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Asking “Do I believe?” rather than “Am I elect?” – R Scott Clark

January 12, 2013 Comments off

[W]hat theologians in church history do you recommend reading to better understand the doctrine of election?

Among the Fathers, Augustine’s On the Predestination of the Saints is essential. Gottschalk’s little treatise, On Predestination witnesses to the vitality of doctrine in the early middle ages. Thomas’ discussion in Summa Theologica 1a 23.1 is masterful. My favorites, however, are Calvin’s exegetical treatment in his commentary on Romans (1539, 1551) chapter 9 because of its strong commitment to understanding the passage in its redemptive-historical context and his doctrinal treatment in the 1559 Institutes(3.21-24) because there he helps us address it a posteriori by asking not, ‘Am I elect?’ but rather, ‘Do I believe?’ Herman Witsius’ 1677 treatment of election relative to the covenant of grace (Economy of the Covenants 3.4.) is encouraging as he points to the spiritual benefits the doctrine brings to the believer.

[H]ow might a Reformed understanding of the doctrine of election help the Christian who struggles with issues of assurance of salvation?

One of the more unfortunate facts in the history of Protestant piety is that the doctrines of election, and reprobation (predestination) have sometimes become a source of doubt and spiritual uncertainty. It is unfortunate and perverse because, understood properly, the doctrine of predestination should be a source of comfort and encouragement. Perhaps the single greatest reason that Christians have found the doctrine of predestination spiritually troubling is that they have often asked the wrong question: “Am I elect?” This is the wrong question first because it is not a question that Scripture ever encourages us to ask. It is the wrong question because it seeks to know things in a way that has not been revealed to us. We might call this the medieval question.

One result of asking the question this way is that one could never know with certainty if one is elect and any claim to know, with certainty, that one is elect, would be regarded as presumption. The question that the Scriptures teach us to ask is quite different: “Do I believe?” Let us call this the Protestant question. It is a question that we can answer, and by doing so, find comfort and certainty.

The Apostle Paul used the doctrine of election to encourage the Ephesian church. Writing to them on the basis of their profession of faith in Christ, he explained that the Father has “blessed us in Christ” and “chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world” and that “in love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will… (Eph 1:3–6).

Paul’s point was to remind helpless sinners, whose state, outside of Christ, he described as “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1), of God’s free, unconditional favor in Christ. His reasoning works this way: After the fall, under Adam’s headship (Rom 5:12–21), we are spiritually corrupt and at war with God. We have no inclination to believe. If we believe, it is because “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him…” (Eph 2:4–6).

In other words, God’s free election of his people to spiritual life, true faith, and union with Christ means that salvation and righteousness are his free gifts to his people. They were given unconditionally and they are received, through faith alone (Eph 2:8). If you believe, it is because God loved you, in Christ, and willed from all eternity to bring you to life, to give you the gift of faith and through it all of Christ’s benefits. This way of thinking about God’s election gives us firm, unshakeable ground on which to stand. It means that believers belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to their faithful Savior Jesus and that no one can snatch us out of his hand (John 6:40, 10:28; Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 1). It is not only medieval Christians who have asked the wrong question. Since the Reformation evangelical Christians have often been tempted to ask the medieval question and have reached the same troubling conclusion. As a result they have made uncertainty of the essence of faith. We see none of this, however, in Paul. Even when he thinks about his struggle with sin in the Christian life (Romans 7) he finds certainty on the basis of God’s free, electing grace and promises in Christ (Rom 8-10). Let us follow Paul, and his followers, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and countless other evangelical Protestants before us and do the same.

Believers are what they are by God’s grace and his promise is as sure as God is immoveable and faithful. We should not ask whether we are good enough (we are not) or whether we might fall (we shall) but whether God is faithful (he is) and whether he has sealed his promises with Christ’s obedient life, bloody death, and resurrection (he has), and whether we believe: by God’s grace we do.

Source: Credomag

Serving Christ in the freedom of forgiveness – JC Ryle

April 26, 2012 Comments off

None, generally speaking, do so much for Christ on earth as those who enjoy the fullest confidence of a free entrance into heaven. That sounds wonderful, I dare say, but it is true.

A believer who lacks an assured hope will spend much of his time in inward searchings of heart about his own state. Like a nervous, hypochondriacal person, he will be full of his own ailments, his own doubtings and questionings, his own conflicts and corruptions. In short, you will often find he is so taken up with this internal warfare that he has little leisure for other things, little time to work for God.

Now a believer, who has, like Paul, an assured hope, is free from these harassing distractions. He does not vex his soul with doubts about his own pardon and acceptance. He looks at the everlasting covenant sealed with blood, at the finished work and neverbroken word of his Lord and Saviour, and therefore counts his salvation a settled thing. And thus he is able to give an undivided attention to the work of the Lord, and so in the long run to do more.

Take, for an illustration of this, two English emigrants, and suppose them set down side by side in New Zealand or Australia. Give each of them a piece of land to clear and cultivate. Let the portions allotted to them be the same both in quantity and quality. Secure that land to them by every needful legal instrument; let it be conveyed as freehold to them and theirs for ever; let the conveyance be publicly registered, and the property made sure to them by every deed and security that man’s ingenuity can devise.

