Providence and grace

Back in the mid to late 80s (it must have been) I read an article by Carine Mackenzie in the FP Young People’s Magazine. She wrote about taking the family dog to the vet because of some illness. As far as I remember, the dog was distressed about being at the vet and having an injection (or whatever treatment it was), and so they longed to be able to comfort their beloved family pet by explaining what was going on and how this experience, even though it was upsetting, was really the only way to get better.

But if they’d tried to explain, how could the dog have processed the information? Its only hope was to accept what was happening because the vet knew what she was doing and was acting in its best interests.

The point of the story was to illustrate how incapable we are of understanding everything that happens to us in providence. Often we can only respond with perplexity and distress to the things that happen to us. Then our only hope is the fact that the Lord is good, he knows what he is doing, and it is not only for his glory but also for the good of his people.

The effect of this article, for me and hopefully others, was not only to give me an abiding affection for Carine Mackenzie and her ilk, but also to provide a basic framework for understanding providence. I can’t have been older than 8 when I read it.

And of course, over time, some more things about providence have swum into clearer focus. In particular these two.

1. Providence is not a mark of grace

To hear some people talk, the mere fact that unexpected things have happened to you in providence is a sign that the Lord has saved you. It is an integral part of some people’s testimony, or account of their call by grace, that certain events happened in their lives with certain details in certain circumstances and it was all very remarkable.

This is, unfortunately, a fallacy. Time and chance happen to us all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11) If you were to write the biography of any single individual on the planet, it would be full of unexpected events and remarkable deliverances. Nobody, Christian or not, could have predicted five years ago where they would find themselves today. The fact that things have turned out better for you than you feared, or that you have learned some things the hard way, is no sign of grace. It is simply your own personal version of a universal reality, an experience shared by every other human being who has ever lived.

This is not to deny that when the Lord does save people, he does so in a way that interweaves his supernatural grace with the very specific, concrete, natural facts he has ordained for their lives. You were born to these godly parents and grew up under that pastor’s faithful preaching and your job created those opportunities to consider the truths of the gospel, and so on. Providence and grace are inextricably linked for every one of the Lord’s people, because grace reaches us in exactly the situation we’re in.

But when the Holy Spirit unites sinners to Christ, we have to understand his work in theological terms, far more than in providential terms. It’s not so much that he sends this affliction into our lives or brings about that deliverance in our circumstances, but that he convinces us of our sin in the light of God’s holy law, enlightens our minds in the knowledge of Christ and his salvation, renews our wills to incline us to wisdom’s ways, and enables us to believe and repent.

If someone’s testimony majors on their personal life events, while leaving big gaps where they could have talked about their grasp of the mercy of God in Christ, then, assuming they really are saved, their account of what the Lord has done for them is sadly defective when it comes to giving him the glory that is due to his name.

Of course believers should acknowledge what God does in providence. But the God of providence works marvellous things in the lives of the most hardened reprobates. Marvellous providences are not a distinguishing feature of the believer. To believers alone he makes himself known as God the Lord, who keeps covenant and mercy, and that’s what people’s call by grace is really all about.

The other side of the coin from this is of course that when dramatic things have not happened in someone’s life where they can discern the hand of the Lord manifestly working, this is not a sign that they have no grace. Far more important than remarkable stories is evidences of the new birth – trust in Christ, love for the Lord, grief over sin, prayerfulness, and willingness to walk in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

2. Providence is not a means of grace

Perhaps it overstates the case to say that providence is not a means of grace. The Lord does use events and circumstances to further his people’s growth in grace. His goodness in everyday things should lead us to repentance. The difficult things he sends (illness, bereavement, relationship breakdowns, financial hardship) should nudge us to cling closer to him and less tightly to our sins and our secondary supports. Believers towards the end of their lives have grown in grace in ways that can sometimes be easily connected to events that happened in their personal providences. 

But granting all of this, it is still missing the point to treat providence as a means of grace. For two reasons. 

a) Nothing we learn from providence is not already more clearly expressed in Scripture 

Providence itself is not sufficient to inform us of what repentance is, what faith is, or what sin is. How could it? Whether you study the rise and fall of empires, or the life cycle of a gnat, you would never get a hint of how the Lord answers the request of his disciples, ‘Increase our faith.’ Study any conceivable sub-discipline of epidemiology or meteorology or criminology or sociology to the highest possible levels of expertise, and you will still be none the wiser how to follow the apostle’s direction, ‘Grow in grace.’ Drill down as detailed as you like into the chains of causes and effects and the webs of events and their interactions in your own life, and you will never know whether or not ‘ye be in the faith.’ It is not the job of providence to explain these things. For this, we need Scripture. 

