justice and grace

There is a passage in the epistle to the Romans which states that the provision of redemption in Christ Jesus, and the setting forth of Christ to be a propitiation, is emphatically something which shows God to be just, as well as the justifier of those that believe in Jesus. Two comments on this passage are as follows.

In The Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement, George Smeaton says this.

“The allusion is to the concurrence or harmony of these two attributes of God. The word just, applied to God, means that he asserts just claims and inflicts just punishment. …
This determines the character of the atonement. Such language would be unmeaning, if it were not admitted that the atonement is in the proper sense of the word a satisfaction of divine justice. … And when the apostle adds, ‘that he might be just, and the justifier,’ he alludes to the fact that these two apparently conflicting perfections, justice and grace, meet in full harmony on the cross: justice suffers no violence, and grace has full outlet.”

Matthew Henry in his Commentary says this.

“He declares his righteousness, first, in the propitiation itself. It appears [or is made apparent] that he hates sin, when nothing less than the blood of Christ would satisfy for it. Finding sin, though but imputed, upon his own Son, he did not spare him, because he had made himself sin for us. Secondly, [he declares his righteousness] in the pardon upon that propitiation. It is now become not only an act of grace and mercy, but an act of righteousness, in God, to pardon the sins of penitent believers, having accepted the satisfaction that Christ by dying made to his justice for them. He is just, that is, faithful to his word.”

Two things need to be borne in mind in considering God’s justice in the scheme of vicarious atonement. One is what the puritans spoke of as the exceeding sinfulness of sin, which the whole discussion makes no sense without. The other is the concept of imputation, and the reality of the transaction that that term describes. Neither of which I’m in a position to develop right now, but it’s worth putting the markers down.

NB: I’m unlikely to be back online now until Wednesday at the earliest. Feel free to carry on, but I might not read it till Thursday.


making us unfree

Here’s a recent article by AC Grayling on the government’s latest effort to chip a little bit more away from our freedoms: “In the Queen’s speech this autumn Gordon Brown’s government will announce a scheme to institute a database of every telephone call, email, and act of online usage by every resident of the UK. It will propose that this information will be gathered, stored, and “made accessible” to the security and law enforcement agencies, local councils, and “other public bodies”.”

He says,

“This fact should be in equal parts incredible and nauseating. It is certainly enraging and despicable. Not even George Orwell in his most febrile moments could have envisaged a world in which every citizen could be so thoroughly monitored every moment of the day, spied upon, eavesdropped, watched, tracked, followed by CCTV cameras, recorded and scrutinised. Our words and web searches, our messages and intimacies, are to be stored and made available to the police, the spooks, the local council – the local council! – and “other public bodies”.

[Our politicians claim to be protecting us:] protecting us – by making us all suspects, all potential criminals and terrorists – from terrorism and criminality. Well: the first duty of our politicians should be to protect our liberties, and to encourage us to see that liberty carries risks, which we should be trusted to understand and accept so that we can make our own lives our own way. But no: these politicians – Brown and Labour, once the party of the people – are going to keep us safe by not keeping our liberties safe; they are going to keep us safe by making us unfree. Yet the putative benefit of protecting us from terrorism and crime is unattainable. They themselves say ‘there is no 100% guarantee of safety’: but they are going to spy on us all anyway! In fact they are going to create crime: a huge new criminal industry awaits for stealing, copying, falsely creating and manipulating that newly-created precious commodity, “identity”. A huge new impetus awaits for techno-crime to disrupt the monitoring and data storage systems on which the government intends to spend billions of our tax money, creating its unblinking eye in our bedrooms. As surely as night follows day, the new surveillance society will do more harm than good.

the grammaticality fairy

Over on Language Log, Geoff Pullum argues that this sentence is “clearly ungrammatical”:

  • This accounts for the fact that family sizes of seven, eight, or nine children were common in the nineteenth century but rare today.

