justification is not a moral change

Apparently, the new Reformation Heritage Study Bible includes the comment, ‘Justification is the change of man’s moral nature; every justified man is a changed man.’

Not being madly keen on study bibles in general, I haven’t seen the Reformation Heritage one to find out for myself whether it does indeed say this. I sincerely hope it doesn’t, because however true the second half of the sentence is in the right context (and incidentally it’s also true for women, and children), the first half is simply false.

It would in fact be an egregious blunder for anyone claiming to be reformed to say that justification is the change of our moral nature. Justification has nothing to do with our moral nature, or anything in us at all – it is entirely to do with our legal status, an act passed on us.

If you want to talk about changing our moral nature, that shifts the discussion into the realm of sanctification. Sanctification is something internal, whereas justification is purely external – sanctification changes our heart inside us (from sinful to holy) while justification changes our legal relation to God outside of us (from condemned and alienated to pardoned and accepted).

Although it is true and important that those who are justified are from that point onwards being sanctified, it is essential to be clear that (and how) justification and sanctification are distinct. Larger Catechism 77 should help anyone in the Reformed world who might be in danger of getting confused (or the whole section from 69 to 78). Meanwhile teaching which blurs the distinction in such unequivocally wrong terms as the actual statement that justification is the change of man’s moral nature is not reformed – is compatible neither with Scripture in the first instance nor the standards – but is instead seriously erroneous.

grow in knowledge

“To increase in divine knowledge is also a duty which we owe to [Christ] our prophet. While there is in his revelation of God a depth which the profoundest of human minds can never fathom, an extent which the most capacious of human understandings can never fully comprehend, … there is also a simplicity by which even little children may be nourished up unto everlasting life; and the Holy Spirit, by whose agency our prophet teaches us, can render the Holy Scriptures, the means by which he teaches us, as efficacious to them as to those of riper years. But while the Christian will feel that he has indeed enjoyed a rich privilege if he has from a child known the Holy Scriptures, he will also feel that when he becomes a man, it will be proper that he should put away childish things, and grow in the knowledge of God. Not a few who call themselves Christians seem to consider, not how they may most effectually increase their knowledge of God, but with how little knowledge of him they may be safe. But if to know God, and Jesus Christ whom he hath sent, be life eternal, then the Christian will feel that it is not so much his duty as his privilege to be continually growing in that knowledge. The desire which he feels after this knowledge cries unceasingly, ‘Give, give,’ and every acquisition which he makes only stimulates his desires after further acquisitions, and increases his power to make them. … The man who thinks that he has acquired as much knowledge of God as is necessary, is proving that as yet he knows not God at all.”

‘On the Incarnation of the Eternal Word’ by Marcus Dods (the good one), p95-96.

taking not giving

Two people making the same point from different angles.

John Colquhoun:

Faith, then, instead of being the condition of the covenant, is only a condition of connection in the covenant, a moral instrument or mean of receiving Christ, and, in union with him, justification and sanctification.

Instead of giving a right to eternal life, it receives the gift of the surety-righteousness, which gives all the right to it.

Instead of giving a personal interest in the Saviour, it only receives that personal interest in him which is freely offered to sinners in the blessed gospel. It does not, strictly speaking, give possession of Jesus Christ, or of his righteousness and salvation, but it takes possession of them. … [Someone] cannot otherwise take possession of Christ and salvation, than by the instrumentality of faith. …

Faith takes all that is in the promises, as a gift of immensely rich grace, but gives nothing of it.

A View of Saving Faith, p30.

Thomas Goodwin:

To endeavour after faith with our own strength is like the scrabbling and striving of one that cannot swim, which sinks him the sooner and the more, and is opposite to the way of faith; for faith fetches all strength from another, since that is essential to that grace … [Faith] is a receiving, borrowing grace.

Justifying Faith, p488

the sacraments are helpful

Believers are provided with various ways of growing in grace. These include reading the Bible, praying, and listening to preaching, as well as things like meditation and fellowship with other believers.

The means of grace also include both of the sacraments, and especially the Lord’s Supper, which is specifically designed for ongoing spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

But several things combine to make the Lord’s Supper sometimes seem more of a daunting ordeal than an encouraging channel of strength and comfort. For one thing, it’s in public. Unlike prayer, which you can do in private without ever telling anyone, and nobody ever needs to know how little you benefit from your praying, everyone can see you at the Lord’s Table and is free to form their own opinion of how well you live up to the profession it involves. For another thing, there are prerequisites to meet. Participation requires self-examination, when your heart is deceitful, and the ability to discern the Lord’s body, which can sometimes seem obscure. And then there is its infrequency, which can make it seem like the kind of special occasion that you can’t afford to let slip by without getting the most out of it, piling on the pressure and raising the stakes every time.

