an incomparable union

(This is what John Brown of Haddington says about the metaphors for the believer’s union with Christ.)

In attesting the reality of this union between Christ and believers, the Scripture represents him as in them, and them as in him (John 14:20, John 6:56, John 15:4, 5, 7, John 17: 21, 26, Colossians 1:27, 1 John 5:20, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Isaiah 14:17); and having him for their life (1 John 5:11, 12, Galatians 2:20, Colossians 3:3-4); and being partakers of him (Hebrews 3:14).

This spiritual union between Christ and believers, being exceedingly mysterious in itself, is in Scripture illustrated to us by many similitudes, some of which transcend it, and others are transcended by it.

1. It is likened to that union which is between the persons of the Godhead (John 17:21, John 14:20, John 6:57). But here it falls infinitely short, not being absolutely necessary, or self-existent; nor doth it constitute Christ and believers one individual substance.

2. It is likened to the union of Christ’s two natures in his person. For as his manhood was conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, we are born of the Spirit (Matthew 1:20, Luke 1:35, John 3:5, 6, 8, 1 Peter 1:3, 23, 1 John 3:9, 1 John 5:18) As Christ, by a sovereign act, assumed our nature, he by another apprehends our person (Hebrews 2:14, 16, Philippians 3:12). As in his manhood dwells all the fulness of Godhead, we, being in him, are filled with all the fulness of God (Colossians 3:9, 10, Ephesians 3:19). He, being made flesh, tabernacled with us, and we, being united to him, God dwells with us in him (John 1:14, Revelation 2:13, Ephesians 2:21-22, Ephesians 3:17). In him, as God-man, there is the grace of union, unction, and headship; and in us, as united to him, there is a gracious union, unction, and membership (John 1:14, 16, Colossians 2:19, Colossians 1:18).

Nevertheless, our spiritual union with him falls far short of the union of his two natures, as it doth not render him and us one person, nor, for a time, incapable of sin (Galatians 5:17, Romans 7:14-25, Romans 8:13). But it is indeed by that new nature which his self-uniting act forms in us that he holds fellowship with our soul (2 Peter 1:4, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:15); and which, by his gracious influence, mortifies our inward corruption, till it be utterly abolished (Romans 8:2, 13, Galatians 5:17, 24, Romans 7:14-25).

3. It is likened to the union between a king and his subjects, because he, as our brother, hath power over, cares for, rules, and protects us; and we are voluntarily subject to him, and have our eternal happiness dependent on his infinite wisdom, power, mercy, and honour (Revelation 15: 3, Matthew 25:34-40). But it is much more spiritual, close, and permanent.

4. As it imports mutual knowledge, choosing, and solemn self-dedication, and issues in mutual love, delight, and interest, it is likened to the marriage-union betwixt husband and wife (Ephesians 5:30, 32, Isaiah 54:5, Ezekiel 16:8-14, Song 2:16, Song 6:3). But here also it much transcends, as it renders Christ and believers one spirit, and can never be dissolved (1 Corinthians 6:16, 17, Philippians 2:5, 2 Peter 1:4, Colossians 3:3, Hosea 2:19-20).

5. To mark that their happy connections, support, and glory, depend on him, it is likened to the union of a building with its foundation or corner-stone (Isaiah 28:16, 1 Corinthians 3:9, 11, 17, Psalm 118:22, 1 Peter 2:4-5, Ephesians 2:20-22). But here also it far transcends, as Christ is equally near to every believer, and communicates life to every believer (1 Peter 2:5, Galatians 2:20, John 14:19, John 11:25).

6. Because through it we receive all our supporting, quickening, beautifying, and fructifying influences, it is likened to the union between the root of a tree and its branches (John 15:1-7, Colossians 2:7). But here also it far transcends, as Christ, our root, is equally near to all his branches, and not one of them can become altogether withered, barren, or broken off (Romans 7:4, Romans 6:14, Romans 8:35-39, John 10:28-29).

7. As we are enlightened, governed, honoured, and receive our spiritual, nourishment and breath through Christ, it is likened to the union between our head and other members of our body (Ephesians 4:15-16, 1 Corinthians 1:12, Colossians 1:18, Colossians 2:18-19). But it far transcends this, as Christ is equally near to every member, and none can be separated from him, or become utterly benumbed or mortified (John 14:16, 19, Colossians 3:3-4, Galatians 2:20, Isaiah 26:19).

8. As Christ enters into our soul, and is the very life of it, our spiritual union with him is likened to that of our soul, or of our food with our body (John 6:56-57, Colossians 3:4). But it is much more close, as Christ can never be separated from us, or cease to actuate us (Ephesians 4:16, Colossians 2:19, Galatians 2:28).

