difficult question

One of the striking features about the mass of biblical evidence about conversion is the huge diversity in the kinds of sinners that have been converted. Blasphemers, thieves, fornicators, murderers, the covetous, the foolish, the pharisaical. All sorts of sins, all sorts of sinners, have been and can be forgiven.

Which makes it difficult to know what to make of the unforgiveable sin. It is a fearfully troublesome thought, the consideration that the God of all grace, whose work is to save, deals with some sinners as having committed a sin which is ‘unto death’. But we know that not every blasphemous word spoken against the Holy Spirit is unforgiveable – not every rejection of Christ, not every turning your back on the means of grace – because sinners who were guilty of all these things have been saved. At one stage they had abandoned their praying and bible-reading and churchgoing, and were resisting salvation by Christ, and had dishonoured the Holy Spirit – but subsequently they were forgiven and converted.

If characteristics can be provided of someone who has committed the unforgiveable sin, they would seem to include a kind of hardness against anything related to God and the gospel, accompanied by a spirit of deliberate malice and hatred against the Saviour, in the context of having previously had such acquaintance with the gospel and the way of salvation that they know full well how spiteful and baseless their attitude now is. People who are afraid they may have committed the unpardonable sin, haven’t. Such a fear is incompatible with the shameless, flaunting, knowing derision which is directed against the gospel by those who have committed it.

Of course, when a person is confronted with the gospel – that a full and free salvation is provided by Christ and that whosoever believes in him shall be saved – there’s no excuse ever for rejecting it and treating it with disbelief or unbelief. But although this is the default sin of humankind, and it can’t be avoided that this sin itself “deserves God’s wrath and curse,” and should be repented of immediately, yet for as long as it is not accompanied by those extra characteristics, I don’t think it can be called the unforgiveable sin.

This is still true in cases where people used to attend church (and maybe made a profession of being converted) but have subsequently fallen away. There are many reasons why a person could end up where they no longer think they are a Christian, without having committed the unforgiveable sin. Perhaps they were converted but have slipped into a sluggish, worldly, backslidden condition where their prayer should be, “Draw me and I will run after thee; heal my backslidings and love me freely.”

Or perhaps they never were converted in the first place: lots of people don’t know very well what makes them claim to be a Christian, there are plenty ‘nominal’ Christians whose spiritual experience never went heart-deep, and many people rely too much on the opinion and encouragement of their churchgoing friends in deciding their spiritual status rather than giving scriptural diligence to make their calling and election sure. These people’s prayer should be, “Lord, show me myself, and show me thyself; God be merciful to me a sinner.”

In the end, the priority has to be to obtain mercy while mercy is available. The scriptures urge this on us: there is plenteous redemption to be found, but the opportunity to find it may not continue indefinitely. Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord, for he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.


some changes

1) – added a new book review (a biography of George Smeaton); click here or find it via the “Books” tab at the top of the page.

2) Behind the scenes, I’ve:

  • updated the ‘top posts’ selection down on the right hand side of the screen (based on a highly scientific algorithm which weights ‘number of times a post was viewed’ with ‘how much I like it’)
  • added links to the ‘most hotly disputed’ posts, for posts which attracted unusually large numbers of comments (although some of them are cheery discussion rather than outright dispute)
  • moved the list of recent comments to the top of the column on the right and increased the number of recent comments displayed
  • added a link in the blogroll to the other blogs I mentioned recently, unfortunately with a “z” compulsorily prefixed to make it appear last in the list thanks to the seemingly obligatory alphabetic ordering of items in this list

3) Also I’m still experimenting with the number of ‘replies to replies’ that I’m allowing. I’ve changed it back to three for the time being but if anyone has strong feelings about it I’m open to changing it again.

boston’s reasons

[I’m going to beg Boston’s pardon and give you a paraphrase rather than a direct quote (of the passage mentioned here).]