Nevertheless, the Lord’s Supper is helpful, and shouldn’t be frightening, to believers.

1) In itself
Everything about the Lord’s Supper is very simple and basic and pitched at very ordinary, basic, lowly faith.
* Its symbols are bread, the staple, and wine, to refresh and cheer up.
* Its symbolised reality is the Saviour who believers already know, trust, and love, considered simply as their source of life and wellbeing who they can’t do without.
* The outcome it’s aiming at is for believers to get to know and love Christ even better.
* Its present context is a meal where they sit down in a friendly, reconciled way with Christ (and secondarily with their local community of people who equally can’t do without him).
* The past it remembers is what Christ did at Calvary for them from love to them.
* The future it expects is where Christ will come again and put everything right, and bring his people to be with him in complete blessedness for ever.
* Its repetitiveness is a straightforward reminder that we can keep coming back for more forgiveness and more help all the time, and that we don’t have to struggle on by ourselves unaided because steady supplies of grace are still available.

2) As a means of grace
In all of this, the Lord’s Supper is God’s chosen method for advancing his people’s spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

It’s God’s chosen method – something he specially set up for the express purpose of making sure his people would be fed, nurtured, encouraged, and drawn closer and closer to Christ. So if God thinks we need it, then our part is to align our thoughts with his and understand that we do need it, and appeal to him to make it have these beneficial effects in our lives. And if God thinks we need it for nourishment, then our part is to adopt the same attitude and treat it not as a scary hurdle but an opportunity to find blessing, interact with Christ, be thankful for redemption, and accept the comfort and nurturing it provides.

3) As only a means of grace
Obviously there’s no “only” about any of the means of grace – they are all gracious provisions from God, where he makes the benefits of an infinitely costly redemption flow into the experience of sinners who deserve the opposite.

But we don’t approach all the means of grace with the same kind of reluctance and anxiety, even though it’s the same God who ordained them all, the same Lord we hope to meet and be blessed by, the same Mediator we rely on, and the same Spirit who enables us to engage and benefit. Instead, believers are ready to acknowledge that they can’t survive without prayer, or the Bible, or preaching – even though these activities, like the Lord’s Supper, also require their own preparation of heart beforehand, and search out the secrets of the hearts of those who engage in them. We can’t make our sinful unworthiness a reason to abstain from praying, or reading the Bible, or attending sermons – we know that as unworthy sinners we need these means of grace and can’t hope to become anything other than more sinfully unworthy if we don’t use them.

This same rationale applies to the Lord’s Supper. Granting that there is a key difference between the Lord’s Supper and other means of grace in that it’s incumbent on everyone to read the Bible (etc) whether they’re saved or not (whereas the Lord’s Supper is specifically reserved for those who have already met the Lord they’re meant to be remembering at the Table), the Lord’s people will be missing out on the help and blessing that the Lord thinks they need, if they neglect to participate in this means of grace. If they feel spiritually weak, or prone to falling into temptation, or distant from the Saviour, they need to know that spiritual strength and persevering grace and a closer walk with God comes from going and participating in the Lord’s Supper, not avoiding it. If they need spiritual nourishment and growth in grace, that’s exactly what the Lord’s Supper is ordained to provide them with.

Viewing the Lord’s Supper specifically as a(nother) means of grace might, perhaps, go some way to negating the various other considerations which form themselves sometimes into too large obstacles to participating. Although there is an element of public profession in this sacrament, for example, other people’s opinions aren’t the main thing. Although too there is an element of self-scrutiny, the fact that I know I’m not a great example of what a Christian should be is equally not the main thing. What needs to override thoughts like these is the fact that this is a means of grace – the Lord has set it up to bring blessing to his people, and if I’m one of his people then this is grace and blessing that I need, and won’t get from anywhere else.

4) As a place where faith can relax
The life of faith is a struggle. There is a constant battle to look beyond and above the things that are seen and temporal – our natural habitat of what is tangible, material, earthly – to things that are unseen and eternal. We have to love someone who we’ve never seen, and venture to trust him on his bare word, and find our comforts in facts and activities (like atonement and intercession) which we can’t directly observe. Our material possessions and earthly relationships may well be helpful to us in this life, but faith itself is not strengthened by what we can see or handle or taste with our bodily senses.

