had been in attendance at one of Luther’s first public disputations and had held him in the highest esteem ever since. Megander, originally from Zurich, now representing Berne, was determined not to compromise Zwingle’s position in any way. Dissension prevailed until Calvin came forward. By recognizing the Biblical truth that each side was determined to uphold, he was able to set forth the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in a manner which upheld the true sentiments of each side without compromising with error.
Bucer had “pointed out that Zwingli and Luther had set out from two different points of view; Zwingli striving to keep as far away as possible from the Roman dogma of transubstantiation, and Luther endeavoring to maintain that there is nevertheless some kind of real presence in the bread.”[i]
Calvin was able, with this in mind, to formulate a doctrinal statement that did justice to the Biblical concerns of both parties without compromising Biblical truth. In summary he said, “The Spirit is the means by which we are partakers of Christ. That Spirit nourishes us with the flesh and the blood of the Lord, and thus quickens us for immortality. Christ offers this communion under the symbols of bread and wine to all those who celebrate the supper aright and in accordance with his institution.”[ii]
To this Bucer replied “I embrace as orthodox, this view of our excellent brothers Calvin, Farel, and Viret. I never held that Christ was locally present in the holy supper. He has a real finite body, and that body remains in the celestial glory. But in raising us by faith to heaven, the bread which we eat and the cup which we drink are for us the communication of his body and his blood.”[iii]
Thus, these eminent reformers established peace with one another in regard to this vital doctrine. They were not content to simply have each side adhere to a confessional statement that propounded the particular truths they esteemed most important. They strove to establish peace, unity and agreement. The Lord greatly blessed such efforts for the betterment of His church universal and the glory of His name.
Of course, the doctrine under dispute in ARBCA today is not the nature of the Lord’s Supper, but rather, the understanding of the phrase “without passions” in Chapter 2, Paragraph 1 of the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689. This is, of course an oversimplification, but we could fairly accurately describe the dispute like this. On the one side are those whose primary concern is to uphold the unchangeable character of God. They hold to what we could call the traditional understanding of the phrase “without passions”, which was undoubtedly the understanding of that phrase by those who authored our confession. (I happen to agree with this side, in my understanding of the issue.) On the other side of the controversy are those who fear that this classical understanding of these words is prone to give the impression that God is cold, distant, or mechanical. They do not reject the phrase “without passions” but define it somewhat differently than the authors of the confession did.[iv] They rightly point to men like Warfield and Hodge as examples of how they understand the phrase.
The Heart of the Issue?
It seems to me that what lies at the heart of this issue is our understanding of the fact that man, as he is an image bearer of God, is endowed with the faculties of mind, will and emotions. Those who are defending the traditional understanding of “without passions” are almost exclusively focusing on what man’s emotions do not reveal about God. Affections in man arise from the affects of things outside of himself. God, existing outside of time, cannot be affected by anything outside of Himself, therefore He has no affections. (And other similar, sound arguments) Those who are advocating a modified view of the phrase in question do not do so in an effort to make God more like man, but rather, in an effort to do justice to the role of the emotions of man in his image-bearing capacity.
I am a great distance from the inner workings of ARBCA and have no direct knowledge of the exact means by which they plan to deal with this issue. But it seems possible, if not likely, that something like this will happen: A position paper will be published that simply states the traditional understanding of the phrase “without passions” and demonstrates that the authors of the confession had this in mind when they penned the words. This paper will be voted on and approved. Any church that has an issue with this understanding will no longer be welcome in ARBCA. Thus unity of doctrine will be firmly established among the remaining churches. I think it would be a great shame if this is what actually takes place.
ARBCA Needs a Calvin
I am not saying that a position paper defending the traditional understanding of the phrase in question should not be drawn up, it should. But it should do more. As Calvin recognized and dealt with the concerns of both sides of the issue at Berne, so those who seek to defend the traditional understanding of “without passions” should go out of their way to recognize and address the legitimate concerns expressed by the other side. A careful doctrinal statement should be drawn up that not only demonstrates what the Bible teaches about God that prevents us from rightly ascribing affections to Him, but also palpably demonstrates the manner in which the emotions of man actually do reflect something of the character of God. It must be demonstrated that justice can be done to the anthropopathisms of Scripture without resorting to any sort of modified theism. If we really want unity in the sense that the great Reformers sought it, we must go out of our way to rightly address the issues on both sides.
We must recognize the real issue that brings about concern regarding the manner in which Divine impassibility is often taught. For example, after listening to a sermon or lecture that clearly demonstrates that affections cannot be rightly attributed to God, a child of God may walk away saying to himself, “OK, so God is love, but He has no affection for me.” This is hardly a comforting thought. But if we understand that even though the love of God toward us is not an affection, in that this love is not brought about by any affect we have had on God, as a Divine perfection, it is something far greater than any affection of love we have ever experienced. We also must be clear that the emotion of love that God endowed men with is actually in some sense revelatory of what God’s love is like. It is a reflection of what the Divine perfection of love is, a dim and imperfect reflection, but a reflection none the less.