Also, providence is not self-interpreting. Events do not come with a label attached to explain their purpose. When a problem arises, for example, you can’t automatically tell whether it is a rebuke (because you’re walking the wrong way and need to change course), or a test of resolve (something you need to persevere in spite of, as you walk in the path of obedience). Your walk needs to be judged by the Word, not by providences. 

Providence may well be a nudge from the Lord to remind us of something we should already know (from Scripture). But it is not providence itself that informs us. It is not providence that explains things to us. Too much of providence is completely inexplicable and impenetrably mysterious – not because we aren’t working hard enough to make sense of it, but because it is inherently beyond our grasp. Our questions should be directed to the Word. Our search for explanations should take place in the Word. If we want to grow in grace, we need to study the Word, far more than our providences. 

It is a big, perplexing, hindrancing mistake to think that if we are going to grow in grace we need to understand what the Lord is doing in our providences. We may never know what he is doing, now or even much further down the line. We may never know why we needed to have toothache at that particular time or why that particular train was cancelled – or the reason for that bereavement or losing that job or having that serious accident. 

But we do not need to understand what the Lord is doing in order to be convinced that he is doing everything exactly right and in order to push our sins further away and cling closer to him. That conviction, and the certainty of the rightness of that response, comes from Scripture, our unfailingly clear guide to the Lord’s character and purpose, and not from providence, where the Lord’s way is in the great waters and his footsteps are not known. 

b) Nothing that happens in providence gives the believer any grace they didn’t already have

No amount of providential blessing is enough to make a sinner thank the Lord for his pardoning mercy in Christ Jesus. No amount of providential hardship is enough to make a sinner turn from their sin to the Lord in penitence and faith. Grace in the heart of a sinner only ever comes from the Holy Spirit planting it there. The faith he gifts is a response to Christ revealed in the Word (not in providence). The repentance he gifts is a response to the mercy of God in Christ revealed in the Word (not in providence). 

So when a believer encounters a fiery trial and eventually emerges from it like gold, it is not the hardship itself that does them good. This is obvious because sometimes, when a trial comes, the believer makes a bad use of it. They take it as a reason to complain, to overlook the Lord’s kindness, to lash out at their loved ones, to look for a solution in creature comforts, and in general to distrust God. This is because trials are essentially evils. Good does not come from the evil itself. If any good comes from it, it is because the Lord is using it to bring the believer to make a good use of it. 

The role of providence in someone’s life is to expose, or reveal, the reality of what’s in their heart. Trials don’t give repentance, or meekness, or thankfulness. They can only make it clear whether someone is a penitent, or meek, or thankful person. They remove the dross, not to make the underlying substance into gold, but to demonstrate that it really is gold.

Far more effective as helps to growing in grace are the ordinances which the Lord has explicitly given for that purpose – especially the reading and hearing of the Word, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper, and prayer.

Delving deeper into the Word, hearing it expounded from the pulpit, walking in the light of your baptism, feeding regularly on Christ in the supper, and pleading with the Lord for mercy for Christ’s sake – these are the activities which strengthen the believer’s graces. They grow in love, joy, peace, long suffering (etc) as they participate in activities like these. 

Then, it doesn’t really matter whether providentially they spend their lives lurching from one crisis to the next, snatched from the lion’s paw one moment and like a brand from the burning the next, or whether they plod along unremarkably and insignificantly from week to week and year after year. Spiritually, i.e., far more importantly, their stability comes from the immutability of the love of their Saviour, and the highlights of their lives come from new breakthroughs of light from the truth of the Word.

Conclusion: our circumstances are measured out by the God of all grace

Undoubtedly, in the experience of any believer, it may well be in the midst or in the upshot of some providential situation that some aspect of the truth can become precious, standing out with stark clarity and warm comfort precisely as it meets them in their situation. That is because the God of providence is the God of grace. But the truth and its preciousness remain true and precious irrespective of our situations in providence, and certainly irrespective of our comprehension of our providence. We can leave ourselves safely in the Lord’s care, whether or not we understand what’s happening. That is because God’s grace includes God’s providence, and surpasses it, since ‘over all his other works his tender mercies are.’ (Psalm 145:9)


Devoted to God

Devoted to God by Sinclair B Ferguson

I guess, if you’d asked me out of the blue how believers grow in grace, I would have reached for the Shorter Catechism’s special trio, ‘the Word, sacraments, and prayer.’