This union is formed in the work of effectual calling, in which Christ, by his Word and Spirit, invites, drives, and draws them to himself; and, in his powerfully applied declarations and offers of the gospel, conveys himself and his grace into their hearts. This effectual calling is the work of God (Romans 9:24, Romans 8:20, Romans 11:29, 1 Thessalonians 4:7); and is ascribed to the Father (1 Corinthians 1:9, 2 Timothy 1:9); and to the Son (Romans 1:6, 2 Peter 1:3); but, in a peculiar manner, to the Holy Ghost, as sent by the Father and Son to apply redemption to us (Romans 8:2, 2 Corinthians 3:6, Revelation 2:7, John 16:7-13, Ezekiel 36:26-27, Isaiah 44:3-5).

 

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same and equal

‘How many persons are there in the Godhead?’ asks the Shorter Catechism in Question 6.

The answer is, ‘There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.’

I’ve been reading through a collection of essays called, Retrieving Eternal Generation. One of the contributors is Chad Van Dixhoorn, with a chapter on the outputs of the Westminster Assembly. He gives the background to how the eventual wording of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms was arrived at.

“Cheynell had argued that the words ‘same’ and ‘equal’ were important. ‘Same’ emphasised unity, and ‘equal,’ in order to be intelligible, assumed diversity: ‘We do usually say that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are equall in power, to note a distinction of persons; but when we speak strictly, we do not say that the power of the persons is equall, but we say the power of the persons is the same, to note the unity of their essence.’ The use of these terms, both here [in the Shorter Catechism] and in the Larger Catechism, and the insistence on the unity of substance created a crisp (now classic) Trinitarian summary.”

Which shows, perhaps, both that we are pushing language to its limits when we try to put in words who and what God is, and also that there is merit in having and learning and steeping ourselves in the most careful forms of words available.

________________
C. Van Dixhoorn, ‘Post-Reformation Trinitarian Perspectives,’ in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 204.

Refresh

RefreshI’m grateful to Shona Murray for writing this book, Refresh: Embracing a grace-paced life in a world of endless demands (Crossway, 2017). It is both sensible and scriptural. It speaks to real problems that many people struggle with, and it distils some significant theological principles so as to speak clearly and accessibly to people’s needs.

The problem Dr Murray addresses is running out of energy for spiritual things, because of overdoing it in everyday things. Surely all believers get concerned at some stage or other about their lack of spirituality. But maybe not all believers have access to the pastoral sanity that recognises the complexity of the human person and the strange interactions within a person between the spiritual, the psychological, and the physical. It’s not as if spiritual problems (lack of assurance, lack of trust, feeling far away from God or forsaken by the Lord) are always only purely spiritual – occurring entirely in a vacuum detached from problems such as anxiety, depression, tiredness, illness, or social isolation. Rather, when people are run down and worn out by earthly, temporal things, they are more vulnerable to wavering in the spiritual domain too.

Murray’s advice to anyone who is struggling in this way is, correspondingly, both spiritual and practical.

On the spiritual front, Murray talks about a ‘grace-paced life.’ The abounding grace of God motivates his people to live lives of thankfulness. The accepting grace of God delivers his people from legalistic striving to earn or maintain his approval. The rewarding grace of God frees his people to be diligent in whatever they do while safely leaving the outcome up to him. The providential grace of God means his people can accept setbacks as part of his goodness. And the giving grace of God leads his people to receive the care he provides for them in the gifts of rest and comfort. Lives genuinely informed and deeply influenced by these aspects of God’s grace would surely be lived at a calm and steady, thankful and cheerful pace. (p12-14).

These principles have implications for practice. The book imagines you doing an induction session when you join a new gym. It walks you round a series of stations, a chapter for each, with advice for a different area of life at each one.

If I can summarise this advice, not so much in the way it is presented in the book as in the way it makes most sense to me, it falls into three rough categories.

The first would be, using the means. God provides us with all sorts of means to sustain life and make life comfortable. We need to eat, sleep, exercise, and plan our schedules, for example. We can’t casually regard ourselves as able to dispense with these ordinary means and still expect our lives (including our spiritual lives) to run successfully. There is a whole chapter on rest, for instance, which insists on the importance of getting enough sleep, exposing the myth that sleep is only for the weak, and the wrongheadedness of taking pride in how little sleep we can get by on. It is a useful feature of this book that Murray includes advice about these apparently very basic things, because the most spiritually minded saint is still a frail and finite human being who needs to recognise the frame that God has given us and live accordingly.