When one demonstrates that the emotion of anger cannot rightly be attributed to God, but merely expresses His determination to rightly meet out justice against all sin, the impression that may easily be given is that this is something quite cold and mechanical. The problem with this is that when God speaks of His anger, He means to convey a truth that is easily lost in this definition. God’s “hot displeasure” that will manifest itself in the eternal flames of hell is anything but cold! The human emotion of anger is truly meant to give us some insight into the nature of God’s eternal, unchangeable disposition toward sin.
Surely we are correct to insist that it is beyond the bounds of propriety to speak of God experiencing the sensation of delight. But we ought also to admit that the emotion of delight that men experience is in some real sense revelatory of what the eternal disposition of the Father toward the Son is like. In this way we not only guard against the idea that God can be affected by something outside of Himself, but we also guard against the idea that this makes Him cold and mechanical.
We ought also to go beyond the Scriptural anthropopathisms that are easier to explain, such as God repenting or relenting. We need to deal with passages such as the command “do not grieve the Holy Spirit” in such a way that God is not left just telling us not to do something that we are entirely unable to do. Perhaps one could demonstrate that the feeling of grief a parent has when he is sinned against by a child he loves gives us some insight into God’s eternal and unchangeable disposition toward the remaining sin in His redeemed people.
We need to be as earnest to establish unity among Reformed Baptists as the Reformers were to establish unity among their churches. I am not certain that this can ever be achieved in this area, but I am certain that we can strive for it more earnestly than we have thus far. May the spirit of love and peace that was so manifest in Calvin and his fellow Reformers be manifest in us today.
His Throne is Forever and Ever!
[i] Merle d’Aubigne, J. H. History of the Reformation in the Time of Calvin The AGES Digital Library, Vol. 6, Book 11, p. 271
[iv] For example, as one proponent of the modified view in this debate has explained: “We take no exception to the 1689 LBCF in 2:1. We confess that God is without body, parts, or passions. We believe in divine impassibility. God has no internal (ad intra) fluctuation, passions, or changes in his nature of any sort. We believe that his divine affections are perfectly infinite and immutable (thus, they are also impassible). Our understanding of ‘divine emotivity’ resides in his external (ad extra) interactions with his world via the very covenant condescension described in the 1689 LBCF 7:1.”
I’d like to complete this short series on delighting in God’s moral law with three further thoughts that should help spur us on and motivate us to imitate Paul and the Psalmist.
First, take a moment to contemplate what a day in your life would be like if everyone in the world perfectly obeyed God’s moral law. You could trust everything you read or heard. You could make every business transaction without fear of being ripped off. You could go wherever you wanted to without fear of harm from others. You could flip through the TV channels without seeing images that corrupt your mind. I think we can all agree that that would be one awesome day! Well, what kind of ridiculous hypocrites must we be to recognize the benefits of others keeping the law, yet refusing to do it ourselves?
Second, consider the foundation and nature of the moral law. It is the transcript of the character of God Himself.
Many years ago I was terribly disappointed to find that the administrator of one of my favorite websites had decided to leave the Reformed Baptist church he had been a part of. Part of his explanation for doing so was extremely disturbing to me. He told of how in his church they had studied the 10 commandments as they are expounded in the Westminster Larger Catechism, and how troubling that was to him. Anyone familiar with this section of the catechism will agree that it is extremely thorough. (In my opinion it is the finest concise exposition of the moral law in print.) But for this man, the exhaustive precision of what God requires was just too much. He told us that he thought to himself “Who could possibly do all this? Why even try?” I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself, “What in the world is he going to do next time he comes across Matt. 5:48?”
Well, I have a much better use for this section of the catechism for you. Read through it again, examining the precision and exhaustive detail of the perfect obedience our Creator and Redeemer demands of us. But do that with two considerations in mind: 1. Ponder the fact that this is a description of exactly how our Lord Jesus Christ lived as he walk upon this earth. He perfectly kept every miniscule detail without the slightest deviation of any kind. Do you want to know what Christ is like? Study the moral law. 2. Consider the moral perfections described and realize that this perfection was not just something God came up with willy-nilly. This truly is the transcript of His character, to understand and love these commandments is to understand and love the author of these commandments. We all long to be more conformed to the image of our Lord and Savior. Conform yourself, inwardly and outwardly, to the demands of His moral law so that you will be more like Him.
And finally, I will conclude with what I believe ought to cause every believer to delight in God’s moral law. This has been the desire of my heart since the moment of my conversion. But unfortunately, the church has been so inundated by false teaching and fuzzy thinking about the law that it almost sounds like heresy to many. We delight in the moral law because it informs us how we can please the one who created and redeemed us!