– he argues that it doesn’t conform to the syntactic conditions on ellipsis (ie when you supply “were”, you end up with “family sizes of seven … were rare today”, which is illegitimate in English). The facts of syntax, he says, demand that when you have sentences of the form Verb1 + Adjective-phrase + Coordinator + Verb2 + Adjective-phrase, then Verb1 and Verb2 must share the same tense inflection (or both must be untensed) in order for the ellipsis to be possible (ie Verb + Adjective-phrase + Coordinator + Adjective-phrase).

There are several serious commenters expressing reluctance to accept this – and I hate to say it, but I can’t help agreeing. Shimon Edelman says,

The ontological status of “facts of syntax” (or grammaticality that’s independent from acceptability) is the same as that of the tooth fairy: there is no independent empirical evidence for it, and phenomena attributed to it can be better explained by other means.

It’s also reminiscent of this discussion we had earlier in a more phonology-oriented context:

As John Cowan says, “what people (as opposed to parsers) make when they react to natural-language utterances are not grammaticality judgements but acceptability judgements.”

Also a heads-up: I’ll be away from the computer all day tomorrow, and probably for most of Wednesday as well.

the means are decreed

Having just quoted what Boston says on how to live and act within a providence – and a scheme of redemption – that has been foreordained down to the last detail, I’ve now unearthed a note of something similar to go along with it.

God, having most certainly decreed everything, executes everything irresistibly – not in an unnatural, compulsory manner, but in harmony with the nature of his creatures.

Keep yourselves from using unlawful means, for then you are losing sight of God’s decree, thus expecting it from the means.

Use lawful means, and use them with the desire that God’s counsel would be accomplished, rather than having the intent to change it.

It was apparently said by Wilhelmus à Brakel (although I’m afraid I don’t have a reference for it in his own works).

the means he has appointed

Here is a lengthy excerpt from Thomas Boston’s famous book – the part where he explodes the myth that since sinners are so sinful as to be unable to save themselves, therefore there is no need to concern ourselves about our own salvation. He clearly explains that we must have a care for our own souls, and that we must express that care by making use of the ways and means that are provided in the gospel for sinners to draw near to God – particularly, reading the scriptures and praying for help.

Objection 3: But all this is needless, seeing we are utterly unable to help ourselves out of the state of sin and wrath.

Answer: Give not place to that delusion, which puts asunder what God has joined, namely, the use of means and a sense of our own impotency. If ever the Spirit of God graciously influence your souls, you will become thoroughly sensible of your absolute inability, and yet enter upon a vigorous use of means. You will do for yourselves, as if you were to do all, and yet overlook all you do, as if you had done nothing. Will you do nothing for yourselves because you cannot do all? Lay down no such impious conclusion against your own souls. Do what you can; and, it may be, while you are doing what you can for yourselves, God will do for you what you cannot. ‘Understandest thou what thou readest?’ said Philip to the eunuch; ‘How can I,’ said he, ‘except some man should guide me?’ (Acts 8:30-31). He could not understand the Scripture he read, yet he could read it: he did what he could, he read; and while he was reading, God sent him an interpreter. The Israelites were in a great strait at the Red Sea; and how could they help themselves, when on the one hand were mountains, and on the other the enemy in pursuit; when Pharaoh and his host were behind them, and the Red Sea before them? What could they do? ‘Speak unto the children of Israel,’ said the Lord to Moses, ‘that they go forward’ (Ex. 14:15). For what end should they go forward? Can they make a passage to themselves through the sea? No; but let them go forward, saith the Lord: though they cannot turn the sea to dry land, yet they can go forward to the shore. So they did; and when they did what they could, God did for them what they could not do.

Question: Has God promised to convert and save those who, in the use of means, do what they can towards their own relief?

Answer: We may not speak wickedly for God; natural men, being strangers to the covenants of promise (Eph. 2:12), have no such promise made to them. Nevertheless they do not act rationally unless they exert the powers they have, and do what they can.

