I, yet not I

Salvation is strangely both ‘all about me’ and at the same time ‘not about me at all.’

In some aspects, it is or has to become intensely personal.

In order to be saved, things have to get personal. God, who is real, needs to become real to me. I need to understand that I have sinned and I need to embrace Christ as my Saviour from sin.

Then, in order to get the comfort of salvation, things have to be personal. If Christ is my Saviour then I am forgiven and accepted and loved and cared for and will be brought safely through to the end – all the blessings of redemption belong to me for my benefit and encouragement.

But in other ways, this “I” is the least important of all.

Election – In a past eternity, God elected some and not others to eternal life. He did this out of his mere good pleasure. Although it’s important to know that each one of them is precious and loved individually, yet none of them had any say in their own election and they weren’t elected on the basis of any characteristics of their own. Neither their good qualities nor their pitiableness nor their desperate need played any part in the Father’s choice – his reasons were all in himself, not in them.

Regeneration – At some point in time, God acts on the soul to bring that person from spiritual death to spiritual life. It is as impossible for someone to regenerate themselves as it is for someone to give birth to themselves. The initiative is his, not theirs.

Justification – Justification is an act of God which completely bypasses our involvement. Goodwin says you’re more capable of ordering a conjunction of the planets than of arranging your own justification. The counter-imputations of sin and righteousness happen in a realm utterly beyond our ability to influence – the sentence of God the Father on the basis of the merits of the Son in human nature.

Sanctification – Faith and repentance, the twin first acts of the newly regenerated soul, are my acts but his gift. Dying more and more to sin and living more and more to righteousness do of course involve my faculties and my effort, but the motivation, the empowerment, and the model are outside of myself. And growth in grace in general is much less about what we do and achieve, and more about what we suffer or (for a less emotionally loaded term) what we are given to experience and undergo. We are shaped, we are changed, we are developed and taught, much more by what happens to us than by what we achieve. And it’s an infallible principle that the bigger self is, the less holy we are. Those of the Lord’s people who are the most sanctified are the ones whose own will is less wilful, who are the most ready to accept and learn from God’s Word and providence instead of resisting and wanting things their own way, who are increasingly dependent on and decreasingly independent of their Saviour. We would be more holy if we were more absorbed with the greatness and goodness of God, than of ourselves: it’s not about us.

The salvation of millions of individual people, each one loved and redeemed individually, is essentially of the Lord. Each individual saved sinner can say, I get the benefit – but each one confesses, it’s not on my initiative, I don’t contribute anything, and I don’t get the glory.

four months


Well, the sproglet is now almost 4 months old. But I don’t have anything new or interesting to say about babies (being pregnant was exasperating from beginning to end, giving birth wasn’t much fun, and looking after a baby is all-consuming) (- just to prove the point).

So on here it will just be the same old same old.

Like – the first thing I read once the baby arrived, other than, of course, facebook, was Thomas Goodwin on saving faith.

This was really just revisiting familiar territory, in a concession to the mush that my head had/has become. The page I opened at said this:

“… though promises are the means by which we believe, yet it is the promiser that is the basis or the foundation on whom our hearts ultimately and quietly rest for the performance [of what is promised].”

And this was helpful. The scriptures are full of great and precious promises. Sometimes they seem almost too good to be true and too much to hope for, although obviously their credibility comes from God’s faithfulness, not from our optimism, our grasp of them, or the circumstances looking likely.

But more to the point, even when we do believe them, there is a problem if we end up fixating on the things promised at the expense of the one who does the promising. We’ll take his stuff, we’re not so concerned about him. We like the spiritual comfort and we like our providences running smoothly, but with the promise known to be guaranteed we then disloyally relax leaving the Lord in the background of just a corner of our lives. If only we would believe the promises by quietly resting our hearts more and more on the covenant keeping God.

(Ps – no more gratuitous baby photos, I promise!)

hello world

DSC_0020_3A fortnight ago our baby boy made his appearance. He came four weeks early, taking us all by surprise – I hadn’t even started my maternity leave, far less packed a hospital bag. Apart from being pretty small, he’s healthy and contented, and so are we. Photos and vital statistics are on facebook for anyone interested.

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.