Ralph Erskine put it this way:
A rigid matter was the law
Demanding brick, denying straw
But when with Gospel tongue it sings
It bids me fly, and gives me wings
For the unconverted man, the law is an unbearable burden. Making demands he can never fulfill, and providing absolutely no aid or consolation to anyone guilty of the slightest deviation from its requirements. But the gospel turns the law into something altogether different! Through the gospel, God takes the stony rebellious heart out of us and replaces it with a heart of flesh that seeks after God and yearns to please Him. The law then instructs us how we can show our gratitude and love for Him for whom we now live. Please allow me to make the necessary qualifications.
Unconverted man can do NOTHING to please God!
No one can do ANYTHING to earn God’s favor or salvation!
But neither of these truths contradicts the fact that Christians CAN and SHOULD live and behave in such a way that is pleasing to God! Paul Washer put it this way:
“[A lot of people] think that Christianity is you doing all the righteous things you hate and avoiding all the wicked things you love in order to go to Heaven. No, that’s a lost man with religion. A Christian is a person whose heart has been changed; they have new affections.” ~ Paul Washer, sermon, “Dating, Courtship, and Marriage.”
What are the new affections he speaks of? They are the love of Christ and the desire to please Him. But how do we go about accomplishing the desire to please Him? Is it that difficult to understand that one way to please someone is by doing what He tells you to do? It is Christ Himself who said “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” John 15:14.
Our obedience is utterly imperfect, it could never deserve God’s favor, but He looks upon our feeble efforts as a father watching a small child attempt to please him. He has cleansed the multitude impurities from our obedience with the blood of Christ and is truly pleased with it.
2 Corinthians 5:9 Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him.
Colossians 1:10 that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God;
Colossians 3:20 Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord.
1 John 3:22 And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.
This is why every Christian should delight in the moral law of God. Every true Christian eagerly desires to please the One who redeemed him. The moral law teaches us how to accomplish the goal of living a life pleasing to Him.
The Psalmist describes the blessed man as he whose “delight is in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 1:2). And the Apostle Paul himself declares that he “delight[s] in the law of God according to the inward man”(Rom. 7:22). Yet a large portion of the professing Christian church today would instantly condemn anyone who delights in the law as a “legalist.” The very idea that the Psalmist and the Apostle were guilty of legalism is on its very face preposterous. But let me further put this idea to rest with a simple truth. The legalist does not, indeed cannot delight in the law of God, for whenever the law of God is misused and abused as a means of procuring favor with God it is an unbearable burden! That is why legalism inevitably twists, truncates and manipulates the law of God into something that it is not, something that the legalist is able to fulfill, at least in his own mind.
Undoubtedly, the reason behind the disdain so many professing Christians hold toward the law of God stems from the fact that they have never bowed the knee to King Jesus. They have entered the “church” by means of an easy-believism “gospel” and have never surrendered their hearts and lives to the dominion and Lordship of their rightful King. They sit securely upon the throne of their own heart and sternly reject the right of anyone, including the God who holds their life in His hands, to tell them how they must live. Every time they are confronted with the law of God their conscience is reminded of the fact that they owe obedience to one greater than themselves and therefore they reject and despise it. There is only one solution for anyone in this frame of mind: Repent and believe. Surrender your life to the King of kings and Lord of lords and trust in Him alone to save you from your sin. Give yourself to Him, take His yoke upon you, for it is indeed light, and He will carry you to glory.
How Can I Delight in that which Brings Guilt and Shame?
I want to focus, however, on a question that others may have. Even those who have truly been converted and love the Lord Jesus may still wonder at times “How can I delight in the law of God? It is the law that brings my sin to mind. It reminds me of how much I fail my Lord and it fills my conscience with guilt and shame. How can I delight in something that does that?” I believe the answer to this question will not be difficult for us if we just look at the conscience from a Biblical perspective.
Unregenerate sinners have various unbiblical means of dealing with guilt, and unfortunately, these habits are not instantly eliminated from our minds at the moment of conversion. We need to consciously recognize and reject them. I will focus on two primary ways that the world deals with guilt and then contrast these with the means the Bible gives us for dealing with it.
Balance Guilt with Blame
One of the most common things unbelievers do with a guilty conscience is to shift the blame from themselves by concentrating the focus of their energy on someone else doing something that they consider to be so much worse. Perhaps the clearest example of this in our society is the strange marriage of pro-abortion advocacy with animal rights advocacy. It seems so illogical that those who have no concern for the rights of a human being as long as that human being resides within the womb of its mother should at the very same time spent their time and energy fighting for the “rights” of anything and everything within the animal kingdom. Until you realize that this principle is at work. The guilt they have for advocating murder in some cases is somehow, in their conscience, relieved by focusing on someone else doing something cruel to something else. The Christian is not immune to this principle however. How often, when faced with the guilt of our own sin, do we instinctively point to someone else doing something worse instead of dealing with our sin Biblically?