Suppose, then, that one of them shall set to work to bring his land into cultivation, and labour at it day after day without intermission or cessation.

Suppose, in the meanwhile, that the other shall be continually leaving his work, and going repeatedly to the public registry to ask whether the land really is his own, whether there is not some mistake, whether, after all, there is not some flaw in the legal instruments which conveyed it to him.

The one shall never doubt his title, but just work diligently on. The other shall hardly ever feel sure of his title, and spend half his time in going to Sydney, or Melbourne, or Auckland with needless inquiries about it.

Which, now, of these two men will have made most progress in a year’s time? Who will have done the most for his land, got the greatest breadth of soil under tillage, have the best crops to show, be altogether the most prosperous?

Reader, you know as well as I do. I need not supply an answer. There can only be one reply. Undivided attention will always attain the greatest success.

It is much the same in the matter of our title to “mansions in the skies.” None will do so much for the Lord who bought him as the believer who sees his title clear, and is not distracted by unbelieving hesitations. The joy of the Lord will be that man’s strength. “Restore unto me,” says David, “the joy of Thy salvation; then will I teach transgressors Thy ways.” (Ps. 51:12-13)

Source: Assurance, by JC Ryle

Categories: Assurance Tags: , ,

Mark 5:21-34 – Matthew Henry commentary

January 15, 2012 Comments off

Mark 5:21-34

Mar 5:21  And when Jesus was passed over again by ship unto the other side, much people gathered unto him: and he was nigh unto the sea.
Mar 5:22  And, behold, there cometh one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name; and when he saw him, he fell at his feet,
Mar 5:23  And besought him greatly, saying, My little daughter lieth at the point of death: I pray thee, come and lay thy hands on her, that she may be healed; and she shall live.
Mar 5:24  And Jesus went with him; and much people followed him, and thronged him.
Mar 5:25  And a certain woman, which had an issue of blood twelve years,
Mar 5:26  And had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse,
Mar 5:27  When she had heard of Jesus, came in the press behind, and touched his garment.
Mar 5:28  For she said, If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole.
Mar 5:29  And straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of that plague.
Mar 5:30  And Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him, turned him about in the press, and said, Who touched my clothes?
Mar 5:31  And his disciples said unto him, Thou seest the multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me?
Mar 5:32  And he looked round about to see her that had done this thing.
Mar 5:33  But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing what was done in her, came and fell down before him, and told him all the truth.
Mar 5:34  And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague.