The second category of advice would be, using the gifts. God gives us (especially, privileged twenty first century Westerners) more than the bare necessities for mere existence. For example, medicine is a gift that is available for us to use when we need to and not despise. Murray provides a careful, thoughtful exploration of the value of taking antidepressant medication. ‘Don’t rush to take antidepressants … Don’t rule out antidepressants … Don’t rely on medication alone.’ (p141-148)

For another example, it is in God’s kindness that our lives do not need to be one unremitting drudge but that we can from time to time find enjoyment and restoration. Murray recognises two aspects of many women’s experience which are not often talked about in either evangelical or Reformed contexts. One is the demands of work. It is normal for women to work, and to work in pressurised roles. The other aspect of experience is how demanding motherhood can be. There is no pretence here that motherhood is some blissful, noble calling in which every mother finds nothing but joy and fulfilment. Looking after small children is hard, frustrating, boring, incessant work, and Murray, mercifully, acknowledges this.

She makes the point that people need to build in times of relaxation or refreshment at regular intervals – she says daily, weekly, and annually (p85ff). The daily refreshment is not your daily devotions, but a time to relax and do something enjoyable. The weekly refreshment is the sabbath (‘a joyful day of rest and refreshment centred on the worship of God…’) which is certainly a gift. The annual refreshment is a yearly holiday.

As something of an afterthought, Murray adds something called seasonal refreshment, by allusion to Solomon’s seasons and times. Seasons could be times of bereavement, relocation, retirement, etc., and the advice is to identify the season and adjust accordingly. Here there is also the briefest of mentions of hormones (cycles, pregnancy, nursing, menopause). This could perhaps have been usefully expanded on, because the interaction between hormones and spirituality is not straightforward. Just as you learn not to take it as a sure sign of new found tenderness in the things of grace when it’s really only the weepy phase of your cycle, you also learn not to over-commit wildly in the high energy phase, embarking on life-changing new regimes which are simply not sustainable, or even sensible, a few days later. However, individuals can work out their own way to follow the suggestion of “accepting reality and working with it, not against it,” and to avoid thinking that “I essentially have to ignore the constraints of my [current] season” (p99-100) and carry on regardless.

The third category of advice is thinking straight. The book gives comprehensive pointers to how to think accurately about ourselves and about God.

Murray opens her book with a description of an experience of burnout which will ring true for many people. She then gives examples of how to review your whole situation to see what warning signs there might be of a looming breakdown (and how to evaluate the seriousness of these signs). The warning signs range from physical and mental, through emotional, relational and vocational, to moral and spiritual. Previous generations of Reformed believers understood the value of self-examination. Plenty sources give questions we can put to ourselves to assess our spiritual condition (unconverted? converted? backsliding believer? growing in grace?). But the special strength of Murray’s ‘Reality Check’ chapter is that it takes a holistic view and invites us to think clearly and honestly about every aspect of ourselves, body and mind included, and our situations, taking in work and relationships as well as use of the means of grace.

Murray also constantly returns to how we should think of the Lord. He is glorious in himself and he deserves that we should glorify him. He has made us this way – frail creatures of dust, frail creatures of time. He looks after us and our families and our responsibilities when we are unable to, including when we are asleep or when we are ill. This adds up to helping us think straight about ourselves in relation to God. Our lives should be a response to his mercy and kindness. Other people’s amazing feats of endurance or success do not set the bar for any other one of us. As believers, if we see that he is in total control of providence, we can give up our selfish perfectionism. If we accept his verdict that we are sinners, we must also accept his verdict that we are dead to sin and alive to Christ, and live accordingly.

Refresh is not a book for everyone. It is not particularly for unbelievers, although there is advice here that anyone could act on, because the reader is assumed to be familiar already with the grace of God. It is not perhaps for believers who have lots of time on their hands, who might feel that as they do not live life at a frantic pace they have no excuse for a low spiritual condition. But it is, oddly enough, for people who think they are at no risk of burnout and are never going to find themselves dealing with depression. Even if a reader hasn’t slipped beyond the ‘stressed’ and ‘anxious’ stages to ‘burned out -> sad -> depressed -> suicidal,’ nobody is immune to the pressures of life lived in a fallen world, and everybody can benefit from a clearer grasp of their limitations and God’s provisions.

And Refresh is certainly helpful for those who are consciously struggling, who know that something is wrong, and who want to get their lives back on track to glorify God. Here is some friendly advice from a qualified, experienced confidant. God’s people in God’s providence need to make use of God’s means and God’s gifts, and God’s revelation of who we are and who he is. ‘Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.’

pulpits, women, and consciences

90791205If you’re looking for a way to grow in grace, it’s useful to know that the Holy Spirit makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word an effective means of building believers up in the faith.

‘Especially the preaching’ gives the priority to what comes from the pulpit. For feeding, for growing, for finding closer communion with the Lord, believers are meant to find what they need primarily from the Word as it is preached, by one of the Lord’s sent servants, in the assemblies of the Lord’s people, on the Lord’s day.

On one hand, this places a huge responsibility on preachers to say things that are not only true in general but relevant to the building up of believers – to rightly divide the Word of God so that they are in fact feeding the flock.

On the other hand, this means that believers should be cautious about expecting to find blessings that genuinely help them to grow in grace from other sources.