The only exception to this rule is in the sacraments. In both the sacraments, and especially the Lord’s Supper, God himself has arranged it so that things we can see and handle and taste – here, bread and wine – are helpful to faith. Faith, which must normally struggle to get past the tangible to the intangible, the immaterial, the ethereal, is permitted to receive strength and take courage and draw comfort through the bodily eating and drinking of ordinary bread and ordinary wine in the sacrament. Whereas in everyday life, faith and sense are opposed, in the sacrament the Lord has ordained for these sense-able signs to be a means of applying Christ and his benefits to the souls of his people for their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace. The bread, broken and tasted and eaten, and the wine, poured out and tasted and swallowed, are vivid symbols of Christ’s body ‘broken for you’ and his blood ‘shed for you’ – Christ as he supplies all the believer’s spiritual life and spiritual wellbeing.

So although the more strongly faith is acting when the believer takes part in the sacrament, the better, the sacrament isn’t meant to be a severe test of how much faith you can muster up or an alarming demand for faith to pitch itself as high as it can. It’s just that, where faith is already in exercise, stretching out to Christ and receiving from him and feeding on him, the sacrament will be a place to lean more heavily on him and draw more from him and take a firmer hold of him. The point is that Christ and his benefits are communicated in the sacraments, by definition in a way that only faith can grasp, but also, by God’s ordinance, in a way that grants comfort and help to the soul.

~ ~ ~

Participating in the Lord’s Supper is never something to do lightly. But there’s a difference between taking it seriously and being too afraid of it to benefit from it. If someone has Christ for their Saviour (and is of age, and not ignorant, and not scandalous) then they should feel both the weight and the kindness of their Saviour’s requirement to take part in this ordinance in remembrance of him – this sacrament is a special gift from him, and it’s designed to be helpful.

actively offering

Hugh Martin in his work on the atonement devotes a chapter to ‘Christ’s priestly action in his death.’

… in this transaction of the death at Calvary he combined the two apparently antagonistic attitudes of suffering and offering – suffering unto such extent and such intensity as would have quelled all the active powers … of any but a divine person; and offering also in such activity, and such unquelled and excelling triumphant action, as if no suffering were making drain upon his active powers at all – this is the apparent paradox in the death of Christ …

[Terms like his ‘passion’ concentrate attention on the aspect in which Christ appears as the victim, only enduring and being subjected to suffering.] We must never cease to affirm that this representation of the cross is most inadequate. It exhibits the cross as the emblem and scene of patience merely, while it conceals those glorious and glorifying aspects of it in which it is seen to be an altar of priestly agency, a throne of powerful action, and a chariot of victory and triumph. It represents Christ’s activity as subdued and overborne, or at least in abeyance. It [omits to mention] the grand consideration … that Christ’s actual putting forth of power, and his official, and obedient, and positive agency … prevailed to put forth their energy … precisely against an inconceivable combination of agencies and instruments naturally fitted, had that been possible, to subdue and overbear them. Earth, and hell, and heaven: earth’s rulers and her rabble; her kings, and priests, and soldiers, and malefactors assailing him; her Jews and Gentiles; her dumb creatures even; earth’s forests furnishing wood, earth’s streams refusing water, earth’s bitterness mingled in vinegar and gall, earth’s curse embodied in her thorns, in mockery and pain to crown him, earth’s founded steadfastness refusing to support him, and her firmament to shine upon him; hell’s utmost force and fury gathered up against him; heaven’s sword devouring him, heaven’s God forsaking him – earth, and hell, and heaven thus in conspiring action against him, unto the uttermost of heaven’s extremest justice and earth’s and hell’s extremest injustice – what is the glory of the cross, if it be not this, that with such action conspiring to subdue his action, his action outlasted and outlived them all, and he did not die subdued and overborne into dying, he did not die till he gave himself to death? Emmanuel a mere sufferer in his death! ‘The Logos of the Cross is the Power of God.’

