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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Gospel, Blessings and Obedience


There has been a debate raging for quite a while in the Reformed tradition regarding obedience and the gospel. In my estimation the terms are ill-defined, which might explain why the debate is not progressing very well. It might be helpful to make some initial observations regarding points of agreement that are unfortunately not often assumed by the opposing "camps" let alone articulated by them. I believe Escondido holds one view and it's hard to say who all holds the other. No institution does in my estimation. Both views are extreme (but in a sense noble); yet both contain truth.

1. The gospel as it is narrowly defined in 1 Corinthians 15 does not address obedience. The gospel in that context is an historical fact only. Jesus died for our sins, was buried and raised from the dead. Whereas the gospel that Paul is jealous to guard in Galatians has to do not with Christ’s work but rather the appropriation of that work: it is appropriated by grace through faith alone apart from ceremonial law-works. In neither of those two cases does the gospel address obedience. Both sides of the issue should agree.

2. Now leaving aside for a moment any discussion regarding (a) elect infants dying in infancy, (b) other elect persons incapable of being outwardly called by the word, and (c) infants God regenerates in infancy – both sides should also agree that adults who come to faith are justified upon appropriating Christ’s perfect obedience and satisfaction through the evangelical grace of faith alone, which is accompanied by the evangelical grace of repentance unto life, also a necessary condition for pardon. (WCF 15.3)

3. Both sides also agree that faith without works is dead.

4. With respect to the question of whether justifying faith is an obedient response to the gospel call - it should first be observed that a sinner who tries to obey the command to flee the wrath to come and turn to Christ does so either with a regenerate heart or out of enlightened self-interest. When the latter occurs, obviously no justifying faith is present, obedient or otherwise. Accordingly, what the discussion is about is whether faith from a regenerate heart is obedient. Both sides should agree here too.

5. The question that remains is whether repentance and faith are acts of obedience. Before finding an answer, I think there is at least one more point of agreement between the sides that should be mentioned. As committed Calvinists, both sides agree that God alone effects faith and repentance in the application of redemption.

Getting to the nub of the matter:

In one sense, if God alone effects justifying faith in dead sinners through the gifts of faith and repentance, then it is somewhat misleading to refer the such implanted graces as obedience. Consider the case of the sinner broken before God who all of a sudden is converted by the invading work of the Holy Spirit. Would we say that such a one who was burdened and heavy laden with his sin and finally found rest in Christ was being obedient, especially if conversion was wrought without even a whisper of a command! What would one be obeying in such a scenario? They would be fleeing into the arms of a loving Savior out of pure desire and without any command. That is why it's hard for me to believe that anyone who did not have a personal axe to grind would insist that we must always consider justifying faith obedient. Certainly Scripture will support the distinction between the mental "acts" of resting upon and receiving Christ, and the physical acts that proceed from such faith, such as feeding the poor, comforting the sick, loving our wives, serving in our churches, etc. Remember James' epistle?

Yet on the other hand, given that the grace of faith can be exercised in direct response to a command to repent and believe, then of course there is an appropriateness in referring to justifying faith as obedient in such cases, simply because it is a response to a command. Imagine another case - this time a person who was a hardened criminal and not burdened with his sin. Then imagine God quickening such a one in his tracks after his hearing the call to repent and believe. In such a case, it is most fitting to describe such a response as obedient to the command (while not forgetting that God granted the obedience).

The error that one is trying to guard against will often dictate the position he defends. If one is jealous to guard against the notion of merit, then of course he will recoil over the term obedient faith (in the realm of justification). If one wishes to fight against antinomianism, then he might prefer to speak in terms of the gospel's demands and use terms like obedient faith. However, we must be willing to notice that people come to Jesus in different ways - some by heeding God's command and others in utter shame. (Paul Helm touches upon this point in The Begginings (Word & Spirit in Conversion.)

Escondido certainly has the backing of the Confession in that the Confession distinguishes between faith and the acts that proceed from faith: “By this faith, a Christian believes… and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, etc. But the principle acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone…” WCF 14.2

So yes, by the faith that justifies sinners, men do act and obey, but the principle acts of justifying faith are accepting, receiving and resting, which I believe Escondido wishes to distinguish from obedience. We should have no problem with that distinction; it’s a good one.

Let's take another conversion scenario that clearly bolsters Escondido's position. In those cases in which God regenerates infants, those infants are not merely regenerated without also sharing in all the benefits of Christ, including justification. Accordingly, lest justification need not be accompanied by faith, we must conclude that the seed of faith that is implanted in those regenerate infants is justifying faith. Indeed, that faith must (and will) be exercised during years of discretion, but nonetheless justifying faith is present. In all fairness, Escondido’s paradigm fits those situations much better, for how does a baby obey in conversion?! Again, there is a place for referring to obedience to the gospel call upon men’s lives in the realm of conversion (and even more so in the work of progressive sanctification), but it would be a monstrosity to suggest that a woman converted through the shame of adultery and an infant converted in the mother's womb are obeying when God grants them rest.