The Gadarenes having desired Christ to leave their country, he did not stay to trouble them long, but presently went by water, as he came, back to the other side (Mar_5:21), and there much people gathered to him. Note, If there be some that reject Christ, yet there are others that receive him, and bid him welcome. A despised gospel will cross the water, and go where it will have better entertainment. Now among the many that applied themselves to him,
I. Here is one, that comes openly to beg a cure for a sick child; and it is no less a person than one of the rulers of the synagogue, one that presided in the synagogue-worship or, as some think, one of the judges of the consistory court, which was in every city, consisting of twenty-three. He was not named in Matthew, he is here, Jairus, or Jair, Jdg_10:3. He addressed himself to Christ, though a ruler, with great humility and reverence; When he saw him, he fell at his feet, giving honour to him as one really greater than he appeared to be; and with great importunity, he besought him greatly, as one in earnest, as one that not only valued the mercy he came for, but that knew he could obtain it no where else. The case is this, He has a little daughter, about twelve years old, the darling of the family, and she lies a dying; but he believes that if Christ will but come, and lay his hands upon her, she will return even from the gates of the grave. He said, at first, when he came, She lies a dying (so Mark); but afterward, upon fresh information sent him, he saith, She is even now dead (so Matthew); but he still prosecutes his suit; see Luk_8:42-49. Christ readily agreed, and went with him, Mar_5:24.
II. Here is another, that comes clandestinely to steal a cure (if I may so say) for herself; and she got the relief she came for. This cure was wrought by the way, as he was going to raise the ruler’s daughter, and was followed by a crowd. See how Christ improved his time, and lost none of the precious moments of it. Many of his discourses, and some of his miracles, are dates by the way-side; we should be doing good, not only when we sit in the house, but when we walk by the way, Deu_6:7. Now observe,
1. The piteous case of this poor woman. She had a constant issue of blood upon her, for twelve years, which had thrown her, no doubt, into great weakness, had embittered the comfort of her life, and threatened to be her death in a little time. She had had the best advice of physicians, that she could get, and had made use of the many medicines and methods they prescribed: as long as she had any thing to give them, they had kept her in hopes that they could cure her; but now that she had spent all she had among them, they gave her up as incurable. See here, (1.) That skin for skin, and all that a man has, will be give for life and health; she spent all she had upon physicians. (2.) It is ill with those patients whose physicians are their worst disease; who suffer by their physicians, instead of being relieved by them. (3.) Those that are not bettered by medicines, commonly grow worse, and the disease gets the more ground. (4.) It is usual with people not to apply themselves to Christ, till they have tried in vain all other helpers, and find them, as certainly they will, physicians of no value. And he will be found a sure refuge, even to those who make him their last refuge.
2. The strong faith that she had in the power of Christ to heal her; she said within herself, though it doth not appear that she was encouraged by any preceding instance to say it, If I may but touch his clothes, I shall be whole, Mar_5:28. She believed that he cured, not as a prophet, by virtue derived from God, but as the Son of God, by a virtue inherent in himself. Her case was such as she could not in modesty tell him publicly, as others did their grievances, and therefore a private cure was what she wished for, and her faith was suited to her case.
3. The wonderful effect produced by it; She came in the crowd behind him, and with much ado got to touch his garment, and immediately she felt the cure wrought, Mar_5:29. The flux of blood was dried up, and she felt herself perfectly well all over her, as well as ever she was in her life, in an instant; by this it appears that the cure was altogether miraculous; for those that in such cases are cured by natural means, recover their strength slowly and gradually, and not per saltum – all at once; but as for God, his work is perfect. Note, Those whom Christ heals of the disease of sin, that bloody issue, cannot but experience in themselves a universal change for the better.
4. Christ’s enquiry after his concealed patient, and the encouragement he gave her, upon the discovery of her; Christ knew in himself that virtue had gone out of him, Mar_5:30. He knew it not by any deficiency of spirits, through the exhausting of this virtue, but rather by an agility of spirits, in the exerting of it, and the innate and inseparable pleasure he had in doing good. And being desirous to see his patient, he asked, not in displeasure, as one affronted, but in tenderness, as one concerned, Who touched my clothes? The disciples, not without a show of rudeness and indecency, almost ridiculed his question (Mar_5:31); The multitudes throng thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me? As if it had been an improper question. Christ passed by the affront, and looks around to see her that had done this thing; not that he might blame her for her presumption, but that he might commend and encourage her faith, and by his own act and deed might warrant and confirm the cure, and ratify to her that which she had surreptitiously obtained. He needed not that any should inform him, for he had presently his eye upon her. Note, As secret acts of sin, so secret acts of faith, are known to the Lord Jesus, and are under his eye. If believers derive virtue from Christ ever so closely, he knows it, and is pleased with it. The poor woman, hereupon, presented herself to the Lord Jesus (Mar_5:33), fearing and trembling, not knowing how he would take it. Note, Christ’s patients are often trembling, when they have reason to be triumphing. She might have come boldly, knowing what was done in her; yet, knowing that, she fears and trembles. It was a surprise, and was not yet, as it should have been, a pleasing surprise. However, she fell down before him. Note, There is nothing better for those that fear and tremble, than to throw themselves at the feet of the Lord Jesus; to humble themselves before him, and refer themselves to him. And she told him all the truth. Note, We must not be ashamed to own the secret transactions between Christ and our souls; but, when called to it, mention, to his praise, and the encouragement of others, what he has done for our souls, and the experience we have had of healing virtue derived from him. And the consideration of this, that nothing can be hid from Christ, should engage us to confess all to him. See what an encouraging word he gave her (Mar_5:34); Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole. Note, Christ puts honour upon faith, because faith gives honour to Christ. But see how what is done by faith on earth is ratified in heaven; Christ saith, Be whole of thy disease. Note, If our faith sets the seal of its amen to the power and promise of God, saying, “So it is, and so let it be to me;” God’s grace will set the seal of its amen to the prayers and hopes of faith, saying, “So be it, and so it shall be, to thee.” And therefore, “Go in peace; be well satisfied that thy cure is honestly come by, is effectually wrought, and take the comfort of it.” Note, They that by faith are healed of their spiritual diseases, have reason to go in peace.

No assurance in Arminianism

December 8, 2011 Comments off

Arminians are not ashamed to say, that God may crown a man one hour, and uncrown him in the next; they blush not to say that a man may be happy and miserable, under love and under wrath, an heir of heaven and a firebrand of hell, a child of light and a child of darkness—and all in an hour. Oh what miserable comforters are these! What is this but to torment the weary soul? to dispirit the wounded spirit, and to make them most sad whom God would have most glad? Ah! how sad is it for men to affirm, that wounded spirits may know “that the Sun of righteousness has healing in his wings,” Mal 4:2; but they cannot be assured that they shall be healed. The hungry soul may know that there is bread enough in his Father’s house—but cannot know that he shall taste of that bread, Luke 15:17. The naked soul may know that Christ has robes of righteousness to cover all spots, sores, defects, and deformities of it—but may not presume to know that Christ will put these royal robes upon it, Rev 3:18. The impoverished soul may know that there be unsearchable riches in Christ—but cannot be assured that ever it shall partake of those riches, Eph 3:8. All that these men allow poor souls, is guesses and conjectures that it may be well with them. They will not allow souls to say with Thomas, “My Lord, and my God,” John 20:28; nor with Job to say, “My Redeemer lives,” Job 19:25; nor with the church, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is towards me,” Song 7:10. And so they leave souls in a cloudy, questioning, doubting, hovering condition, hanging, like Mahomet’s tomb at Mecca, between two loadstones; or like Erasmus, as the papists paint him, hanging between heaven and hell. They make the poor soul a terror to itself.