Well, I’ve now read Sinclair Ferguson’s recent book, Devoted to God (Banner of Truth, 2016).

In this book, Ferguson takes ten passages from the New Testament, identifying them as so many blueprints for sanctification. Each passage gets a chapter-length treatment, where he explains its teaching and draws out its implications for the believer.

In this way, the book consists of ten mini-commentaries of the selected passages, or perhaps a better term would be mini-sermons, if you are used to sermons which expound the doctrine in a text and apply it to your case. The value of structuring the book this way is that it shows how explicit and specific Scripture itself is about the believer’s need for holiness and how to grow in grace. What is set down in summary form in definitions like the Catechism’s (Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness) is here shown to spring directly from actual texts of Scripture – texts you can consult, meditate on, memorise, and consult again.

Although the question of sanctification has its difficulties, both conceptually and practically, Ferguson excels at getting across fundamental truths plainly and clearly. In particular, if I can pick out a few, he explains union with Christ, the indicative/imperative distinction, the significance of baptism, the priority of the mind, and the influence of the future we expect on our present experience.

1. Union with Christ. We are put in possession of the redemption purchased by Christ when the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ. United to Christ, we possess the vast blessings of justification, adoption, heaven, a glorious resurrection – and sanctification. If we have been made one with Christ, then we need to live like it. If we belong to him, we need to evidence it. “You are not your own; you have been bought with a price – the sacrifice of Christ; you are his, so live for his glory because it is for this that you have been purchased.” (p7)

2. Indicatives and imperatives. What we must do is grounded in what God has done. The gospel announcement that Christ has done it is the basis for the gospel precepts requiring things we must do. As Ferguson says, “divine indicatives (statements about what God has done, is doing, or will do) logically precede and ground divine imperatives (statements about what we are to do in response).” (p33) “If we are to understand the nature of sanctification and successfully pursue it, we must immerse ourselves in appreciating the grace of God expressed to us in Jesus Christ and applied in us by the Holy Spirit. Our response is dependent on it and motivated by it. … Justification, forgiveness, acceptance, and union with Christ are the logical and actual grounds for sanctification and obedience – not the other way round.” (p35)

3. The significance of baptism. Ferguson points out that baptism does not primarily point us to our faith, but to Christ and the benefits of redemption. The one-off event of baptism is meant to define all our subsequent daily life in Christ. Irrespective of what you believe about who should be baptised (a question which Ferguson completely and quite legitimately sidesteps), the purpose of baptism is to name us after the holy God and to be a means of helping us live like it. When we think of our baptism, Ferguson is saying, we can reason it through like this: “I am no longer the person I was in Adam; I am a new person in Jesus Christ. In Christ I am someone who has died to the dominion of sin and been raised to new life. In Christ I am someone who has been delivered from the dominion of sin and has been transferred into the kingdom of God.” (p88) He therefore goes on to ask, “Do you know who you really are in Christ? Do you understand what it means to be renamed in Christ? Do you think of yourself each day as someone who has died to sin and been raised into newness of life and therefore cannot go on living in sin?” (p89)

This chapter on baptism is exceedingly helpful. As the Larger Catechism says, baptism is something we can and should make use of all our lives long, for example, “by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptised, for the mortifying of sin and quickening of grace.” (LC 167) When we neglect to build on our baptism like this we deprive ourselves of a major means of strengthening to faith and obedience.

If there is a quibble I would hesitatingly make, it is that the counterpart point about the Lord’s supper is not made (at all, I think). The Westminster Confession and Catechisms refer to the Lord’s supper as intended “for spiritual nourishment and growth in grace” or “spiritual nourishment and growth in Christ” (WCF 29.1, LC 168, SC 96). Whereas baptism is a sign and seal of regeneration and union with Christ, the Lord’s supper represents Christ as the spiritual nourishment of the soul and confirms our continuance and growth in him (LC 177). Both sacraments have weighty implications for our sanctification, and while Ferguson’s exposition of baptism is very much needed and very helpful, there isn’t an analogous treatment of the Lord’s supper. (Perhaps there isn’t such a clear ‘blueprint passage’ for the Lord’s supper, compared to Romans 6 for baptism?)