Reasons why people remain under the broken covenant of works

(a) It is natural to us. This covenant being made with Adam and with us in him, it is ingrained in the hearts of all men naturally. There are impressions of it to be found in the hearts of all, among the ruins of the fall. The law as a covenant of works was the first husband that human nature was wedded to, and so it is still natural to us to cling to it. See it:

  1. in men left to the swing of their own nature; they all go this way in their dealing with God for life and favour. All false religions agree in this, that it is by doing that man must live, although they hugely differ in the things that are to be done for life. … Consider all unrenewed men whatsoever, even those who have the knowledge of life and salvation and profess to have the hope of life and salvation in the way of the covenant of grace; yet in practice they stumble at this stumblingstone, Matt 5:3.
  2. in those who are awakened and convinced of sin, and are in moral seriousness seeking to know what course they should take to be saved, and putting all effort into achieving this aim. They all take this principle for granted, that it is by doing that they must obtain life and salvation: Matt 19:16, ‘What good thing shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?’ Luke 10:25, ‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And this remains true even when they are pricked to the very heart, and the law as the covenant of works has wounded them to the very soul. They never think of a divorce from the law so that they may be married to Christ; but their concern is how they shall please the old husband so as to be saved from wrath.
  3. in the saints, who are truly married to Jesus Christ. What hankering there is after the first husband, how great the remains of a legal spirit, how hard it is for them to forget their father Adam’s house. There is a tendency to deal with God in the way of giving so much duty for so much grace and favour with God; even the best have to strive with it continually.

(b) The way of the covenant of works is most agreeable to the pride of man’s heart. A proud heart will rather serve itself with the less than stoop to live upon free grace. Rom 10:3, ‘For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.’

Man must be broken, bruised, and humbled, and laid very low, before he will embrace the covenant of grace. While a broken board of the first covenant will do men any service, they will hold by it, rather than come to Christ – like men who will rather live in a cottage of their own, than in another man’s castle.

To renounce all our own wisdom, works, and righteousness, and to cast away as filthy rags all those garments which we have been at so much pains to patch up, goes wholly against the grain with corrupt nature.

(c) The covenant of works is most agreeable to man’s reason in its corrupt state. If one had asked the opinion of the philosophers, concerning a religion which taught salvation by a crucified Christ, and through the righteousness of another, they would have said it was unreasonable and foolish, and that the only way to true happiness was the way of moral virtue. The rabbis would have declared it scandalous, and would have maintained that the only way to eternal life was by the law of Moses. To this day, many learned men cannot see the reasonableness of the gospel method of salvation, in opposition to the way of the covenant of works. This is why our forefathers are in effect looked upon as a parcel of well-meaning simple men, whose doctrine must be reformed over again, and rendered more agreeable to reason. Even unlearned men: how they dispute against the gospel method, against the promise, against their believing their welcome to Christ when they are so sinful and unworthy!

(d) People remain under the covenant of works through ignorance and insensibleness of the true state of the matter, as it now is. There is a thick darkness around Mount Sinai, so that they who live under the covenant of works see little other than what they see by the lightnings which flash out now and then. Hence they little know where they are, nor what they are.

  1. They do not understand the nature of the covenant of works. Any notion they have of it is lame and weak, without efficacy. They do not see how forcibly it binds to perfect obedience and satisfaction, how rigorous it is in its demands, and how it will abate nothing, even if a man were to work to the utmost of his power, and with cries and tears of blood seek forgiveness for the rest. They are not acquainted with the spirituality of the law, and the vast compass of the holy commandment: they stick too much in the letter of it, and narrow its demands, so that they may be the more likely to fulfill them.
  2. They are not conscious of their own utter inability for that way of salvation (by the terms of the covenant of works). They know they are off the way, and have wandered from God, but they hope they will get back to him again by repentance, while in the meantime their heart is a heart of stone and they cannot change it. They know they have sinned, and provoked justice against them, but they hope to be sorry for their sin, and to pray to God for forgiveness, and bear patiently any thing that God lays on them – while in the meantime they do not see that none of these things will satisfy God’s justice, which must have full satisfaction for every sin of theirs before they will see heaven. They know they must be holy, but they hope to serve God better than they ever have done, while in the meantime they do not consider that their work arm is broken, and that they can do nothing to purpose till they are saved by grace.