What more uncomfortable doctrine than this? What more soul-disquieting, and soul-unsettling doctrine than this? You are this moment in a state of spiritual life—you may the next moment be in a state of spiritual death; you are now gracious—you may the next hour be graceless; you are now in the promised land—yet you may die in the wilderness; you are today a habitation for God—you may tomorrow be a synagogue of Satan; you have today received the white stone of absolution—you may tomorrow receive the black stone of condemnation; you are now in your Savior’s arms—you may tomorrow be in Satan’s paws; you are now Christ’s freeman—you may tomorrow be Satan’s bondman; you are now a vessel of honor—you may suddenly become a vessel of wrath; you are now greatly beloved, you may soon be as greatly loathed; this day your name is fairly written in the book of life—tomorrow the book may be crossed out, and your name blotted out forever. This is the Arminians’ doctrine, and if this be not to keep souls in a doubting and trembling, and shivering condition, what is it?

Well, Christians, remember this is your happiness and blessedness, that “none can pluck you out of your Father’s hand,” John 10:29; that you are “kept,” as in a garrison, or as with a guard, “by the power of God through faith unto salvation,” 1 Pet 1:5. “That the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but the kindness of the Lord shall not depart from you, neither shall the covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord that has mercy on you,” Isa 54:10. “That Christ ever lives to make intercession for you,” Heb 7:25; and that men and devils are as able, and shall as soon, make a world, dethrone God, pluck the sun out of the firmament, and Christ out of the bosom of the Father—as they shall pluck a believer out of the everlasting arms of Christ, or rob him of one of his precious jewels! Deut 33:26-27.

I shall close up this chapter with an excellent saying of Luther: “The whole Scripture,” says he, “Both principally aim at this thing, that we should not doubt—but that we should hope, that we should trust, that we should believe, that God is a merciful, a bountiful, a gracious, and a patient God to his people.”

– Thomas Brooks (1608-1680)
taken from: Heaven on Earth, 1667.

The Nature and Basis of Assurance – A.W. Pink

January 9, 2011 Comments off

At the commencement of Matthew 5 we find the Lord Jesus pronouncing blessed a certain class of people. They are not named as “believers” or saints,” but instead are described by their characters; and it is only by comparing ourselves and others with the description that the Lord Jesus there gave, that we are enabled to identify such. First, He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” To be “poor in spirit” is to have a feeling sense that in me, that is, in my flesh, “there dwelleth no good thing” (Rom. 7:18). It is the realization that I am utterly destitute of anything and everything which could commend me favorably to God’s notice. It is to recognize that I am a spiritual bankrupt. It is the consciousness, even now (not years ago, when I was first awakened), that I am without strength and wisdom, and that I am a helpless creature, completely dependent upon the grace and mercy of God. To be “poor in spirit” is the opposite of Laodiceanism, which consists of self-complacency and self-sufficiency, imagining I am “rich, and in need of nothing.”

“Blessed are they that mourn.” It is one thing to believe the theory that I am spiritually a poverty-stricken pauper, it is quite another to have an acute sense of it in my soul. Where the latter exists, there are deep exercises of heart, which evoke the bitter cry, “my leanness, my leanness, woe unto me!” (Isa. 24:16). There is deep anguish that there is so little growth in grace, so little fruit to God’s glory, such a wretched return made for His abounding goodness unto me. This is accompanied by an ever-deepening discovery of the depths of corruption which is still within me. The soul finds that when it would do good, evil is present with him (Rom. 7:21). It is grieved by the motions of unbelief, the swellings of pride, the surging of rebellion against God. Instead of peace, there is war within; instead of realizing his holy aspirations, the blessed one is daily defeated; until the stricken heart cries out, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24).

“Blessed are the meek.” Meekness is yieldedness. It is the opposite of self-will. Meekness is pliability and meltedness of heart, which makes me submissive and responsive to God’s will. Now observe, dear reader, these first three marks of the “blessed” consist not in outward actions, but of inward graces; not in showy deeds, but in states of soul. Note too that they are far from being characteristics which will render their possessor pleasing and popular to the world. He who feels himself to be a spiritual pauper will not be welcomed by the wealthy Laodiceans. He who daily mourns for his leanness, his barrenness, his sinfulness, will not be courted by the self-righteous. He who is truly meek will not be sought after by the self-assertive. No, he will be scorned by the Pharisees and looked upon with contempt by those who boast they are “out of Romans 7 and living in Romans 8.” These lovely graces, which are of great price in the sight of God, are despised by the bloated professors of the day…

He who is really honest with himself and has had his eyes opened in some degree to see the awful sinfulness of self, and who is becoming more and more acquainted with that sink of iniquity, that mass of corruption which still indwells him, often feels that sin more completely rules him now than ever it did before. When he longs to trust God with all his heart, unbelief seems to paralyze him. When he wishes to be completely surrendered to God’s blessed will, murmurings and rebellion surge within him. When he would spend an hour in meditating on the things of God, evil imaginations harass him. When he desires to be more humble, pride seeks to fill him. When he would pray, his mind wanders. The more he fights against these sins, the further off victory seems to be. To him it appears that sin is very much the master of him, and Satan tells him that his profession is vain. What shall we say to such a dear soul who is deeply exercised over this problem? Two things.