Unfortunately, however, there are plenty of other sources competing with preaching to be the place that believers look for help in the Christian walk.

For some reason, many of these sources target women in particular. There is an astonishing variety of ministries offering to help women make better, deeper spiritual progress.

I’m not entirely sure why this would be. Maybe women are particularly disadvantaged by poor preaching and therefore feel a greater need to look elsewhere for additional help. Maybe there are particular reasons why women face barriers to receiving the benefit of even good preaching (let’s just mention enforced absence from services because of childcare, or inability to concentrate properly in services because of childcare).

Or maybe Christian women have more reasons to struggle in the Christian walk more than Christian men? Christian mothers of young children, perhaps, have to shoulder the larger part of the responsibility of the round the clock demands of early parenthood. It is entirely possible that between an unpleasantly early start to the day, the school run, the cooking of meals that no one will appreciate, and failing to keep on top of housework, opportunities to read the Bible or pray seem to slip away before they’ve barely appeared.

In circumstances where it seems that your relationship with God is the remotest it’s ever been, your appetite for the Bible is sadly diminished, and your fervency in prayer has vanished, there can be something very attractive about a women’s ministry – advice or mentoring by women for women which understands the difficulties of your situation and offers hope of a renewed enthusiasm for the things of God.

Yet too many women’s ministries are not trustworthy and cannot deliver on what they promise.

The attraction comes from seeing articulate, relatable women describe their passion for the Lord and express their desire for others to rediscover their own joy and delight in God.

The problem is when their teachings, rather than feeding the soul, work like spiritual junk food – after an initial taste explosion, the actual nutritional value turns out to be minimal.

This happens any time when:

  • the theology is shallow. This inspirational speaker mentions the name of God, Christ, and the Spirit, but can you actually tell whether she believes in the Trinity?
  • the doctrines of grace are unclear. This passionate writer just can’t help magnifying the love, grace, mercy and kindness of God, but does she convey that God’s love provided a substitutionary atonement for a definite number of sinners?
  • the concept of sin isn’t fully biblical. Here’s a challenging blog post from someone who certainly doesn’t want you to think she doesn’t struggle with these issues herself. But the issues are more about the way you fail your family and friends and let yourself be taken prisoner by self-doubt than about the law of God.
  • emotions matter more than understanding. Here’s an intelligent writer who always offers some new insight when you read. But it’s insight into how you feel, or how you respond to people and things, or how your own behaviour holds you back – rather than explaining an important part of theology, or connecting the dots between one doctrine and another.
  • the overall effect is to make you feel good, rather than be holy. Here are some powerful bible study materials from someone who really understands how women get oppressed by low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, and the pressures of a hectic lifestyle. The support it offers helps you to stop feeling guilty about things you can’t change and move forward with more confidence and self-acceptance. But the concept of dying more and more to sin and living more and more to righteousness doesn’t feature so prominently.

Alongside the junk food problem is the fluff problem.

Mostly, these writers and speakers tend to be devotional, not doctrinal. This, it seems somehow, insulates them from scrutiny. When someone excitedly shares about their love for God and their heart for their sisters in Christ, inviting you to join them on a journey into a more peaceful way of living as you experience the transformative power of prayer and learn how to delight in authentic worship – how can you even hesitate?! It seems pedantic to pause and ask even basic questions like, What kind of Christian are you? Baptist? Presbyterian? Mormon? Do you identify with any recognisable statement of belief, articles of faith, creed or confession? How will I know if your spirituality springs from ideas and doctrines that are fundamentally different from mine and potentially harmful to my own spiritual exercises?

And the fluffiness, over time, clogs up the spiritual air we breathe and starts to stifle our consciences. Long term exposure to other people’s devotional output – when it isn’t modulated by the sound preaching of the Word – either has the result of making you feel inadequate, or making you feel virtuous.

Either of these results is problematic for the conscience. Any activity which involves someone comparing themselves against a moral standard so as to either accuse or excuse themselves is an activity which involves the conscience. When someone puts themselves forward as a Christian who can lead other Christians in devotional matters, their main sphere of activity is going to be the conscience. Leading people to query their standing before God and putting questions about the quality of people’s relationship with God are matters of self-examination which involve the conscience.

Since God alone is the Lord of the conscience, when someone confronts our conscience we have the right to ask what is their authority for doing so. Are you living a life that is truly devoted to God? Do you really pray with earnest wrestling prayer? Are you not, if you’re honest, enjoying other things more than the Bible? Before anyone starts examining themselves, they have the right to say in response to questions like these, ‘Who are you to ask?’