Pretend it isn’t Sin
The second of the two most common ways that the world deals with the guilt of sin is simply to pretend it isn’t sin. This stands out the most in our society in the homosexual agenda. The fight for “gay marriage” isn’t about “marriage equality” at all. It is about sinners trying to quiet their consciences. They know what they do is wrong, but they want to do it anyway. They fight to convince themselves and are able at times to quiet their stubborn consciences. They do everything in their might to remove every reminder that what they love to do is in fact sin. But every time they are confronted with someone who holds to the Biblical truth their conscience is again disquieted and this opposing view must be silenced so that they can return to their slumber! That is why the simple truth that according to the Bible homosexuality is sin, is being outlawed as “hate-speech” in place after place. Again, unfortunately, Christians are not immune to this practice. We have certain sins we are quite comfortable with, and when our conscience is awakened by the law of God our first reaction can be that we don’t want to hear it. Keep the law to yourself so I can go on in my blissful ignorance! Well, needless to say this is not how Christians should deal with guilt.
Dealing with Guilt Biblically
Before looking at how we should deal with guilt according to the word of God, I just want to point out one important thing about both of these worldly ways of dealing with it. Neither of them does anything at all to actually deal with the problem of guilt. They are both nothing but mind games! They are means of self-deception, nothing more. The Bible provides us with the one and only means of dealing with guilt that actually fixes the problem! What is that? Short answer: Christ.
When the law confronts us with the guilt of our sin, there is only one thing to do: Flee to Christ. 1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Don’t hide from your sin, don’t cling to your sin, take your sin to Christ! Confess and forsake your sin and leave it at the foot of the cross. He is faithful, not only to forgive you and cleanse you from the guilt of your sins. But he is also faithful to cleanse you from that sin. It is Christ and Christ alone who can give you the strength to forsake that sin, to cause you to see it the way He sees it and flee from it in disgust.
If you allow the law of God to work in your heart in this way it will inevitably become a delight to you. Allow the law to test your heart, to go down to the very depths of your soul and shine it’s light upon you. Let it expose your most intimate and secret sins, those you have been hiding even from yourself. But when you come face to face with the wickedness of your own heart in the mirror of God’s holy law do not despair. Do not be overcome with the dreadfulness and despicableness that you will inevitably find. For no matter how vile and putrid it is, the blood of Christ has more than enough power to wash you white as snow. Take it directly to the foot of the cross and lay it before your compassionate Savior. Oh what a Sweet Savior He is, for He will draw you unto Himself and cover you with His undying love.
The Question Reversed
So you see I must reverse the question. Dear Christian, how can you fail to delight in the law of the Lord. How can you not delight in that which constantly draws you to the foot of the cross and causes you to lay hold of your Savior afresh and cling to Him with all of your might? The great delight of the law of God is that it enables us to find our greatest delight in Christ Himself!
In part two I will share a number of further thoughts to help enable us to be that blessed man of Psalm 1, constantly delighting in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night.
Ever since my first exposure to the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God I have been fascinated by the subject of Compatibilism. God has decreed from eternity past whatsoever shall come to pass, including the actions of sinful men, yet men are still fully responsible for the sinfulness of their actions and God is in no way the author of sin. Meditating on this subject has brought me countless hours of fruitful contemplative reflection over the years.
By far the most substantive and thorough treatment of the subject I have ever had the pleasure of reading is a book that has been long out of print.
The Court of the Gentiles, Part IV, Book III, Wherein the Nature of Divine Predetermination is Fully Explicated and Demonstrated, both in the General, as also more Particularly, as to the Substrate Mater, or Entitative Act of Sin: with A Vindication of Calvinists and others from that Blasphemous Imputation of Making God the Author of Sin,
by Theophilus Gale, published in 1678. I believe Gale was a professor of Philosophy and a member of Thomas Goodwin’s church. (One day I would love to see a republication of this momentous work in contemporary English, Gale uses a lot of words that are no longer found in an unabridged dictionary.) Gale’s work is unique in that it is both philosophically sound and profoundly Biblical. The doctrine of Compatibilism is proved through Scripture, not philosophy. The doctrine is, quite simply, forced upon us if we hold to the conviction that all things in Scripture are necessarily true. Where Gale excels all others is in his ability to demonstrate that these truths can all be held together in a way that is indeed philosophically satisfying as well as faithful to the whole counsel of God. While I may have begun my study of the subject of Compatibilism as an intellectual pursuit, as I began to see it throughout the word of God it became much more than that. I now recognize this principle to be one of the most comforting truths revealed in Scripture.
A few years ago I had an opportunity to preach at Emmasdale Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia. When I asked Pastor Makashinyi if there was a subject he would like me to address, he told me that some in the church were fairly new to the Reformed faith, and that some basic teaching in that area would be helpful. I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to share the Biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty (rightly described as Compatibilism), as it is presented in Scripture, in the hope that it might bring them the same comfort that it has afforded me in times of distress and trial. I did not enter into the philosophical realm, as this was a sermon, not a lecture. But I did my best to set forth the Biblical evidence and apply it to our lives.