Among some of the more obvious testimonies to the doctrine that the death of Christ was an action of his priestly office may be reckoned the assertion of Isaiah that ‘he poured out his soul unto death;’ the phrases frequently used by the apostle Paul, that ‘he loved the Church and gave himself for it,’ and, specialising this love and loving service to the individual believer, ‘he loved me, and gave himself for me;’ and again, ‘Christ also hath loved us, and hath delivered himself for us an offering and sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savour,’ and again, ‘when he had by himself purged our sins.’ The doxology of John: ‘Unto him that loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood.’ The frequent expressions of the Lord himself: ‘The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his live a ransom for many;’ and, very specially, his ever-memorable account of himself as the Good Shepherd, ‘The good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep.’ So solicitous is our Lord on this point that he repeats it again and again, in the strongest and most emphatic terms, positive and negative alike: ‘No one taketh it from me, I lay it down of myself.’ And so powerfully does he bring out the idea of his own agency being concerned in his death that he places it on a level with the agency he should put forth in his resurrection, and represents obedient action equally in the two cases as constituting jointly what his Father’s commandment had enjoined up on him, and what his Father’s love and approbation rested in so complacently: ‘Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No one taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself – at my own instance, of my own will, by my own deed – I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment received I of my Father.’

In the unseen spiritual world, while his body was hanging on the cross, he was ‘pouring out his soul unto death,’ in spontaneous action of his own, as self-instigated, self-sustained, self-controlled as was that of Aaron when he [brought the two goats]. No priest ‘standing daily ministering and offering often times’ was ever more free from coercion in his office, or so gloriously active in discharging it, as this man when he offered one sacrifice for sins. Nor did this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins, for ever sit down on the right hand of God a more free and more powerful agent than when he offered that sacrifice which earned him the throne. We speak of his ‘doing’ and his ‘dying.’ His dying was his grandest doing. The light and evidence of his active obedience, instead of paling on the cross, shines out there most brilliantly of all – shining down the darkness of death, and of the frown of incensed justice, till the dark frown passes off from the face of the Eternal Judge, and the light of a Father’s countenance is lifted on the obedient Son in the moment of his saying, ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.’ The Father’s will is done. It is done by the Eternal Son, through the Eternal Spirit. Consentient actings of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost fill the death of Christ with action and with power unparalleled and transcendent; and the Logos of the cross is the power of God.

_____________

Hugh Martin, The Atonement: in its relations to the Covenant, the Priesthood, the Intercession of our Lord. First published 1870. These excerpts from the Knox Press reprint, 1976 (minus verse references; italics original).

friends and enemies

At the time when Pilate and Herod made friends, there was an astonishing contrast between the united front of the enemies of Jesus and the complete disarray of his friends. (‘And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves,’ Luke 23: 12.)

At this time, the kings and princes of the earth were combining and conspiring against the Lord’s Anointed. Judas betrayed him to an armed squad of chief priests, captains of the temple, and elders. The whole multitude of the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes took him to Pilate. Herod and his men of war set him at nought and mocked him. The people all shouted together that he should be crucified. All these groups coalesced in their desire to have Jesus destroyed. Whatever normally divided them, they now discovered a common cause in wanting rid of him.

Meanwhile, Jesus stood alone. The disciples had fled and scattered. Their perplexity and confusion must have been extreme – they had trusted that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel, and that now seemed impossible. It must have been incomprehensible, not to mention how the circumstances were so shocking and so humiliating. Their Saviour was being put to death as if he was a common criminal, and who could fathom what that would mean for the trustworthiness of God or their soul’s salvation.

But the reality of the whole situation was nothing like how it appeared on the surface. On the one hand, the isolation of Jesus’ followers was quite illusory. In fact, this was the one time when their oneness and unity was most starkly real. Although Jesus was standing alone, he was standing for them all. They were all gathered up together in him, and taking them as a most complete whole he was caring for them, acting for them, and holding them completely safe. He looked, and there was none to help, and he wondered that there was none to uphold – therefore his own arm brought salvation. He died for us, they would later realise. It was one for the many. As he was their covenant representative, the interests of these many, their pasts, their sins, their futures, their souls’ salvation, were all condensed and concentrated into one burden that he carried alone, and everything for them depended on how he would succeed in what happened on the cross.

And on the cross, on their behalf, he was successful – a conqueror, victorious. Not just that he suffered voluntarily (although there is something impressive about voluntary suffering), and not just that he complied with the Father’s will and fulfilled all the prophecies about himself. He was victorious on the cross in the sense that he actually achieved what he had to do, and really defeated his and his people’s enemies. He actually made atonement, he actually propitiated the wrath of God and actually expiated their sins. He really and truly spoiled principalities and powers, triumphing over them in his cross. All he did was for his people – all those innumerable individuals collected together and considered as lined up behind him, sheltering under his care, carried on his strong shoulders, united to him, identified as one with him.