If these questions aren’t coming from the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture, or some legitimate church authority (namely your pastor or elder), you’re under no obligation to take them seriously. Because, after all, who are these people? In the worst case scenario, they’re unqualified, unaccountable, self-appointed, and disconnected. Unqualified in terms of any theology training. Unaccountable to you or your church, unless they happen to belong to your denomination. Self-appointed, because you don’t need any recognition or commission from any churchly authority to get blogging or start producing bible study materials. And disconnected, in the sense that you have no real relationship with them, they don’t really know you or your situation, and all that you likely know about them is the version of themselves that they choose to disclose online.

Obviously it’s not that a believer can’t chat frankly about their devotional life with a trusted friend or respected long-standing member of (say) their own church. But when someone starts putting out pointed questions for self-examination, and they’re unqualified, unaccountable, self-appointed, and disconnected, then, for the sake of our consciences, we need to remember that we’re under no obligation to confess our failings, and we’re certainly under no obligation to take their advice for how to put matters right.

In fact, for a believer to put themselves in the hands of someone else for assistance in their devotional life (someone unqualified, unaccountable, self-appointed, unconnected) is to run the risk of entangling their conscience all over again when Christ has set them free. If I compare my devotions with someone else’s – my level of passion for the Lord, my fervency in prayer, the authenticity of my worship experiences, the sweetness I find in the Word, the depth of my trust in God – I’m bound to acknowledge my inconsistencies and shortcomings. I’m bound to feel guilty. But Christ was supposed to have set my conscience free from feeling guilty about falling short of other people’s standards. It doesn’t matter how godly they appear, how exercised they seem, how relatable they are, or how motivating and inspiring and uplifting they try to be.

Believers are, after all, warned about the dangers of people who have an impressive appearance of godliness, but ultimately deny its power. We should really turn away from these people and have nothing to do with them, because unfortunately they have a knack of finding the believer’s weak spots and exploiting their gullibility. They look like they want to help us be better Christians, but in the end they leave us as they found us – according to 2 Timothy 3, laden with sins, led away with various passions, ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Junk food and fluff make women’s ministries a laughing stock, not to mention more hindrance than help in the Christian walk. If only we were prepared to stick more closely to the means of grace which the Holy Spirit has actually provided for our conversion and sanctification – especially the preaching of the Word.

how Christians die

I’ve just been reading a blog post which struck me as brave and realistic. It’s about how Christians die: ‘Illness and death beautiful?

Theologically, we know that Christians go to heaven when they die, leaving behind all their disappointments, regrets, sins, and sorrows for ever. Theologically, we know that death for the Christian is a defeated enemy, and the Christian is more than a conqueror through Christ. Because Christ lives, the Christian lives too.

But this does not mean that all Christians die triumphant deaths, sailing into glory on the crest of an exultant wave of spiritual success.

There are stories of martyrs, whose last words went something like this. “Farewell, father and mother, friends and relations! Farewell, the world and all delights! Farewell meat and drink! Farewell, sun, moon and stars! Welcome, God and Father! Welcome, sweet Lord Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant! Welcome, blessed Spirit of grace, God of all consolation! Welcome glory! Welcome eternal life! Welcome death!”

But most Christians do not die the death of a martyr.

In death, as in life, it is likely that the majority of Christians, the majority of the time, neither float on clouds of assurance nor wallow in ditches of despair. For most people most of the time, they have a quiet, stable sense running along in the background of their lives that they are Christ’s and Christ is theirs. This fades in and out of conscious prominence from time to time, and slowly and surely shapes their outlook on life, their responses to life’s events, their acceptance of providence, and their likeness to Christ. But most people’s highs are not especially high, and their lows are not especially low, in spiritual things.

When they come to die, it is unusual for this picture to change much. I have only very limited close-up experience of the actual deathbeds of godly individuals. I also have only limited in-depth second-hand knowledge from listening to other people’s experiences. But it would seem that even the eminently godly do not normally have strikingly glorious entrances into glory.

It would seem that very godly people even at the end of long lives do not look forward to dying. They do not seem to relish the obvious fact that they will soon have the chance to leave this sad sinful world to go to glory. This fact may not even be obvious to them, as they instead engage with their care plans and look forward to getting home from hospital. They seem to take as much interest as ever in the lives and activities of their family and friends. Their conversations may revolve as much around their current medication as around the blessings of union and communion with the Saviour.

This is not a criticism. Neither is it aspirational. But it seems to be more common than not, and it is worth acknowledging. Our expectations of other people’s deathbeds are better informed by the norm than the exception. There is no need to be disappointed or doubtful about someone if they go to glory quietly and unremarkably. Similarly, it is probably unwise to expect that our own deathbeds will be scenes of blissful triumph any more than our lives are.