I would simply ask that you might overlook my lack of eloquence in the hope that you may experience the same consolation to your soul that this doctrine has afforded me.
1 God has Decreed in Himself, from all Eternity, by the most wise and holy Counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things whatsoever come to pass; yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin, nor has fellowship with any therein, nor is violence offered to the will of the Creature, nor yet is the liberty, or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established, in which appears his wisdom in disposing all things, and power, and faithfulness in accomplishing his Decree.—1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith
Resting in God’s Decrees (sermon outline)
Deuteronomy 29:29 The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
I. God’s Decree is whatever comes to pass.
Isaiah 14:24 The LORD of hosts has sworn, saying, “Surely, as I have thought, so it shall come to pass, And as I have purposed, so it shall stand:
Isaiah 43:13 Indeed before the day was, I am He; And there is no one who can deliver out of My hand; I work, and who will reverse it?”
Isaiah 46:10 Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, “My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure,’
Isaiah 45:9 “Woe to him who strives with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him who forms it, “What are you making?’ Or shall your handiwork say, “He has no hands’?
Daniel 4:35 All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven And among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand Or say to Him, “What have You done?”
Psalm 115:3 But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases.
Psalm 135:6 Whatever the LORD pleases He does, In heaven and in earth, In the seas and in all deep places.
Ephesians 1:11 In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will,
Hebrews 2:10 For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
Romans 11:36 For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.
II. Including the sinful actions of men.
Proverbs 16:4 The LORD has made all for Himself, Yes, even the wicked for the day of doom.
Acts 2:23 Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death;
Acts 3:18 But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled.
Acts 4:27 “For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together 28to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.
III. This does nothing to eliminate the sinner’s guilt.
Isaiah 10:5-12 “Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger And the staff in whose hand is My indignation. 6I will send him against an ungodly nation, And against the people of My wrath I will give him charge, To seize the spoil, to take the prey, And to tread them down like the mire of the streets. 7Yet he does not mean so, Nor does his heart think so; But it is in his heart to destroy, And cut off not a few nations. 8For he says, “Are not my princes altogether kings? 9Is not Calno like Carchemish? Is not Hamath like Arpad? Is not Samaria like Damascus? 10As my hand has found the kingdoms of the idols, Whose carved images excelled those of Jerusalem and Samaria, 11As I have done to Samaria and her idols, Shall I not do also to Jerusalem and her idols?”‘ 12Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Lord has performed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, that He will say, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his haughty looks.”
2 Samuel 16:7-12 Also Shimei said thus when he cursed: “Come out! Come out! You bloodthirsty man, you rogue! 8 The LORD has brought upon you all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned; and the LORD has delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom your son. So now you are caught in your own evil, because you are a bloodthirsty man!” 9 Then Abishai the son of Zeruiah said to the king, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Please, let me go over and take off his head!” 10 But the king said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? So let him curse, because the LORD has said to him, ‘Curse David.’ Who then shall say, ‘Why have you done so?’” 11 And David said to Abishai and all his servants, “See how my son who came from my own body seeks my life. How much more now may this Benjamite? Let him alone, and let him curse; for so the LORD has ordered him. 12 It may be that the LORD will look on my affliction, and that the LORD will repay me with good for his cursing this day.”
2 Samuel 19:19 Now Shimei the son of Gera fell down before the king when he had crossed the Jordan. 19 Then he said to the king, “Do not let my lord impute iniquity to me, or remember what wrong your servant did on the day that my lord the king left Jerusalem, that the king should take it to heart.
1 Kings 2:8-9 “And see, you have with you Shimei the son of Gera, a Benjamite from Bahurim, who cursed me with a malicious curse in the day when I went to Mahanaim. But he came down to meet me at the Jordan, and I swore to him by the LORD, saying, ‘I will not put you to death with the sword.’ 9 Now therefore, do not hold him guiltless, for you are a wise man and know what you ought to do to him; but bring his gray hair down to the grave with blood.”
IV. This does not make God the Author of Sin!
1 John 1:5 This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.
Genesis 50:20 But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.
Job 1:6-22 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. 7 And the LORD said to Satan, “From where do you come?” So Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it.” 8 Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?” 9 So Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have You not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But now, stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face!” 12 And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person.” So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.
13 Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house; 14 and a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, 15 when the Sabeans raided them and took them away—indeed they have killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” 16 While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” 17 While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three bands, raided the camels and took them away, yes, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” 18 While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, 19 and suddenly a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” 20 Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said: “ Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked shall I return there.
The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD.” 22 In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.
Job 2:9-10 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity (evil)?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
V. This should be one of our greatest comforts.
Romans 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.