First, the very fact that you are conscious of these sins and are so much concerned over your failure to overcome them, is a healthy sign. It is the blind who cannot see; it is the dead who feel not—true alike naturally and spiritually. Only they who have been quickened into newness of life are capable of real sorrow for sin. Moreover, such experiences as we have mentioned above evidence a spiritual growth: a growth in the knowledge of self. As the wise man tells us, “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” (Eccl. 1:18). In God’s light we see light (Ps. 36:9). The more the Holy Spirit reveals to me the high claims of God’s holiness, the more I discover how far short I come of meeting them. Let the midday sun shine into a darkened room, and dust and dirt which before were invisible are now plainly seen. So with the Christian: the more the light of God enters his heart, the more he discovers the spiritual filth which dwells there. Beloved brother, or sister, it is not that you are becoming more sinful, but that God is now giving you a clearer and fuller sight of your sinfulness. Praise Him for it, for the eyes of the vast majority of your fellows (religionists included) are blind, and cannot see what so distresses you!

Second, side by side with sin in your heart is grace. There is a new and holy nature within the Christian as well as the old and unholy one. Grace is active within you, as well as sin. The new nature is influencing your conduct as well as the old. Why is it that you so desire to be conformed to the image of Christ, to trust Him fully, love Him fervently, and serve Him diligently? These longings proceed not from the flesh. No, my distressed brother or sister, sin is not your complete master; if it were, all aspirations, prayers, and strivings after holiness would be banished from your heart. There are “as it were the company of two armies” (Song of Sol. 6:13) fighting to gain control of the Christian. As it was with our mother Rebekah—”the children struggled together within her” (Gen. 25:22)—so it is with us. But the very “struggle” shows that the issue is not yet decided: had sin conquered, the soul would no longer be able to resist. The conqueror disarms his enemy so that he can no longer fight back. The very fact that you are still “fighting” proves that sin has not vanquished you! It may seem to you that it soon will: but the issue is not in doubt—Christ will yet save you from the very presence of sin.

Having sought in the above paragraphs to heed the injunction found in Hebrews 12:12, 13 to “lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees,” and to make “straight paths” for the feet of God’s little ones, “lest that which is lame be turned out of the way,” let us again direct our attention unto those who “have not a doubt” of their acceptance in Christ, and perhaps feel no personal need for what has been said above. The Lord declared that a tree is known by its fruits, so there cannot be anything wrong in examining the tree of our heart, to ascertain what kind of “fruit” it is now bringing forth, and discover whether it be such as may proceed from mere nature, or that which can only issue from indwelling grace. It may at once be objected, But nothing spiritual can issue from ourselves. From our natural selves, No; but from a regenerated person, Yes. But how can an evil tree ever be any different? Christ said, “Make the tree good, and his fruit good” (Matt. 12:33). This is typed out by engrafting a new slip on an old stock…

In considering the basis of the Christian’s assurance we must distinguish sharply between the ground of his acceptance before God, and his own knowledge that he is accepted by Him. Nothing but the righteousness of Christ-wrought out by Him in His virtuous life and vicarious death—can give any sinner a perfect legal standing before the thrice holy God. And nothing but the communication of a new nature, a supernatural work of grace within, can furnish proof that the righteousness of Christ has been placed to my account. Whom God legally saves, he experimentally saves; whom He justifies, them He also sanctifies. Where the righteousness of Christ is imputed to an individual, a principle of holiness is imparted to him; the former can only be ascertained by the latter. It is impossible to obtain a scriptural knowledge that the merits of Christ’s finished work are reckoned to my account, except by proving that the efficacy of the Holy Spirit’s work is evident in my soul.

Source

Categories: Assurance Tags: ,

Assurance and doubt – Calvin

December 31, 2010 Comments off

ASSURANCE AND DOUBT

JOHN CALVIN

I. Section 16

The principal hinge on which faith turns is this—that we must not consider the promises of mercy, which the Lord offers, as true only to others, and not to ourselves; but rather make them our own, by embracing them in our hearts. Hence arises that confidence, which the same apostle in another place calls peace”;1 unless anyone would rather make peace the effect of confidence. It is a security, which makes the conscience calm and serene before the Divine tribunal, and without which it must necessarily be harassed and torn almost asunder with tumultuous trepidation, unless it happen to slumber for a moment in an oblivion of God and itself. And indeed it is but for a moment; for it does not long enjoy that wretched oblivion, but is most dreadfully wounded by the remembrance, which is perpetually recurring, of the Divine judgment. In short, no man is truly a believer unless he be firmly persuaded that God is a propitious and benevolent Father to him, and promise himself everything from his goodness; unless he depend on the promises of the Divine benevolence to him and feel an undoubted expectation of salvation; as the apostle shows in these words: “If we hold fast the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end.”2 Here he supposes that no man has a good hope in the Lord who does not glory with confidence in being an heir of the kingdom of heaven. He is no believer, I say, who does not rely on the security of his salvation and confidently triumph over the devil and death, as Paul teaches us in this remarkable peroration:

I am persuaded [says he] that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.3

Thus the same apostle is of opinion that “the eyes of our understanding” are not truly “enlightened” unless we discover what is the hope of the eternal inheritance to which we are called.4 And he everywhere inculcates that we have no just apprehensions of the Divine goodness unless we derive from it a considerable degree of assurance.