The continuity between life as a whole and death as an event is no doubt a useful guide to help manage expectations. Although there is plenty reason for the Christian to rejoice with thanksgiving at every moment in their lives, there are also plenty reasons why the end-point of their life on earth is not naturally conducive to suddenly starting to rejoice in a newly conspicuous way. Christians are frail and sinful in any case, and coming to the point of death typically makes people more frail than ever before. They may well be in discomfort or pain, or sedated or exhausted, or otherwise more constrained by their physical needs than luxuriating in their spiritual blessings. They may be worried about how their spouse will manage without them, or who will be left in the family to pray for their unsaved children and grandchildren. Some of them understand, although I don’t, the genuinely pinching dilemma between departing to be with Christ, and abiding in the flesh to serve the needs of others (you would think the choice would be obvious, but Paul couldn’t decide). And perhaps a bit like an expectant mother looks forward to meeting the baby but not to actual childbirth, you can understand why people don’t want to die even knowing that there is something better beyond. Our only experience of existence is as integrated souls and bodies. The forcible disintegration of soul and body in death is both unknown and dreadful.

And yet, and yet, for the Christian, death has had its sting removed. Theologically, we know this.

So to align our theology of death more closely with the case histories of how Christians die, we need to remember the contrast between how things look and feel now, and how they are in reality. When a Christian dies, it is actually a victory. It is a victory for their Saviour and consequently for themselves. It may look underwhelming and anticlimactic, but so do all the victories of the Christian life from regeneration onwards. Yet it remains a fact, however much or little we sense the gloriousness of it. When a Christian dies, it means that they have been successfully saved, out of sin, through this life, into heaven. This is amazing. When a Christian dies, they immediately pass into glory, to be made perfectly blessed in the full enjoyment of God to all eternity. This is wonderful. When a Christian dies, it is another bit of the answer to Christ’s prayer, ‘Father, I will that they whom thou hast given me be with me where I am.’ This is stupendous.

Illness and death are not beautiful. What is beautiful is to be saved from them – from illness and death and sin and ourselves. There is something visibly beautiful if it happens that when the Lord is saving his people out of these things he gives them the grace to rejoice triumphantly in the process. But it is also beautiful that he saves them at all, even by the skin of their teeth, because what the eye doesn’t always see here and now is the bigger reality that we are thoroughly theologically convinced of – that those who believe in Christ will never perish, but have everlasting life.

God is a Spirit

20170504_082315Our almost-two year old suddenly started saying the word “God”. All his words started off as sequences of a consonant followed by a vowel, before he started adding word-final consonants. It was a proud day when I ceased to be “ma” and became “mum”. But it didn’t seem right for him to wander around seeming to casually break the Third Commandment. So I racked my brains for a sensible thing to give him to say about God.

Naturally the first thing that came to mind was the wording of the Shorter Catechism. “What is God?” asks one of the early questions, with the reply, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable…”

So I told the boy, “God is a Spirit” and he now knows to say “God Spirit” [gɔd bi:t]. The answer continues, “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth,” but I thought we could leave that bit until he’s slightly older.

But then I had a qualm about the usefulness of what I’d just done. Does this statement only refer to his immateriality? Is that the most useful concept to offer a child as a starting point for thinking about God? Maybe it was really both too basic and too complex? Don’t you just skip over these first few words to get to the meat of the definition in the bit he’s too young to start on yet?

Around the same time I started catching up with some new books that had recently arrived in the house. Among them was the five-volume set of Reformed Dogmatics by Geerhardus Vos, now translated from Dutch into English for the first time. These volumes consist of lectures Vos gave in systematic theology, structured in a question and answer format.

There on page 14 of the first volume was a section headed, “What does Scripture mean when it calls God Spirit?”

The Hebrew and Greek words that mean ‘spirit’ are both ‘wind’. From this starting point we discover the following:

  • Wind is that power among material powers that seems to be the most immaterial and invisible. We feel it but we do not see it. When God is called Spirit, it therefore means his immateriality.
  • Wind or breath is the mark of life and thus stands for life or in place of enlivening power. Thus it is the case that God’s spirituality also means his living activity. As Spirit God is distinguished from man, indeed all that is created, that is flesh, that is powerless and inert in itself. Spirit is thus what lives and moves of itself.
  • Wind as the spirit of life or the breath of life belongs with something else enlivened or activated by it. God can also in this sense be called Spirit insofar as he is the enlivener and source of life for the creature. That is so both in a natural sense as well as in a spiritual sense. That agrees with the fact that man can be called flesh in a twofold sense, both insofar as he naturally has no power of life in himself and insofar as he is spiritually dead and cut off from God. …
  • The spirituality of God implies that He is a rational being, with understanding, will, and power.

What else does God’s spirituality involve?

That God’s being also exists as personal. However, we should consider that God’s being may not be called personal in the abstract but only in his threefold existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In God personality is not one but three. There are not four but only three persons in the Godhead.