(How God used an Arminian Bible college to make me a Calvinist)
My wife and I were converted in a conservative Southern Baptist church in Sioux Falls, SD. Growing up, I had attended United Methodist and Evangelical Covenant churches where the preaching was very bland and easy-believism was the norm. This SBC church was the first place I had ever heard sound expository preaching, and in my extreme naivety I assumed that all Baptist churches were like this one, standing firmly on the inerrancy of Scripture, preaching boldly against sin and faithfully proclaiming the gospel. So when I “surrendered to preach” I enrolled in the local Baptist college which had a 3-3 program with the North American Baptist seminary in town. It only took a few weeks on campus to realize that all Baptists are not conservative and this college was no place to train for the ministry. So I spent quite a bit of time researching for the most conservative Southern Baptist Bible college I could find. My search led me to Florida Baptist Bible College in Graceville, FL.
Fav Point Calvinist!
Moving from South Dakota to the Florida panhandle in January was awesome! It was -18 degrees when we left and in the 60’s when we arrived. The day after we moved into the on-campus married housing I was enjoying the balmy weather and chatting with my new neighbor in our shared front lawn, when a senior student stopped to say hello. He had just “made the loop”, visiting all the Southern Baptist seminaries in order to decide which one to attend for his post-graduate studies. At some point in the conversation he said to my neighbor, “You’ll never believe what they got for a president at Southern. –a FIVE point Calvinist!” :O (He was referring to Dr. Mohler of course.) I had never heard the term before, so after the senior had driven away I asked my neighbor, “What is a five point Calvinist?” He didn’t know exactly how to define it, and he seemed somewhat neutral on the subject, but he made it quite clear that most students looked at it as a very bad thing.
A few days later we were having dinner with another new student and his wife. When the fact that I liked Spurgeon came up in the conversation I was told “Oh, you must be a Calvinist.” To which I had to reply, “I don’t know what a Calvinist is.” My friend was still in the discovery phase, but his explanation was enough to peak my interest. I was very busy with all the various duties required in the first semester of a new college, a new job and family (at that time we had 2 children), but I knew this was an issue I wanted to learn more about.
I joined the Theology Club, hoping to engage in some additional “iron sharpening” and fellowship. This hope, unfortunately, was very short lived. We had only one meeting that I can recall. At that meeting the decision was made to host a debate: Calvinism vs. Arminianism. I was pretty excited, thinking this would be of great benefit to my understanding of these matters. Within a couple of days my excitement was turned to dismay. The college had forbidden us from having a debate on the topic! Their suggestion for a better topic of debate: abortion. I was completely dumbfounded! The theology club isn’t allowed to debate a theological issue? What in the world is there to debate about murdering babies? What a joke! Needless to say, the Theology Club simply disbanded. By this time I had two friends who shared my conservative views, and we spent most of our spare time talking about theology.
Finally, a Definition
It seemed like a day could not pass without hearing something in class or on campus about Calvinism, “five pointers”, or something of that nature. I remember quite clearly when I finally found out what “five point Calvinism” actually was. I was up late, (about 1:30 am as I recall) working on a paper, when I had to look up a term in my “Dictionary of Theological Terms”. As I was putting the book down, it suddenly struck me, maybe the term “five point Calvinist” is in here. Well sure enough it was! Under the heading “Five points of Calvinism” I found the TULIP definition as expressed in the words of J.I. Packer. I eagerly dove in, wondering what monstrous doctrine I was about to uncover.
I began to read:
Total Depravity… well that’s clearly Biblical, all men are born dead in trespasses and sins, why would anyone have a problem with that?
Unconditional Election… Why would anyone disagree with this either? If all men are completely unable to choose God what else could be the case? And besides, “We love Him because He first loved us.”
Limited Atonement… Well that’s clearly wrong, 1 John 2:2 He is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world.
Irresistible Grace… Of course, God’s grace cannot fail to accomplish His purpose.
Perseverance of the Saints… Well Duh. How could anyone ever have eternal life temporarily?
Ok, ok, what is going on here? Why is everybody so worked up about “five point Calvinism”? Four of the five points are as plain as the nose on my face. I remember waking my wife up and reading each point to her and asking “This is Biblical isn’t it? What’s wrong with that? Am I missing something?” My wife didn’t appreciate my enthusiasm, but she agreed with me that four of the five points were obviously Biblical. What a realization, I was a four point Calvinist before I even knew what the word Calvinism meant. Funny how serious Bible reading and expository preaching can bring that about, isn’t it?
Arminian Antics and Strawmen
My friends and I became convinced that someone at the college was coaching chapel speakers, asking them to deride Calvinism whenever possible. I distinctly recall one speaker, when he came across the term elect in his text, giving a completely irrelevant explanation of its meaning and concluding with the declaration: “And that’s the only place election appears in the Bible!” We looked at each other in disbelief. Did he know he was speaking at a Bible college, to people who have Bibles?
Perhaps the funniest incident regarding Calvinism that I can remember was in my Christian Education class. The instructor had for some reason brought up a question about what you as a parent should do if your daughter stays out a couple hours past curfew. Immediately a voice from the other side of the room piped out, “If you’re a fav point Calvinist, she wuz sposed to come home late!” Of course this was met with abundant laughter.