For, 1. It is possible this course may succeed with them. If you do what you can, it may be, God will do for you what you cannot do for yourselves. This is sufficient to determine a man in a matter of the utmost importance, such as this is (Acts 8:22), ‘Pray God, if perhaps the thought of thy heart may be forgiven thee.’ (Joel 2:14), ‘Who knoweth if he will return?’ If success may be, the trial should be. If, in a wreck at sea, all the sailors and passengers betake themselves each to a broken board for safety, and one of them should see all the rest perish, notwithstanding their utmost endeavor to save themselves, yet the very possibility of escaping by that means would determine that one still to do his best with his board. Why then do not you reason with yourselves, as the four lepers did who sat at the gate of Samaria? (2 Kings 7:3-4). Why do you not say, ‘If we sit still,’ not doing what we can, ‘we die;’ let us put it to a trial; if we be saved, ‘we shall live;’ if not, ‘we shall but die?’

2. It is probable this course may succeed; God is good and merciful; He loves to surprise men with His grace, and is often ‘found of them that sought him not’ (Isa. 65:1). If you do this, you are so far in the road of your duty, and you are using the means, which the Lord is wont to bless for men’s spiritual recovery: you lay yourselves in the way of the great Physician, and so it is probable you may be healed. Lydia went, with others, to the place ‘where prayer was wont to be made;’ and ‘the Lord opened her heart’ (Acts 16:13-14). You plough and sow, though nobody can tell you for certain that you will get so much as your seed again: you use means for the recovery of your health, though you are not sure they will succeed. In these cases probability determines you; and why not in this also? Importunity, we see, does very much with men. Therefore pray, meditate, desire help of God, be much at the throne of grace, supplicating for grace, and do not faint. Though God regard you not, who in your present state are but one mass of sin, universally depraved, and vitiated in all the powers of your soul, yet He may regard prayer, meditation, and the like means of His own appointment, and He may bless them to you. Wherefore, if you will not do what you can, you are not only dead, but you declare yourselves unworthy of eternal life.

Thomas Boston, Human Nature in its Fourfold State. First published Banner of Truth

theta rolls for phonologists

While Antony Worrall Thomson recommends spicing up your salads with henbane, the Linguist List has some alternative suggestions.

Assimilation Delish

1 small vocalic system
2 voiceless obstruents
2 alveolar sibilants
1 tsp of homorganic riser

Cooking Instructions
First, carefully wash all vowels until all nasality disappears.
Fully open the mid-high vowels over a white cloth, and let them settle until the drift subsides. Heat up a large, non-stick syllabic structure (CCVCC works best). When smoking, carefully place all the vowels in cardinal order (important!) and let them lengthen a little. Place the voiceless obstruents in between the gaps, stirring slowly with a wooden palatograph. When the obstruents voice, place the alveolar sibilants on top of the front vowels and press firmly until all sibilants palatalize.
Remove from system before general unrounding occurs.
Accent to taste with homorganic riser and serve hot by itself or as an accompaniment to dialect soup.

See also Diglossia with Onion Rings and Post-Creole Continuum Roll

Apologies to the non-linguists.

little sinners

Robert Traill says:

“The greater the sinner be, the greater is his need of a Saviour, and the saving of the chief of sinners brings the chief honour and glory to the Saviour. … Though there be greater and smaller sins and sinners, yet no man ever did, or can, believe as a little sinner.

Least, and less than the least, of all saints, we find [a great saint saying], Eph 3:8. But never did any true saint either think or call himself a little sinner. For as no man that seeth sin truly can call any sin small or little, so no man that seeth himself to be a sinner really can count himself a small or a little sinner. Nor can it ever be, till there be a little law to break, a little God to offend, a little guilt to contract, and a little wrath to incur. All which are impossible to be, blasphemy to wish, and madness to expect.”

hitchens vs lennox

I know it’s a bit belated, but I have to tell you about the debate I was at on Saturday, between the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens and the also relatively famous Christian apologist John Lennox. The motion they were debating was, ‘The new Europe should prefer the new Atheism,’ a motion which gives plenty scope for intriguing discussion in itself, but also – perhaps deliberately – backgrounded some of the more commonly debated fundamental issues surrounding the tenability of the new atheism as a worldview.