This was immensely reassuring to read. The statement, “God is a Spirit” encapsulates not only the idea that God is immaterial but also that he has life of himself, is the source of life for the creature, is rational, and exists as three persons. The statement is meaty in its own right, and the rest of the Shorter Catechism’s answer only builds on it. Clearly, a 22-month old isn’t going to grasp much of what even this basic statement references, but it provides him with a vocabulary now which he will be able to fill with increasing meaning over time.

I’ve since read further into volume 1 and dipped in and out of the other four volumes of Reformed Dogmatics, and I’m happy to report that there is much more to Geerhardus Vos than a pageful of unwitting encouragement in navigating the parenthood jungle.

In fact I was pleasantly surprised at how fresh Vos’s treatment of familiar doctrines was. He is also admirably clear (something I wouldn’t have expected from my previous few attempts to tackle his other writings) and concise. The question and answer format works as well as can be expected – there are the odd questions of the type “What belongs to the first category?” and “Where have we now arrived in our treatment?” which make sense only in their contexts – but largely the questions are used adeptly as tools for developing arguments and announcing new topics (e.g., “How does the work of the Holy Spirit relate to that of the Son?” “In what differing respects does the Holy Spirit carry out his distinguishing work?” “Which attributes are particularly ascribed to God the Holy Spirit as a result of this distinguishing work?” and, “What is the relationship of God’s decree to his reason and his will?”)

It might not be best to recommend these volumes to an absolute beginner as a very first introduction to systematic theology, but for anyone who has a basic familiarity with the doctrines of the Catechism or Confession, say from regular church attendance, these would be an excellent, non-threatening way to start sharpening up their theological understanding. The individual volumes are not hefty tomes, only a couple of hundred pages each. They are the only multi-volume systematic theology I know of that someone could sit down and read from cover to cover in the space of a couple of weeks, as a pleasurable experience. But each would work as a stand-alone book on the topic it covers. (Volume 1 is Theology Proper, covering the doctrine of God, God’s decrees, and creation and providence. Volume 2, Anthropology, covers human nature, sin, and the covenant of grace. Volume 3, Christology, is about Christ. Volume 4, Soteriology, covers the order of salvation, regeneration and effectual calling, conversion, faith, justification and sanctification. Volume 5, Ecclesiology, The Means of Grace, Eschatology, covers the doctrine of the church, the Word and sacraments, and the doctrine of the last things.) So pick your topic and dive in.

on the covenant of redemption

The Trinity And the Covenant of Redemption

Compared with Fesko’s recent volume on imputation, I didn’t come away quite so satisfied with his The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, although there are several significant points in its favour.

Like the work on imputation, this treatment of the covenant of redemption provides a helpful synthesis of the three facets of the doctrine – history, exegesis, and dogmatics.

The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption also successfully demonstrates that a covenant was made between the persons of the Trinity before the beginning of time – a pre-temporal intra-trinitarian agreement to save sinners.

At various places Fesko takes the opportunity to emphasise that this agreement was an effect of God’s love (the love of the triune God). Obedience, he points out, is entirely consistent with love. So indeed is the very concept of covenanting. These sections are a welcome reminder that no matter how technical your treatment of any of God’s truths might become, and however dispiriting it must be to engage so thoroughly with influential scholars whose widely accepted views are so wildly off the mark, the truth itself is revealed in love by the God who is love, and the scheme of redemption in its plan and its execution is steeped (or as Fesko says, bathed) in love at every point.

Fesko also deals well with the allegation that the idea of a discussion and agreement between the persons of the Godhead somehow leads to tritheism. He shows that while all three persons of the Godhead share the same will and act on it, yet each person of the Trinity acts according to his person, the Father sending the Son and the Spirit, and the Son and the Spirit being sent by the Father.

Fesko also sees a role for the Spirit in the covenant of redemption. His role is not just subsequent to the covenant as the one who applies the saving benefits purchased by Christ, but according to the terms of the covenant, the Holy Spirit agrees to be sent by the Father, and he anoints and equips Christ to carry out his work as the covenant surety.

Another plus point to The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption is that it interacts seriously with recent scholarship and emerges with Reformed credentials intact. Fesko reviews the thinking of Barth, more recent narrative theologians, and a Roman Catholic theologian, not only to show what is argued in these alternative paradigms but to carefully expose their limitations and flaws. Even for readers who have never encountered these theological positions, the outcome of Fesko’s discussion is a clear sense of the great gulf between them and the Reformed position.

But the source of my dissatisfaction has to do with how the concept of the covenant of redemption itself is presented. The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption takes the view that in addition to the covenant of works there is not one but two covenants which take to do with the salvation of sinners – the covenant of redemption as well as the covenant of grace. The preface to this book explains that it is the first in a series of three, with subsequent volumes due to appear on the covenant of works and the covenant of grace in turn. The drawback of this approach is that very little work is done in this volume itself to motivate the distinction between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace.