But this anti-Calvinist atmosphere did do one thing for me and my friends. It drove us into the library. Oh the library, sigh… What a wonderful, peaceful, glorious place. There we devoured everything Calvinistic we could find. A.W. Pink, Ian Murray, Charles Spurgeon and John McArthur were the most helpful to me at first, and J.I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness gave me a taste for the puritans, and we all know what a treasure trove can be found there!
The Fifth Point
But even though many of the arguments I came across in defense of limited atonement seemed logical, I could not be convinced, not in the slightest. 1 John 2:2 was always ringing in my ears every time the subject came up. I prayed for understanding & spent much time in meditation over that verse. I then decided to do all the research I could and delve as deeply as possible into the meaning of that verse. I had my Complete Word Study New Testament by Spiros Zodhiates, and I was determined to get to the bottom of every word and phrase. Then suddenly, something amazing occurred to me. It was as though God just switched a light on in the dark room that I had been groping around in. Wait a minute, if that verse means what I thought it meant, then there can’t be anyone in hell! If Christ has propitiated God’s wrath toward every individual who ever lived or will live, then no one can ever suffer under God’s wrath. Scripture is clear that all who die outside of Christ will suffer eternally under the wrath of God. Well what do you know, I’m a five point Calvinist!
I left FBTC after only one semester, it was much more conservative than Sioux Falls College, but it was still far too liberal for me. I think I’ll always have fond memories of my time there, for it was the beginning of my “cage stage” of Calvinism. I wasn’t yet what I now consider reformed, but I was indeed a “Fav Point Calvinist”!
A presentation of the parity or equality of elders in the New Testament
The Practice of the Parity of the Eldership
Pastor Dave Chanski
Poh Boon Sing argues that holding to parity of authority among the elders produces the effect of “undermining the Christian ministry.” However, it is the view that ratchets the authority of some elders up by a notch over other elders that tends to devalue the office of elder and thus to undermine the authority of the church’s leadership. This occurs in at least two ways.
First, to assert that one class of elders has supremacy or priority of authority in the rule of the church necessarily lessens the authority of the other class of elders. This has the effect of diminishing all authority in the church, since Christ has seen fit to entrust the “execution of power or duty” to the elders of the church. We have seen that the Scriptures teach that all elders have equal authority in the church. They are Christ’s appointed rulers in His church. To grant primacy of authority to one class of elders over another requires either the extra-scriptural concentration of authority in the one class or an anti-Scriptural dilution of the authority of the other. If those who hold to such a view are not endeavoring to turn “pastors” into despots, they must concede that they are watering down the authority of “ruling elders”. This is a serious enough problem in itself, especially in a day and age when the world despises authority in almost any form and when the church of Christ is itself rushing to capitulate to the dictates of the world. The problem becomes especially acute when a church at any given time is without any fully supported preaching elders. Once again, we will do well to heed the admonition of John Owen:
Their authority, also in the whole rule of the church, is every way the same with that of the other sort of elders; and they are to act in the execution of it with equal respect and regard from the church. And this institution is abused when either unmeet persons are called to this office, or those that are called do not attend unto their duty with diligence, or do act only in it by the guidance of the teaching officers, without a sense of their own authority, or due respect from the church.
Second, the unscriptural view of the inherent superiority of one class of elders and the inherent inferiority of another leads to another pitfall, the watering down of qualifications for the office of elder. Even if it is maintained with Owen that both “pastors” and “ruling elders” hold the same office and that the scriptural qualifications are therefore identical, the departure from Owen regarding relative authority will inevitably lead to a two-tiered approach to the qualifications for office. To dilute the qualifications for one class of elders in the church is to dilute the qualifications for the eldership as a whole. Such dilution of standards jeopardizes the credibility of the church’s government in the eyes of the church and world and, more seriously, puts souls at risk, particularly those of unqualified men who are placed in office (1 Tim. 3:7). On the other hand, we know of no scriptural means more calculated to uphold the integrity of the Christian ministry and to secure the esteem of the people for church leaders than the maintenance of scriptural standards for the office of elder.
We cannot pretend that upholding scriptural standards for elders will safeguard the church from sin and incompetence in the eldership—even apostolic churches had their Diotrephes. However, care at this point is a primary means of keeping men of Diotrephes’ persuasion and tendency out of the Christian ministry. Further, taking such care to insure that all the elders in a church meet the Bible’s qualifications for office gives greater grounds for confidence that the men comprising the eldership will be able to effectively work together in a calling that requires the flesh-withering labor of mutual submission, mutual trust, and real cooperation.