Oddly enough, there wasn’t much in what Hitchens said that I found particularly objectionable. He discussed the Danish cartoons controversy in terms of how appalling it would be if Europe turned into an Islamic theocracy, as indeed it would be, then mentioned a few other things which he disapproved of (such as teaching creationism in schools and selling indulgences), pointing out that they were religiously motivated – as indeed they are. Nor in fact was he as offensive as I might have feared. Hitchens strikes me as charming, entertaining, and also ruthlessly ferocious in his denunciations of religion – I went prepared to steel myself against the arrogance and merciless scorn which I perceive (I’m sorry to say) as the clearest hallmarks of the New Atheism. Yet, strangely, all guns blazing he wasn’t. And although he rounded off by saying that the New Europe should adopt secularism as a core value, if you were simply going on the contents of what he said in his 15-minute opening statement, he didn’t seem to be arguing particularly closely or strongly that ‘the new atheism’ should be the specific philosophy flavouring that secularism.

This left Lennox in the happy position of not having much to disagree with – and freed him up to expose those aspects and implications of the arguments embodied in the new atheism which are most problematic, and most undesirable – whether for any given individual, or more relevantly, for the New Europe as a whole. He brought up many of the most obvious popular apologetics arguments which serve as a convenient first line of defence when the choice is between the New Atheism and religion of any sort whatsoever. (It is interesting, if I can interpolate a comment of my own, that Hitchens seemed to act as though demonstrating the flaws in any religious system whatsoever, say militant Islam, is a demonstration that all religions of every sort are worthless, including Christianity as represented by, say, traditional Anglicanism. As if they were equivalent in any meaningful way.) Lennox mentioned, for instance, the need to distinguish between the use and abuse of religion, then went on to point out the way that Christian values underpin many of the aspects of European civilisation, including the freedoms which the new atheism makes use of in order to condemn (Christian) religion, and he also highlighted how illiberal it is of the new atheism to desire to eliminate religion from public and private life.

There followed a discussion based on questions from the floor. On two questions, there was what we can only call a mysterious and selective glitch in the sound system such that specifically Mr Hitchens was unable to hear or understand what was being said. One challenged his analysis of Russian militarism, giving points of information which undermined the argument he’d been making; the other came from an elderly and slightly doddery local gentleman, who wanted to know how an atheist would counsel the parents of a twenty-something involved in a tragic accident whose injuries couldn’t be treated by the doctors. For whatever reason, we didn’t hear a response from Mr Hitchens on either issue.

Another contribution from the floor was intriguing in a different way. Someone made the brief statement that she thanked John Lennox for defending her right to believe whatever she wanted, while believing she was going to suffer in hell eternally. Hard to tell if she meant it seriously – if she did, it was a generous acknowledgement that no reciprocal generosity is offered from the New Atheists, who, it would seem, are devoted in the main to ridiculing Christianity out of existence. Yet it remains perplexing that if people think about heaven and hell at all, they are automatically convinced that hell is their inevitable destination – as if heaven wasn’t a genuine alternative, or as if it wasn’t the case that (to paraphrase what someone said yesterday) everyone who ends up in heaven is someone who in themselves deserved the opposite.