II. Section 17

But someone will object that the experience of believers is very different from this; for that, in recognizing the grace of God towards them, they are not only disturbed with inquietude (which frequently befalls them), but sometimes also tremble with the most distressing terrors. The vehemence of temptations to agitate their minds is so great that it appears scarcely compatible with that assurance of faith of which we have been speaking. We must therefore solve this difficulty if we mean to support the doctrine we have advanced. When we inculcate that faith ought to be certain and secure, we conceive not of a certainty attended with no doubt, or of a security interrupted by no anxiety; but we rather affirm that believers have a perpetual conflict with their own diffidence, and are far from placing their consciences in a placid calm, never disturbed by any storms. Yet, on the other hand, we deny, however they may be afflicted, that they ever fall and depart from that certain confidence which they have conceived in the Divine mercy.

The Scripture proposes no example of faith more illustrious or memorable than David, especially if you consider the whole course of his life. Yet that his mind was not invariably serene, appears from his innumerable complaints, of which it will be sufficient to select a few. When he rebukes his soul for turbulent emotions, is he not angry with his unbelief? “Why [says he] art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? Hope thou in God.”5 And certainly, that consternation was an evident proof of diffidence, as though he supposed himself to be forsaken by God. In another place also, we find a more ample confession: “I said, in my haste, I am cut off from before thine eyes.”6 In another place also, he debates with himself in anxious and miserable perplexity, and even raises a dispute concerning the nature of God: “Hath God forgotten to be gracious? Will the Lord cast off for ever?” What follows is still harsher: “And I said, I must fall; these are the changes of the right hand of the Most High.”7 For, in a state of despair, he consigns himself to ruin; and not only confesses that he is agitated with doubts, but, as vanquished in the conflict, considers all as lost; because God has deserted him and turned to his destruction that hand which used to support him. Wherefore it is not without reason that he says, “Return unto thy rest, O my soul;”8 since he had experienced such fluctuations amidst the waves of trouble.

And yet, wonderful as it is, amidst these concussions, faith sustains the hearts of the pious, and truly resembles the palm-tree, rising with vigor undiminished by any burdens which may be laid upon it, but which can never retard its growth; as David, when he might appear to be overwhelmed, yet, chiding himself, ceased not to aspire towards God. Indeed, he who, contending with his own infirmity, strives in his anxieties to exercise faith, is already in a great measure victorious. Which we may infer from such passages as this: “Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart; wait, I say, on the Lord.”9 He reproves himself for timidity, and repeating the same twice, confesses himself to be frequently subject to various agitations. In the meantime, he is not only displeased with himself for these faults, but ardently aspires towards the correction of them.

Now if we enter into a close and correct examination of his character and conduct, and compare him with Ahaz, we shall discover a considerable difference. Isaiah is sent to convey consolation to the anxiety of the impious and hypocritical king. He addresses him in these words: “Take heed, and be quiet; fear not,” etc.10 But what effect had the message on him? As it had been before said, that “his heart was moved as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind,”11 though he heard the promise, he ceased not to tremble. This therefore is the proper reward and punishment of infidelity—so to tremble with fear that he who opens not the gate to himself by faith, in the time of temptation departs from God. But, on the contrary, believers, whom the weight of temptations bends and almost oppresses, constantly emerge from their distresses, though not without trouble and difficulty. And because they are conscious of their own imbecility, they pray with the Psalmist, “Take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth.”12 By these words we are taught that they sometimes become dumb, as though their faith were destroyed; yet that they neither fail nor turn their backs, but persevere in their conflict, and arouse their inactivity by prayer, that they may not be stupefied by self-indulgence.

III. Section 18

To render this intelligible it is necessary to recur to that division of the flesh and the spirit which we noticed in another place and which most clearly discovers itself in this case. The pious heart therefore perceives a division in itself, being partly affected with delight, through a knowledge of the Divine goodness; partly distressed with sorrow, through a sense of its own calamity; partly relying on the promise of the gospel; partly trembling at the evidence of its own iniquity; partly exulting in the apprehension of life; partly alarmed by the fear of death. This variation happens through the imperfection of faith; since we are never so happy, during the present life, as to be cured of all diffidence and entirely filled and possessed by faith. Hence those conflicts in which the diffidence which adheres to the relics of the flesh rises up in opposition to the faith formed in the heart.

But if, in the mind of a believer, assurance be mixed with doubts, do we not always come to this point, that faith consists not in a certain and clear, but only in an obscure and perplexed knowledge of the Divine will respecting us? Not at all. For, if we are distracted by various thoughts, we are not therefore entirely divested of faith; neither, though harassed by the agitations of diffidence, are we therefore immerged in its abyss; nor, if we be shaken, are we therefore overthrown. For the invariable issue of this contest is that faith at length surmounts those difficulties, from which, while it is encompassed with them, it appears to be in danger.