Meanwhile, the united front of his enemies was itself a facade. Although they all had in common an inveterate hostility to God, they each took their own way of expressing it, and combined with the others only to the extent that it suited their own selfish ends. Everyone on the broad way carves out their own track to walk in, and the root cause of their befriending any fellow travellers is never honestly altruistic. Although it is a fact that they too have their own covenant representative in Adam, this is something they grudge against and resent – they would disown their first father if they could, so as to stand on their own two feet and speak in their own defence, no matter how impotent and incompetent they are to do so. This all-consuming impulse to individualism means that they accept neither their own covenant representative, Adam, nor the only other possible covenant representative, Christ. In spite of Christ being a fully qualified Saviour who invariably saves to the uttermost, it’s the hardest thing of all for a sinner to entrust themselves to him – the most entrenched position of the sinner’s heart is their determined resistance against giving up their autonomy to anyone else on the question of their soul’s salvation, their wilful insistence on staying responsible for their own eternal destiny, even though the strategy is suicidal.

So although a Pilate and a Herod may temporarily join forces to reject the Lord and his Anointed, there is ultimately no more lonely place than to stand in opposition to Jesus. In the confrontation between individual me and the holy God, there is no question but that things are hopeless for that sinful puny I – and that that hopelessness persists however many other individuals also choose to array themselves against him. The only thing that guarantees a lasting and honourable solidarity, or meaningful acceptance, belonging, togetherness, is oneness with Christ – it’s the oneness of his people in Jesus that overrides all their differences, and makes it certain that they all will be forgiven and kept eternally safe. It’s because he lives, that they will live also.

loved for who you are

I read an article recently (ish, a couple of weeks ago) which wound up with the claim that Christianity was a religion where you can be loved and wanted simply for who you are, not for what you achieve.

This was one of Giles Fraser’s columns in the Guardian, and it made some very worthwhile points. It was helpful in particular where he targeted the misguidedness of a perennially shallow view of religion, which sees failure in anything that doesn’t meet materialistic and grandiose metrics of worldly success (‘… a successful priest ought to be hated rather than feted’). This is as much a necessary rebuke to Christians besotted with big visions and seduced by what Luther diagnosed as a ‘theology of glory’ instead of the ‘theology of the cross’ as a it is a courageous defence against misdirected criticisms from outwith Christianity.

But although it’s right to lift the burden of the pressure to do something or achieve something to earn favour and acceptance, I couldn’t help feeling that the point is being missed somewhat by shifting the burden onto ‘who you are’ or ‘who I am’ as the alternative basis of acceptance.

Of course, there is a lot to be said for the ‘who you are’ principle as a principle for how we should treat each other. None of us has the right to despise anyone for being unsuccessful, or a failure. No matter how weak, needy, disadvantaged, uncool, underwhelming, and unimpressive a person may be, they have intrinsic worth and dignity as a human being – certainly made in God’s image and sometimes also new-made in Christ’s – which means they should be accepted and valued just for being. It’s not what my neighbour does or what they have or what they’ve done or what they’ve failed to do that conditions the love I owe to them, but simply the fact that they are my neighbour, my fellow human being. This principle cuts across age, gender, race, class, disability, nationality, violations of the first commandment, violations of the seventh commandment, and any other way or combination of ways we have of classifying ourselves as human beings.

But that’s a principle for us as we relate to each other, all on a par as we are as the fallen sons and daughters of Adam, needing to subdue the worst excesses of our fallenness to make life on the earth we share bearable. It isn’t something that binds God. 

How could God, in fact, love us for who we are? What are we, after all? if not guilty, unkind, self-indulgent, gossiping, grudge bearing, grasping sinners. And that’s just for starters – before you even mention godless, unrepentant, disbelieving, and disobedient. So if that’s what we are, unreconstructed walking exhibits of instinctive selfishness and innate hypocrisy, we’re thoroughly unlovely, including in the eyes of the God of love.

The secret of Christianity, its unique and counterintuitive core, is Christ for us. It’s not that God loves us for who we are, but that he loves us for who Christ is. Christ deserves all the love God has to give. It’s totally obvious and right and proper that God would love Christ, at the same time and for the same reason as he is angry with sinners and opposed to their sins. This is why it matters to be a Christian – a follower of Christ – to be identified with Christ, one with Christ, devoted to Christ – to renounce our selves in repentance and to commit ourselves to him in faith.

As far as God is concerned, we stand or fall entirely on our relationship to Christ. Haven’t we ever prayed, ‘For Jesus’ sake, amen’? This is why we have to. It has to be for Christ’s sake. If we won’t have anything to do with Christ, God will certainly never love us savingly for who we are. But if he finds us in Christ, he loves us and accepts us and values us as completely as he does Christ, who is altogether lovely.