Another problem is likely to develop if we depart from the biblical norm of plurality. Failure to appreciate that a plurality of elders in each church is the scriptural ideal can produce laxness regarding a church’s desire and efforts to achieve this norm. Remember that Benjamin Keach saw neither scriptural warrant nor practical necessity for any other than preaching elders in the church. Dr. Poh similarly fails to appreciate the importance of pursuing the scriptural ideal at this point when he writes:
The principle of ‘plurality’ is being bandied about as a new form of ‘shibboleth’. In the face of these new problems, it would not be wise to stress ‘plurality’. No, it might not even be right to do so.
This sentiment is far from that of the Puritan Congregationalists of New England, who wrote in their Reforming Synod in 1679:
It is requisite that utmost endeavours should be used, in order unto a full supply of officers in the churches, according to Christ’s institution. The defect of these churches, on this account, is very lamentable, there being in most of the churches only one teaching officer for the burden of the whole congregation to lye upon. The Lord Christ would not have instituted pastors, teachers, ruling-elders (nor the apostles have ordained elders in every church-Acts 14.23; Titus 1.5,) if he had not seen there was need of them for the good of his people; and therefore for men to think they can do well enough without them, is both to break the second commandment, and to reflect upon the wisdom of Christ, as if he did appoint unnecessary officers in his church.
Owen himself argued in no uncertain terms that the Bible’s norm of a plurality should be the desire of every church for practical as well as theological reasons. He wrote, “It is difficult, if not impossible, on a supposition of one elder only in a church, to preserve the rule of the church from being prelatical or popular.” In other words, to neglect the scriptural norm of plurality is to implicitly invite either the perils of the prelatical system of Owen’s day or the absence of any genuine church government, such as exists in the congregationalism of our own day. Owen further argued that “The nature of the work whereunto they are called requires that, in every church consisting of any considerable number of members, there should be more elders than one.” His point is that the preservation of the life of godliness in both pastor and people, their maximum edification, and the good order of the church of Christ are all best served by a plurality of elders, not by single elder rule. He wrote, “That all these things can be attended unto and discharged in a due manner in any church, by one elder, is for them only to suppose who know nothing of them.” For good and weighty reasons, Owen held strong convictions regarding the importance of plurality. We do well to emulate him in this.
Another defect of any view which disallows or undermines parity of authority among elders is that it permits and promotes a carnal view of the ministry. Any such view is rooted in unbelief. Knowing the human heart and the track record of men—who share authority in government, whether civil or ecclesiastical, many conclude that effective government by a number of men who possess parity of authority is impracticable if not impossible to achieve. Poh writes:
The fact that one or two churches have functioned well with this system is no proof that it is correct. It only proves that the men involved have been long-standing friends who would have operated well in any other situation.
We agree that a harmoniously functioning eldership in which there is parity of authority does not prove that the system is biblical. That determination must be made exegetically. But a well-functioning eldership with parity does prove that the Bible’s order of church government is practicable. It is not only practicable, it is ideal, and its realization ought to be our aim. To suggest that such an eldership owes its harmony to quirks of personality is akin to attributing every God-honoring Christian marriage to mere compatibility of the partners and asserting that they would have been successful even if they had remained unregenerate. The reality and profundity of the Holy Spirit’s ministry is denied.
The Bible’s form of church government requires faith in the necessity and efficacy of the work of the Holy Spirit. If we walk by sight and not by faith in this area, we will inevitably settle for a pragmatic arrangement, having concluded that the Bible’s method is designed for implementation only by angels or spirits of just men made perfect. Functioning in harmony with parity requires more than simply having godly men in the eldership. It requires the present and powerful dynamic of the Holy Spirit. He alone can help men of diverse age, gift, native inclination, and experience to cooperate peaceably and successfully. Only the Spirit of God can enable men to soberly assess themselves (Rom. 12:3ff.). Only He can enable them to mortify pride. Only He can keep them from sinful contentions and enable them to submit to one another. Only He can enable a man to sincerely appreciate and welcome the genuine oversight of his own soul by men who may be his inferiors in age, learning, or gift. By the same token, it is only the Holy Spirit who can enable equals in authority to defer to those who possess greater gift, experience, insight, or familiarity in a given area or situation.
Dr. Poh sees it as an inherent weakness of parity that it gives rise to a “constant tension of having to give deference to one another.” However, pride will wreak havoc in any eldership, whether it has parity or not. No system of church government produced Diotrephes. Diotrephes spoiled the government of the church (3 John 9). The requirement of humility and the perpetual demand for submission is not peculiar to systems of church government holding to parity. It is required for the Christian ministry, period. If a man cannot defer to his fellow elders, how can he faithfully and effectively shepherd the flock of God (1 Pet. 5:2f.)? If he cannot defer to his fellow elders, how can he be the servant of Christ’s people (Matt. 20:25-27)? If he cannot defer to his fellow elders, how can he truly esteem others better than himself (Phil. 2:3-5)? If he cannot defer to his fellow elders, how will he ever spend and be spent for men’s souls (2 Cor. 12:14f.)? If he cannot defer to his fellow elders, let that be the first clue that he is not fit to be an elder in the church of Christ.