It is certainly the case that some older Reformed theologians identified three covenants. David Dickson (1583-1662), James Durham (1622-1658), and Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) distinguished between the covenant of redemption, made between the Father and the Son, and the covenant of grace, made between the Father and the elect sinner. However, it is not the case that this view persisted until the twentieth century, as implied in the preface to The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption. The discussion in the preface jumps directly from the “classic Reformed covenant theology” of Dickson and Durham to “twentieth century Reformed theologians such as Murray, Schilder, and Hoeksema,” giving the reader to infer that it was not until the advent of Murray and others that the covenant of redemption was “either rejected or redefined” (p.xviii).

In fact, almost as soon as the three-covenant view was articulated, Reformed theologians respectfully expressed reticence about pushing the idea too far. They preferred to see only two true covenants, the one of works with Adam and the one of redemption/grace with Christ. This was to preserve the idea of Christ as the head of one covenant, not two, and to avoid positing a covenant with the elect sinner which either has a condition attached for the sinner to perform (therefore turning it back into a covenant of works all over again) or no condition attached (and therefore not technically a covenant at all).

For reasons such as these, theologians as close (in time and in thinking) to Dickson and Durham as Thomas Boston and Adam Gib declined to posit both a covenant of redemption and a covenant of grace. Thereafter in systematic theologies whenever the covenant of redemption is mentioned, it tends to be only to deny that it is truly a distinct covenant from the covenant of grace.

  • Thomas Boston (1676-1732): “The covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace are but two names of one and the same second covenant, under different considerations” (View of the Covenant of Grace, Vol 8 of Complete Works, p396).
  • Adam Gib (1714 – 1788): “The covenant of grace is a covenant of redemption. … There is only one covenant of God’s making, the covenant of grace and redemption, for the eternal salvation of mankind sinners. The Scripture reveals but one for that purpose, ‘the new covenant,’ ‘the everlasting covenant.’ As man’s ruin is by one covenant, his recovery is likewise by one” (Sacred Contemplations, p141-142).
  • John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787): “it is manifest that it [the covenant of grace] ought never to be splitted into two, as if one covenant of redemption had been made with Christ, and another of grace were made with the elect in their own persons” (A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion, p242).
  • John Dick (1764–1833): “there does not appear to be any ground in Scripture for the notion of two covenants. … The truth is that what those divines call the covenant of grace is merely the administration of what they call the covenant of redemption, for the purpose of communicating its blessings to those for whom they were intended; and cannot properly be called considered as a covenant…” (Lectures on Theology, p496).
  • As I’ve happened to be looking at Hugh Martin (1822-1885) on the atonement recently, I also noticed that when he relates atonement to federal concepts he makes no mention of a covenant of redemption, but relies heavily on the contrasts between only the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. My impression is that this was the mainstream understanding of the covenant theology for nineteenth century Reformed theologians (Hugh Martin, The Atonement: In Its Relations to the Covenant, the Priesthood, the Intercession of our Lord, first published 1877).

Incidentally it may be worth adding that Thomas Boston wrote a treatise specifically tackling the covenant of works (A View of the Covenant of Works from the Sacred Records (1775), and Adam Gib devotes the first part of his Sacred Contemplations (1788) to this topic too (again titled A View of the Covenant of Works, running to 120-odd pages).

Clearly, whether or not Boston and other subsequent Reformed theologians were correct to move away from Dickson and Durham’s proposal of three instead of two covenants is a question worthy of discussion in its own right. But this discussion does not appear in The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, so far as I could see. It is worthy of discussion on at least two counts – one that the two-not-three covenant position was perceived as entirely consistent with the Westminster Confession to at least the same extent as Fesko says the three-not-two covenant position is, and it would therefore would have been useful for this difference of opinion to have been handled as something within the Westminster tradition itself. And the other is that, to the extent that John Murray of the twentieth century was shaped by a Scottish theological tradition stretching from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, it would be interesting to know in detail how far he perpetuated rather than diverged from this tradition. A section in Part III of The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption is titled, ‘Relationship [of the covenant of redemption] to the covenants of works and grace’ (p138-140), but although this sounded promising, it reads as something inadequately edited beyond draft stage, and only lists points of difference between the putative covenants of redemption and grace without demonstrating why the two are better than the one. As the ‘one covenant (of redemption/grace)’ formulations preferred by theologians such as Boston are careful to include all the features which Fesko attributes to the covenant of redemption – the love and activity of the triune God, election, imputation, and the precedence of eschatology over soteriology – it remains to be seen what the positing of a second distinct covenant of grace really adds.

All of this adds up to make me keen to see Fesko’s forthcoming volumes on the covenant of works and of grace. In the meantime, my overall impression of The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption is that it is a worthwhile and useful presentation of key historical, exegetical and dogmatic considerations relating to the triune God’s eternal scheme for the salvation of sinners, chosen and beloved in Christ before the foundation of the world.