4. The priority of the mind. It is primarily our mind which we must engage in order to grow in grace. Ferguson says more than once that we must develop a mindset. How we think shapes how we feel and act, and not the other way round. We are sanctified by the truth. “We refuse to allow our minds to dwell on the flesh. But we must also seek to flood our minds with the things of the Spirit. This then allows us to experience ‘the expulsive power of a new affection.’ … [W]e allow the fruit the Spirit produces in us to become the object of our thinking and aspiring. For what we think about and love will have a determinative influence on our character. What fills our minds will shape our lives. We become what we think!” (p157-158)

A couple of additional points struck me leading on from this.

(a) Ferguson is writing this for believers, those who have been called by grace into union with Christ, justified, and given a new heart. Some people fear ‘dry doctrine,’ sometimes to the extent that they fear that exposure to any doctrine at all is dry and deadening. But this fear can only lead to their own spiritual impoverishment. ‘Doctrine’ is after all just another term for ‘beautiful truth about our glorious Saviour,’ and it is difficult to understand how the Lord’s people can be content to know as little as possible about him and his doings instead of longing always to know more and more. Undoubtedly when truth falls on stony ground and among thorns it makes no beneficial impact, but it’s when the Word falls into an honest and good heart, that that heart yields fruit.

(b) Ferguson’s view of sanctification encompasses the whole person, yet priority is given to the mind. We are made holy in our thinking, our emotions, our preferences and inclinations, and indeed our body (“our eyes, hands, ears, lips, feet, and every other part of us. They are the instruments of either sin or holiness,” p41). Yet the main psychological driver for sanctification is not willpower, nor feelings, and obviously not behaviour. “[T]he key to the way the gospel transforms us” is “what happens in your mind” (p45). We have to think straight about God and correctly understand God’s way of salvation and have an accurate grasp of our need as sinners. God’s Word is addressed to our minds, revealing things we wouldn’t otherwise know and explaining things we could never otherwise understand. Without the response, ‘Now I see! Now I get it! Now it makes sense!’ it is hardly possible to feel the desirability of salvation or walk in the right way.

(c) Ferguson’s mind is predominantly focused on Scripture rather than anything else. Our minds are not to be taken up with ourselves (although of course we have to know ourselves). Nor are we to be focused on the things of the flesh (although of course we have to be aware of fleshly things to avoid).

And something else we should not especially absorb ourselves in is providence. Some believers are so preoccupied with what the Lord seems to be doing in their providences that it gives the impression that providence is more important than Scripture for sanctification. They scrutinise the Lord’s dealings in their everyday life looking for signs, confirmations or leadings. They expect to learn humility, dependence and thankfulness through what they discern to be the Lord’s hand in arranging the affairs of their everyday lives.

Yet in doing so they are distracting themselves from the main means which the Lord uses to teach his people what they need to learn – namely, his Word. Of course the Lord is in control of all our providences, and is managing everything for the good of his people. Of course the Lord uses trials and difficulties to discipline his people and bring them into closer conformity to himself. But providence is never self-explanatory. In order to understand providence we have to listen to the teaching of Scripture. The lessons that we are supposed to learn from providence are already plainly presented to us in Scripture (and it’s only our slowness to heed the plain teaching of Scripture that means we have to learn the hard way from providence).

The mind of the person being sanctified is therefore supposed to be mostly grappling with Scripture, not providence. Setting our minds to questions such as, ‘How doth Christ execute the office of a priest?’ or, ‘How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?’ is almost always going to be more spiritually profitable than trying to work out what the Lord might or might not be teaching us from this illness or that financial worry or the next remarkable way we’ve been delivered from a difficulty looming on the horizon.

5. The influence of the future. Finally (because I have to stop somewhere), Ferguson points us to the eternal weight of glory that is ahead of believers, and how the expectation of this shapes our way of living here and now. “The Christian lives from the future into the past. He or she sees time in the light of eternity and therefore views affliction through lenses tinted with glory.” (p219) The resurrection is ahead of us and an eternity in the comfortable presence of the Lord. “[T]his gospel perspective – the hope of the resurrection of the body, the prospect of being finally delivered from the influence of sin so that we will find it ‘natural’, even ‘easy’ to love, serve, obey, worship, and delight in the Lord – alone makes sense of the long, sometimes hard process of sanctification. And if we want to be wholly the Lord’s then, we will want to be wholly his now as well as then.” (p223) Maybe this consideration weighs more heavily on people who are closer to the end of their lives than the start of their Christian walk, but it would ideally be near the forefront of our minds all the time. We are headed for glory because that’s where Christ is taking us, and surely we could do more to live out that reality in our daily walk.