[Some way later, he begins to discuss this point:]

Christ’s fulfilling all righteousness, as the Surety and Representative of his people, is the grand and only condition of the covenant of grace

[But that will have to do for now – the post is already long enough.]

the broken covenant

Thomas Boston raises the question of why so many people, even in a Christian context, still “remain under the broken covenant of works”.

Boston’s covenantal theology is obviously far richer than can be adequately explored in a single blog post (he wrote 12 volumes himself after all) – but the covenant of works was the arrangement made with Adam, where if he would keep the terms of the covenant, eternal life would be granted to him and everyone he was representing. After Adam broke the covenant and fell, the covenant of grace was revealed, in which Christ would be the ‘second Adam,’ and would both keep the terms of the covenant and make reparation for the breach of the old covenant, on behalf of everyone he was representing.

It’s one of the consequences of the Fall that everyone who Adam represented (meaning, all the members of humankind) start out under the broken covenant of works – its requirements are still in force, namely the obligation to provide personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience to the moral law – and if life was assured for keeping it, death is equally assured for failing to keep it.

Still (and it was an insight profoundly recognised by the Reformation theologians), fallen human beings have a most persistent tendency to turn to the covenant of works when it comes to our dealings with God, as our judge and potentially our saviour – not, of course, that most people imagine it’s possible to keep it in its strictest terms, but modified in ways that seem appropriate to our fallen condition; clearly we can’t provide exactly the obedience that’s demanded by the moral law, but it can be easy to convince yourself that doing your best as often as you can will be acceptable to a merciful God, especially if you manage to get some extra help for inevitable awkward lapses and failings from some intervention by Jesus.*

Boston’s point, in an excerpt which I was going to quote at length but which will now have to be held over due to the amazing verbosity of what was going to be a couple of introductory comments, is that even when people are in a Christian context, and have some familiarity with the terms of the covenant of grace, and should know better, they still remain under the broken covenant of works. Why? The terms of the covenant of grace are much more attractive, you would think – instead of, Do this and live, the offer is, Christ has done and you can live. Instead of toiling under a hard taskmaster, we could just accept someone else’s finished work on our behalf. Rather than ruining our own souls, we could hand ourselves over to Christ to take care of our eternal affairs. So why do so ‘many in a Christian land still remain under the broken covenant of works’?

Boston’s suggestions are as follows, paraphrased in summary form, and I’ll try and flesh it out in a separate post later.

  1. Because it is natural to mankind, whether (i) entirely unacquainted with the gospel, (ii) concerned about their souls, or even (iii) believers
  2. It is most agreeable to the pride of the human heart
  3. It is most agreeable to human reason in the absence of gospel light
  4. People are not aware of the seriousness of the actual state of affairs, either in terms of (i) the rigorousness and spirituality of the law or (ii) their own utter inability to achieve salvation according to the terms of this covenant

To be continued.

* [Note in passing how fatally remote that package of wishful thinking is from the standard of ‘perfect, perpetual, and personal obedience’, whatever its veneer of plausibility and attractiveness might be. And still we keep falling for it.]

don’t go to moses

There are basically two options for what to do with an uneasy conscience. Given that the conscience is uneasy because it registers that you’re not living up to the standards God requires (never mind actually contravening them), and that guilt always attends sin, one common strategy is to put more effort into conforming better to the law.

Of course, the law, summarised in the ten commandments, is holy and just and good, and total conformity to it is only our duty. But when the law comes into contact with a sinner, it can only condemn.

Which means that hauling a guilty conscience to the law, or being driven to the law by a guilty conscience, can bring no relief. The most that the law can do for a sinner is inform them of what God is and expects, and force them to recognise how unable they are to keep it, and heighten their awareness of their sinfulness. Thus the first of the ten commandments requires us to worship God “by thinking, meditating, remembering, highly esteeming, honouring, adoring, choosing, loving, desiring, fearing of him; believing him; trusting, hoping, delighting, rejoicing in him…” but when we’re guilty of not esteeming him as highly as he deserves, all that the law can do is remind us of that fact, and show up the exacerbations of our sin. It can give you no power, no impetus, no ability, to give this required obedience. It is a hard taskmaster.