IV. Section 19

Let us sum it up thus: As soon as the smallest particle of grace is infused into our minds, we begin to contemplate the Divine countenance as now placid, serene, and propitious to us: it is indeed a very distant prospect, but so clear, that we know we are not deceived. Afterwards, in proportion as we improve—for we ought to be continually improving by progressive advances—we arrive at a nearer, and therefore more certain view of Him, and by continual habit He becomes more familiar to us. Thus we see that a mind illuminated by the knowledge of God is at first involved in much ignorance, which is removed by slow degrees. Yet it is not prevented either by its ignorance of some things or by its obscure view of what it beholds from enjoying a clear knowledge of the Divine will respecting itself, which is the first and principal exercise of faith. For, as a man who is confined in a prison, into which the sun shines only obliquely and partially through a very small window, is deprived of a full view of that luminary, yet clearly perceives its splendor, and experiences its beneficial influence—thus we, who are bound with terrestrial and corporeal fetters, though surrounded on all sides with great obscurity, are nevertheless illuminated, sufficiently for all the purposes of real security, by the light of God shining ever so feebly to discover his mercy.

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The pastoral character of the Canons of Dordt – R Hanko

June 20, 2010 Comments off

Creeds are not popular in today’s church world. Many churches do not and will not have them, and this reflects the attitude of most church members. If believers are not completely opposed to creeds, then they are deeply suspicious of them, blaming many of the churches’ ills on creeds. Even most of those churches that have a formal creedal basis have neglected and set aside their own creeds, so that those creeds are hardly known and rarely referred to.

One argument against creeds is that the creeds we have are not useful. They were written, so it is said, at a time when cold, abstract discussion of obscure doctrinal points was the order of the day, but now the Church has progressed from such dogmatic argumentation to real, meaningful activity. The creeds, it is suggested, are full of scholasticism, and are far removed from simple, practical teaching of Scripture, and are therefore, all but useless in the Church of Jesus Christ.

The strange thing is that this attitude is often fostered by those who want nothing to do with the very practical teaching of Scripture and the creeds on such matters as women in church office, homosexuality, the keeping of the Lord’s Day, church discipline, and many other such matters. Nonetheless, this attitude does find fertile soil in the ignorance of the creeds which is so widespread, even among those of Reformed or Presbyterian background.

Among many quarters of those who subscribe to the “Three Forms of Unity,” the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort, [1] this attitude is found especially in regard to the Canons [2] So generally are the Canons considered to be “outdated” that there are few any more who know anything about them.

There are few who know that the Canons, in five chapters or “heads,” defend and prove from Scripture, the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism.” They do not know, therefore, that rather than speaking of errors which vanished from the church hundreds of years ago, the Canons deal pointedly and Biblically with the very errors that are troubling the church today. But perhaps the most surprising thing of all to those who to a greater or lesser degree are ignorant of them, is the fact that the Canons, perhaps more than any other creed, are deliberately, deeply, and warmly pastoral in their presentation of these great truths of the Christian faith. [3]

When we speak of the pastoral character of the Canons, we mean that they not only set forth sound doctrine, but that in the Canons these doctrines (including the doctrines of election and reprobation) are applied in a very practical and personal way to the difficulties and problems of the Christian life. That is, after all, what pastoral work is all about – the personal private application of the Word of God to the needs of God’s people. The Canons are very really, a “Pastor’s Handbook,” and can be used with much profit by the leaders and members of the church in dealing with pastoral matters.

One pastoral matter addressed in the Canons is lack of assurance of salvation, very troubling to those who are seeking such assurance, and a problem which ministers of the gospel and elders often face in pastoral counselling. The Canons have much to say about this matter, all of it of great help and comfort to struggling believers. The doctrines of grace themselves are of great comfort to believers in their struggles, but the Canons address the matter of assurance much more personally and practically than just by way of setting out the truth that salvation is of grace alone.

They tell us, on the basis of Christ’s admonition in Luke 10:20, that God’s people not only may but do obtain the assurance of election, forgiveness and eternal life (I,12; V, 9), and they reject the error of those who teach “that there is in this life no fruit and no consciousness of eternal election to glory, nor any certainty” (I, B, 7) [4] This is important as a counter to the discouraging teaching of Rome and of some Protestants that a real assurance of salvation is, ordinarily, not possible for believers. It is some comfort already to those who are plagued with doubts to know that assurance is not only possible, but that it is one of the gifts of grace purchased by Christ for His people.

The Canons do not forget, however, that assurance is not given to all in the same measure (I, 12) and that there are always some “who do not yet experience a lively faith in Christ, an assured confidence of soul, (and) peace of conscience,” “who cannot yet reach that measure of holiness and faith to which they aspire” (I, 16), and who struggle with various carnal doubts (V, 11). To such the Canons speak with comfort. Such persons must not be alarmed at the mention of reprobation, nor rank themselves among the reprobate, but they must persevere in the use of the means of grace and humbly wait for a season of richer grace. They are reminded of the promise of a “merciful God” that He will not quench the smoking flax or break the bruised reed (I, 16).

So, too, the Canons remind us that this assurance of salvation does not come in the way of some kind of extra-biblical, subjective “revelation,” but always through the Word of God and the work of the Spirit as He applies that Word to us (V, 10, 14). At the same time the Canons do not let us forget that this assurance is very closely connected with a sanctified walk, and warn against all carnal security, licentiousness, rash presumption, wanton trifling with the grace of election, and stubborn refusal to walk in the way of the elect, as things that will inevitably damage and destroy our assurance.