Verdict. Space fails to comment on other valuable features of this book (how clearly the difference between justification and sanctification is explained, the discussion of the three dimensions of the law and the role of the moral law in the life of the believer in chapter 8, the appendix on Romans 6:10, the appendix on the fourth commandment, just for example). And while there remains nothing wrong with the Shorter Catechism’s trio, ‘the Word, sacraments, and prayer,’ Sinclair Ferguson’s treatment of this topic is an exceptionally helpful contribution. I can’t think of any believer I know who wouldn’t benefit from this book.

how to stop sinning

“Here’s the thing. Every week I go to church and someone at the front tells me I’m a sinner and that I should stop. But no one ever tells me how.”

That’s how Nick Page opens his article, 7 Ways To Stop Sinning, in Premier Christianity the other month.

I’d not long read Sinclair Ferguson voicing much the same complaint.

“Here again it is possible to become a little frustrated with Paul. Once more we find him issuing the same directives – put on, put off, put to death. But we may feel like saying, ‘It is all very well for you to keep talking about these things, Paul, but how are we to do them?’”

That’s in his recent book, Devoted to God (Banner of Truth, 2016, p140).

Nick Page’s article takes insights from psychology to help us sin less. There are seven helpful suggestions for how to break (or at least weaken) bad habits. Of course, he says, “we need forgiveness, salvation, and all the grace we can get.” “We need prayer. We need the Holy Spirit.” But the seven pieces of advice are all to do with your willpower and how to increase it, so as to establish new habits, or break addictions and compulsions.

Admittedly this is a 2,000 word article and Sinclair Ferguson has written a 200+ page book, but the two approaches to answering basically the same question are strikingly different, and I prefer Sinclair Ferguson’s.

There is more to the Christian’s challenge than simply sinning less. There is also a need for becoming more holy – growing in specific, actual graces.

Putting our sins to death is one thing – pulling our graces into life is another thing. But Christian is called to do both. Both are impossible for a sinner acting off their own bat, but both are possible and expected for a sinner who is united to Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Sinners have to become holy.

Sinclair Ferguson explains: “whatever the precise nuance of meaning of ‘holy’, it involves not only belonging to God but being influenced by him – being claimed by him in order to be possessed by him and to become increasingly like him. In that sense holiness involves being separated off from whatever is sinful. The effect of this will be a new shining in our lives, a new brightness beginning to emerge. … This is why in the Old Testament holiness and beauty belong together.” (p11-12)

There is more, even, to the problem of sinning less, than simply adjusting problematic habits and behaviours. We also need to factor in the underlying source of bad habits and sinful behaviour.

It is obviously important to exercise self-discipline and strive against our own characteristic bad behaviours. In this struggle, insights from psychology are undoubtedly useful. We need all the help we can get. But our external behaviours have their source in the heart, in our attitudes, in our nature. The only effective way to stop sinning is for sin to be tackled at its root, by getting a new nature, a new heart. Then it will dawn on us that the goal is not really to sin less, but to not sin at all. Granting that we will never achieve sinlessness until we reach glory, there is still no excuse for aspiring to anything less than not sinning at all. We have to go and sin no more.

We do actually need the Holy Spirit for this. Nobody can give themselves a new heart. As Sinclair Ferguson explains:

“The Spirit brings us to new life and into the family of God. … He brings about a rebirth in us that creates new dispositions. … We experience not only a change of status (as in adoption) so that we belong to God’s family, but also a real transformation of our lives so that we begin to develop the characteristics of our adoptive family. … [T]he Holy Spirit who unites us to Christ for justification, in that very act of union also sanctifies us, transforming our dispositions and desires. Now we love what we once despised, and despise much that we once loved. Now, while the Christian life remains a battle to the end, we find that there is all the difference in the world between seeking to be holy when that is a burden, and seeking to be holy because we belong to the family of God and have the new family nature.” (p25-26)

“[There is a] difference between mortifying sin (i.e., putting it to death), and merely diverting it – so that it lives on in a different but less obvious guise. We are all past-masters of doing this. Social pressure, or expectations within Christian fellowship, cause us to divert obvious sin to some other less obvious sphere. Sin is not so much put to death as channelled in a different direction. … We have not made any real progress in overcoming sin as sin.” (p153-154)

There is more to our psyche than just willpower. If you take a holistic view of the human person, you also need to reference the mind, or the intellect. Maybe other things too, but at least also the mind.