The closing statement from Christopher Hitchens has also stuck in my mind. Rather than restate any of his arguments or rebut points raised by John Lennox, everything he said in conclusion was a new point which hadn’t been discussed in the preceding hour and a half. Specifically, he spent a lot of time on what he called vicarious redemption (neither redemption nor vicariousness had been mentioned at all previously). The strange thing was that he gave a passable and quite gripping account of what the gospel offers – someone to pay the debt of all your sins, so that you are no longer accountable for them – yet he twisted it round right at the end to exclaim over how immoral this scheme of redemption seemed to be to him. Setting aside the issue of where his standards of morality came from that allowed him to pass such a judgment, his condemnation of vicarious atonement (for so it would probably be better termed) is a fine example of nothing so much as breathtakingly missing the point: the counter-imputation of our sins and Christ’s righteousness is a scheme where the most absolute standards of morality and justice are preserved absolutely intact. As Romans 3 explains, in the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, God declares his righteousness: he declares, I say, his righteousness, that he might be just, and the justifier of those that believe in Jesus.

As I say, I don’t think Hitchens was on top of his scathing form, and I don’t think he presented much of a case for the New Atheism as a prescription for the New Europe rather than generic secularism – and on the positive side, Lennox heartily presented some upbeat recommendations, a vision for the new Europe based on the shared morality of its population, interacted with questions from the floor in a cheerful and non-patronising manner, and basically was geniality personified. Whatever made the difference, when they counted the numbers for and against the motion at the end, there was a clear majority opposing the motion. At least from what I could see, there were no fewer in favour of the motion compared to when the numbers were counted right at the start ahead of the debate, but the people who had identified themselves as don’t-knows had swung substantially against the motion. Whatever difference it makes.

extenuating circumstances

You don’t need to look far for evidence that humankind labours (now, post-Fall) in what the Shorter Catechism calls “a state of sin and misery.” And even though sin and misery can sometimes be dissociated, it is often the case that misery enters human experience as a result of sin.

A question for your consideration is, then, to what extent is it legitimate to pity people who have brought their misery on themselves very largely through their own sin? This seems to be one of the issues raised in a blogpost which I read a wee while back, where the writer seemed to be suggesting that being able to rationalise why someone committed a particular sin does not allow you to pity the sinner in their resulting misery – or at least not unless they are repenting of their sin.*

The writer argued like this (summarised):

I’m uncomfortable with the “here’s why {anyone} sinned, so feel compassion” line, as if a rationale for sin enables pity for the sinner. Let me explain why … [S]uppose … we were talking about adultery … a man who has committed adultery. … Are you interested in a discussion of why he did it, so you can feel more compassion for him? Do you want to hear about how cold, distant, and disrespectful his wife was? Do you want to hear about how she shamed him publicly, and shunned him privately? Do you want to hear about our society, the pressure it puts on men, the allurements to infidelity, and so on?
No, I’m sure you don’t. I don’t, either! In fact, I’d bet cash money that the percentage of readers ready to sympathize with Sinner A dropped dramatically when I shifted to Sinner B.
But why? Is sin sin, or is it not? Are some sins special sins?

Sin, the writer says later, is always inexcusable – and he also says (as I agree) there’s no use trying to alleviate people’s feelings of guilt by shirking the issue that they really are guilty.

Yet it would be a mistake to think that all sins are equally heinous, even considered in themselves. There are also various ‘aggravations’ which can enter in too, to borrow from the Larger Catechism: If a sin is committed (a) maliciously (b) against someone who has been very kind to you (c) in front of someone who is likely to be shocked by it (d) when you should know better, these factors give the sin a much greater aggravation than it would otherwise have, even supposing it was no more than a word or two. (Larger Catechism 151).

On the other hand, sins which are not attended with these aggravating factors should be correspondingly understood, still as sins, but as to some extent or another less heinous. People who have been underexposed to fully biblical values – who are unfamiliar with the practice (and viability) of living according to plain principles regardless of possible negative consequences – and who lack access to anyone who might help them through a moral dilemma – such people might well end up committing sins that would rightly be diagnosed as inexcusable, ugly, unnecessary, and repellent to God and man. Yet when flawed sinners find themselves in complex circumstances, are pressurised into taking the sinful courses of action which fallen creatures are only too ready to follow, and end up now suffering, whether from feelings of guilt and shame or anything more tangible: shouldn’t we feel compassion for them?