In the context of the divine revelation as a whole though, one further use of the law is to give sinners a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ. Not that the law can show us where to find him or how to approach him. But a sinner whose contact with the law leaves them with even less hope than they had before still has the possibility of hope, from another source.

The gospel does no injury to the law. It’s not that God is merciful and accepts sinners in spite of our sins. Rather God is merciful and accepts sinners because their sins have been dealt with. Every accusation the law makes against us is true, and can’t be ignored. But come now, saith the Lord, and let us reason together: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

Instead of an endless round of failing to live up to the law and trying harder and failing again, sinners are invited to leave the service of this taskmaster and subscribe themselves to Christ instead, who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree. ‘I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and as a thick cloud thy sins: return unto me, for I have redeemed thee.’ Sins thoroughly dealt with, blotted out, put away, the law deprived of the ability to condemn. Sinners don’t need to be perpetual slaves to their own sin, thwarted at every attempt to obey by personal corruption and guilty inability: the power of sin can be broken. The law needn’t be a taskmaster with a scourge to drive unwilling souls to painful attempts at obedience; it is possible to know the law as a friend and guide, and obey it in that spirit.

We can’t stand on our own feet in front of the accusing, condemning law. Surely we know by experience, or else it’s very easily put to the test, that we can’t live up to the law, and our endless failures can’t be lightly written off. The question is only whether we can consent to someone else standing in our place to meet its requirements. That’s admittedly humbling for a sinner too, even if in a different way than the humbling that the law inflicts, but in the balance against relief for the conscience and a new friendly relationship with the law in the hand of the Saviour, not to mention eternal security, it’s a small price to pay.

Prickly, uncomfortable, guilty consciences that won’t stoop to accept the pacifying that Christ offers in the gospel can’t expect to be quieted any other way, and especially won’t find satisfaction in scrabbling to curry favour with the law in the hand of Moses.

tone contact

Just been listening to a fascinating piece on Radio 4 about India and China competing against each other in a new ‘scramble for Africa.’ Someone said the Chinese involvement included lots of unskilled Chinese migrant workers living in their own parts of town, doing menial jobs – and speaking no English.

Which obviously made me long to know about the new pidgins that must be developing right now. Is anyone doing any work on this? What happens to the tonal systems when, say, Bantu speakers come in contact with a SE Asian tone language? Wouldn’t that be a cool phd topic for someone?

what the heavens declare

“The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God; but his word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation.” Westminster Larger Catechism q2.

Thinking the discussion on the previous post has got a bit unwieldy, I’m putting this out instead. (And how do folks like the ‘threaded’ comments? Too many levels of replies? Is it useful at all?)

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies, the day, the night – there is no tongue nor speech to which their voice does not extend. There’s no excuse for not seeing it, or not hearing it – the evidence not only of his being but his glory. (There is a reason for not recognising it, to be found in deepest darkest human likes and dislikes, but that’s not an excuse.)

But the most pressing concern ultimately is not to know the Creator, but to find a Saviour. So when it comes to an answer for how to convert the soul, and make the simple wise, and enlighten the eyes, and be cleansed from secret faults — the heavens and the earth and the workings of providence (and the moral law itself) – band together to say in chorus, It is not in me.

God the Father loved sinners in a past eternity and God the Son loved sinners and God the Holy Spirit loved sinners, and Christ came to die a vicarious atoning death and rose again, and the Spirit comes from Christ now to apply the salvation that Christ accomplished on Calvary. All of which is essential to know to be saved. None of which can be reliably known without revelation now inscripturated.

Which is why conversion and enlightenment and cleansing are attributed to: the law of the Lord, the testimony of the Lord, the statutes of the Lord, the commandment of the Lord, the fear of the Lord, the judgments of the Lord, the words of his mouth.

They are more to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover, by them one is warned, and in keeping of them there is great reward. When the Spirit takes things in hand, the ability is in the holy scriptures to make anyone wise to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.