In temptation, the Canons say, we are not always sensible of the full assurance of faith, but we must not forget that God, Who is the Father of all consolation, does not suffer us to be tempted above what we are able, but always makes a way of escape that we may be able to bear it. To this promise of Scripture the Canons add the reminder that by His Holy Spirit God always renews that “comfortable assurance” (V, 11) in His people.

As far as temptation and sin are concerned, the Canons speak powerfully to our own experience. Not only is it possible for God’s people to sin, and not only do they sin daily (V,2), but it is even possible for believers, when watching and prayer are neglected, “to be drawn into great and heinous sins.”(V, 4). Nevertheless, we are assured that God preserves His people so that they persevere to the end and do not lose their salvation. We are even assured that it is impossible for God’s people to commit the “sin unto death” (V, 6).

In setting out that doctrine of perseverance, the Canons speak very warmly and pastorally of the fact that our sins and the possibility of falling into grievous sins furnishes us “with constant matter for humiliation before God and flying for refuge to Christ crucified; for mortifying the flesh more and more by the spirit of prayer and by holy exercises of piety” (V, 2). That God preserves and renews His people in their “lamentable falls” (V, 4), the Canons say, does not produce carelessness and pride, but “renders them much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord … lest by abusing His fatherly kindness, God should turn away His gracious countenance from them, to behold which is to the godly dearer than life … and they in consequence should fall into more grevious torments of conscience” (V, 13).

In connection with the doctrine of election, the Canons address another soulwrenching question, that of the salvation of the children of believers who die in infancy. Also here the Canons bring rich comfort, quoting I Corinthians 7:14 and assuring us on the basis of God’s covenant of grace, His family covenant, that “godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation” of such infants (I, 17). What could be more comforting than that to godly parents who must bring a little one to the grave, and what more pastoral on the part of the minister or elders than to bring them that confession of the church?

Another “pastoral” matter addressed in the Canons is our attitude toward others, both toward those who make a profession of faith and live “regular lives,” and toward those who have not yet been called.

They warn against the sins of pride and judging (III & IV, 15). This is all grounded in the truth that “God is under no obligation to confer grace upon any.” “How can He,” the Canons ask, “be indebted to man, who had no previous gifts to bestow, as foundation for such recompense? Nay, who has nothing of his own but sin and falsehood?” We may never conduct ourselves, therefore, “as if we had made ourselves to differ.”

These are just a few examples. There are others as well. The Canons have much to say about the importance of preaching and hearing the gospel as the God-appointed means of grace and salvation, the neglect of which is always and again a matter of “pastoral” concern (I, 3; III & IV, 6 and V, 14), and they warn that it is “tempting God” to separate His grace from the means that He in His wisdom has chosen to use in order to bring that grace to His people.

So too, the Canons warn those who believe the doctrines of grace to “regulate, by the Scripture … not only their sentiments, but also “regulate, by the Scripture … not only their sentiments, but also their language, and to abstain from all those phrases which exceed the limits necessary to be observed in ascertaining the genuine sense of the Holy Scriptures, and furnish insolent sophists with a just pretext for violently assailing, or even vilifying, the doctrine of the Reformed churches” (Conclusion). How important, but also how pastoral!

Other examples of the pastoral character of the Canons can easily be found, but the point is that they are not a cold, scholastic statement, characterised by hair-splitting and abstraction, but a very personal and warm exposition of some of the fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and of great use in the application of those truths to believers. They are not out-dated, but relevant to the problems and trials we face every day as we struggle to live a faithful and godly Christian life here in the world.

There is comfort even in knowing that it is the same truth, expounded and set forth in the confessions, which builds up the Church of Jesus Christ today as well as 400 years ago. There is reassurance, too, for those who bring that Word. They are not facing new problems, but problems that have always been found in the Church, the solution to which the Church has always found in God’s holy Word. Without our creeds, or in ignorance of them we have every reason, when we face these problems, to feel that we stand alone, and reason also, therefore, to be afraid. But through the sound knowledge of them and use of them, including the Canons, we stand in living connection with the Church of all ages, “more than conquerors through him that loved us” (Rom. 8:37).

Footnotes

[1] These creeds belong, generally speaking, to those churches that identify themselves in name as “Reformed.” They are the creeds of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Northern Ireland, and a free copy of them can be obtained from that congregation (7 Lislunnan Road, Kells, Ballymena, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland, BT42 3NR; telephone: 01266-891851; E-mail: 71674.3261 @compuserve.com).

[2] “Canon” means “an official declaration” or “rule” of the church.

[3] It is sad that the Canons are so little known and appreciated, because of all the Reformation creeds, they come closest to being a creed that belongs to all the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Though they are an official creed of the Dutch Reformed Churches, they were written and signed at a Synod (held in the city of Dort) attended by delegates from Holland, Great Britain, France, Switzerland and Germany.

[4] In the references to the Canons, “B” refers to the second part of each chapter or “Head of Doctrine.” This second part of each chapter is a “Rejection of Errors,” in which various denials of the Five Points of Calvinism are pointed out and refuted from Scripture.

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