This applies more straightforwardly to some sins than others. In fact, Proverbs 6 makes a comparison between men who cheat on their wives (the blogger’s example), and the significantly less abhorrent and outrageous sin of someone who steals food to feed themselves when they’re starving. The thief is still a thief – the theft is ugly, repellent, and more – but if a greater percentage of readers was ready to sympathise with this sinner than with another sinner, that wouldn’t after all be such a bad thing.

And surely that goes for the consequences of sin too – even granting that it was a person’s sin that led to them making decisions which put them in difficult circumstances, the misery of their state calls for our compassion (considering, whoever ‘we’ are, we’re only sinners too) even though the sin of their-and-our state calls for their and our repentance. Imagine a situation where a mother acted in a way that brought such harm to her child that the child then died. Her action leading to the child’s death is undeniably sinful, but it can also easily be imagined that she may have acted as she did without realising the magnitude of what she was doing, or that there was any alternative course of action available to her, for example. If she now experiences guilt, depression, and feelings of bereavement, it’s impossible to deny that it was her own bad actions that brought this on her, but surely it should also be extremely difficult to view her hard-heartedly, without some compassion for her misery – even though her misery is the result of her sin, and regardless, additionally, of whether or not she is repenting in the sight of God yet.

You don’t need to condone the sins that sinners commit, I suppose I’m trying to say, but surely compassion for our miserable fellow-sinners goes hand in hand with hatred for their and our sin as something that should characterise any Christian heart. Surely?


* (Seemed, I’m saying, since it feels like the point was inserted into the argument as a minor afterthought in spite of its greater apparent conceptual relevance to what sparked off the post in the first place; post is here if you feel like judging for yourself.)

guthrie’s inheritance

I recently picked up a second-hand copy of Christ and the Inheritance of the Saints – a collection of sermons by the nineteenth century minister Thomas Guthrie.

Although in more than one place the sermons in this volume are perhaps too elaborate in their rhetoric for my taste – settling down to read it, the first several pages made me wonder if it was such a great purchase after all – there are also some passages which present the truths of the gospel in a powerful and striking way, and apparently in his own lifetime he was one of the most popular preachers in the country.

This is an excerpt from an (undated) sermon on Colossians 1 v 14.

“To a man nigh unto death, who is labouring under some known and deadly malady, offer a medicine which has virtue to cure him, and he will buy it at any price; in his eyes the drug is worth all the gold on earth. But offer that, which he seizes, to one who believes himself to be in good and perfect health, and he holds it cheap.

Just so, and for a similar reason, the Saviour and his redemption are slighted, despised, and rejected by many. They have no adequate conception of their lost state as sinners, nor feel, therefore, their need of salvation. The first work, accordingly, of God’s Holy Spirit in conversion is to rouse man from the torpor which the poison of sin – like that of a snake infused into his veins, produces; to convince him of his guilt, and make him sensible of his misery. And blessed the book, blessed the preacher, blessed the providence that sends that conviction into our hearts, and lodges it, like a barbed arrow, there. For to an awakened and alarmed conscience, how welcome the Saviour!

Let a man, who felt secure, see himself to be in great danger, discover that he is a poor, polluted, perishing sinner, lost, under sentence of death, deserving the wrath of God, separated from hell only by a crust of earth … ah! he understands the import of the words, ‘Unto you therefore who believe, he is precious.'”

Thomas Guthrie was in some way descended from the Covenanter James Guthrie (whose cousin William Guthrie wrote The Christian’s Great Interest). A friend of Thomas Chalmers and Robert Murray McCheyne, he took a great interest in poor relief and other philanthropic ventures and was heavily involved in the Disruption of 1843. His statue on Princes Street shows him with presumably an orphan child under one arm and an open bible in the other, neither of which comes out terribly clearly from the angle I took the picture at, but at least the inscription should be relatively legible.

Thomas Guthrie DD

Preacher — Philanthropist