In fact, the intellect is supposed to inform the will, when human beings are at their best. Which is perhaps why the New Testament, especially in the epistles, is so keen to explain things – to present truths to our minds for us to grasp and then act on – to engage our intellects and expand our intellectual horizons with always bigger and more sharply focussed truths about God our Saviour.

When Sinclair Ferguson begins to answer his own question about sanctification, ‘But how?!’ his first port of call is not the will, but the intellect. His Principle Number One is ‘Developing a mindset.’

“The Spirit does not bypass our minds and work directly on our emotions or affections. It would be both bad theology and poor psychology to think so. Rather he addresses our minds through the Word of God, simply because we are created as rational, thinking beings. How and what we think determines how we feel, will, and live. … As we have already seen, we are transformed through the renewing of our minds.” (p141-142)

So here are some things we need to understand.

For one thing, that our salvation is the work of the triune God. How the Father has loved us and what Christ has done for us and what the Spirit is doing for us. (1 Peter 1:2: “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.”)

For another thing, our identity in Christ. “I am no longer the person I was in Adam; I am a new person in Jesus Christ. In Christ I am someone who has died to the dominion of sin and been raised to new life. In Christ I am someone who has been delivered from the dominion of sin and has been transferred into the kingdom of God.” (p88) “Do you know who you really are in Christ? Do you understand what it means to be renamed in Christ? Do you think of yourself each day as someone who has died to sin and been raised into newness of life and therefore cannot go on living in sin?” (p89)

For a third, the things of the Spirit. These things, Paul advises, are what we have to fill our minds with: “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable.” “If we are to overcome sin we must develop the ability to fix our minds on the things of the Spirit and the glory of Jesus Christ. And that can take place only when we are being filled with the truth of Scripture. … The remedy is soaking ourselves frequently in God’s word: allowing our minds to be filled to saturation point with its truth. … There is no immediate pathway to getting to know God’s word intimately. There is no quick fix. We can only do this the old-fashioned way, by reading it often and learning it well.” (p158-159)

This isn’t a proper review of Devoted to God but I would thoroughly recommend it. Anyone who prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” can’t fail to benefit from its teaching.

it’s not about me

But I am discouraged from going to God for pardon, for I am unworthy of forgiveness. What am I, that God should show such a favour to me?

God forgives, not because we are worthy, but because he is gracious. ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious.’ Exodus 34:6. He forgives out of his clemency; acts of pardon are acts of grace. What worthiness was there in Paul before conversion? He was a blasphemer, and so he sinned against the first table; he was a persecutor, and so he sinned against the second table; but free grace sealed the his pardon. ‘I obtained mercy,’ I was all bestrewed with mercy. 1 Timothy 1:13. What worthiness was in the woman of Samaria? She was ignorant, John 4:22. She was unclean, v18. She was morose and churlish, she would not give Christ so much as a cup of cold water, v9. … What worthiness was here? Yet Christ overlooked all, and pardoned her ingratitude, and though she denied him water out of the well, yet he gave her the water of life. Gratia non invenit dignos, sed facit. Free grace does not find us worthy, but makes us worthy. Therefore, notwithstanding unworthiness, seek to God that your sins may be pardoned.

Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, BOT p233

good news

“It would be a huge mistake, therefore, if you thought that Paul is telling us that ‘faith’ is what justifies us before God. The heart of the gospel is not, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved,’ but, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.’ It is not faith that saves you; it is the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith did not die for you as a sin-bearing, sin-atoning sacrifice. It was the Lord Jesus Christ who was made sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God! Never once does the New Testament tell us that sinners are justified before God on the ground of faith. God justifies believing sinners by Christ’s blood. Jesus Christ himself is our righteousness. Faith is what takes us into Christ, in whom God justifies the ungodly. In Christ, God’s own righteousness is counted ours, just as our sins were counted Christ’s.

This needs to be said for a number of reasons, but perhaps, above all, for this reason: the centre of the life of faith is not faith, but the Lord Jesus Christ. The focus of the life of faith is not the quality of my faith, but the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Ian Hamilton (2018), Salvation: Full and Free in Christ (Banner Mini Guide). Banner of Truth.


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).


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.