Another related item - Covenant Blessings and Obedience:

Mike Horton [MH] wrote “Law And Gospel,” an article that appeared in the October, 2006 issue of Tabletalk. In that article he wrote:

“The new covenant, like the promise to Adam after the fall, renewed in the
covenants with Abraham and David, is not like the Sinai covenant. The blessings of the new covenant do not depend on our obedience, but on God’s grace: He will put His Law within us, so that it will not only be an external command that condemns us but an inward longing of our heart; He will be our God and we will be His people – yet another one-sided promise on God’s part. Instead of always giving imperatives (like ‘Know the Lord'), in the new covenant people will know the Lord because He has revealed Himself as their Savior.”

I’d like to take a look at one part only within the larger context of what MH wrote. “The blessings of the new covenant do not depend on our obedience, but on God’s grace…”

In order to try to understand MH's meaning, we should be quick to acknowledge what he clearly affirms and in doing so not let anything he wrote contradict what must be considered bedrock for him.

MH in practice is not antinomian! He appreciates that faith without works is dead. Accordingly, he is not saying that all blessings of the new covenant can be received without good works being present in the life of the believer. Moreover, being a committed Calvinist he also should appreciate that good works are not the product of libertarian free will but rather a result of God working in his redeemed both to will and do of his good pleasure. Consequently, whatever MH’s point is, it cannot pivot upon the question of whether man needs grace to obey, or whether obedience will be present in those who receive blessings in the new covenant. He clearly affirms both, our need for grace and the resultant obedience that comes by grace. Moreover, certainly MH appreciates through scripturally informed experience that obedience begets blessings, and that this too is a principle that transcends testaments. In other words, MH must appreciate that proverbs living will generally be a means to good things bestowed (blessings if you will).

There are many discontinuities between the old and new covenant, yet notwithstanding there is no break in the principle that sovereign grace effects creaturely obedience, which in turn places us in the path of realized covenant blessings. In fact, the "willing and the doing" that God is pleased to grant is in-and-of-itself a covenant blessing! It is God who works in us both to will and to do. Sure, the blessings are more extraordinary under the newer economy but so will be the obedience! Can God under the newer economy be our God without our walking in his ways and obeying His imperatives? Neither covenant operated under a quid pro quo for our obedience is nothing other than what John Murray called the "reciprocal responses of faith.” Our obedience, which too is a grace, is necessary in order to receive many blessings that the covenant contemplates.

On the other hand, maybe MH means this:

When the apostle says in Ephesians 1:3 that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessings in Christ, I am struck afresh by the indicative, that these blessings are ours now - and that we are not dependent upon God's works of future providence in order to gain them. Our task is by grace to appreciate the full blown reality of these blessings and when we do, we too with Paul will praise God for them - even in spite of our circumstances. These blessings include our election unto holiness, the forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, adoption as sons and the hope of glory. (I am grateful that Pastor Robert Letham so often gave thanks in his pastoral prayer for these blessings.) I would like to think that these are the blessings to which MH is referring that are not dependent upon obedience. The reason I am somewhat reluctant to read him this way is that all those blessings belonged to God’s elect under Moses! Yes, these blessings were theirs in much smaller measure, but nonetheless they were still there and they had nothing to do with obedience. Maybe MH is just comparing the physical blessings under Moses (that came through obedience) with the spiritual blessings under Christ (that are 100% ours without remainder through union with Christ). Maybe he is just not footnoting that today we have physical blessings under Christ (through faithful obedience), just like under Moses they had spiritual blessings (upon conversion). I remain perplexed over what the Escondido crowd is trying to say, but I couldn't be more clear on what Scripture says on these matters.

(In passing... Dr. Letham also kept another balance always before his congregation; although the accent may have fallen on the spiritual blessings we have through union with Christ, he always guarded against any inclination we might have toward Gnostic-dualism, placing before us the physical: incarnation, Supper and Christ's desire to heal the sick (just as "for instances"). We must not forget the physical blessings of the covenant. As he recently reminded me, “God created the heavens and the earth.”)

As for Sinai and the covenant of life:

Under Moses there could not have been an offer of everlasting life through obedience that was anything but disingenuous given that God’s people had past sins, concupiscence and Adam’s guilt imputed to them. That apostate Israel assumed they could have been received as righteous by law-works does not imply that the covenant under Moses was to have been understood as making such an hypothetical / conditional offer. That Paul by grace finally counted his pedigree as loss and wanted to be found in Christ for his righteousness does not suggest the terms of the covenant under Moses! In other words, Israel's error should not be read back into the terms of the Mosaic covenant. Accordingly, I must reject any paradigm (for these and other reasons) that would suggest that Sinai was a republication of the Covenant of Life. In addition, the notion that the Covenant of Life held out the prospect of an ontological change that contemplated a glorified state is beyond any good and necessary inference that can be drawn from Scripture alone, making the notion speculative at best. Finally, the notion of personal merit not only goes beyond such speculation, it also confounds the creator-creature distinction and the very terms of the covenant. That any creature under any economy, even the prelapsarian state, could merit anything before his creator is obviously false as I argue here, lest we make merit a vacuous term and imply (unwittingly in Escondido's case) that Adam had the metaphysical ability (autonomy) to act contrary to how he did, a philosophical surd. Unfortunately, not only is Escondido advancing all these sorts of views, they are are trying to pass them off as confessional and even essential to the gospel. In a large respect, their insistence exceeds their error.

13 comments:

Irish Presbyterian said...

How could there have been an offer of life that was anything but disingenuous given that God’s people had past sins, concupiscence and Adam’s guilt imputed to them? Accordingly, I must reject this paradigm for these and other reasons. Sinai was an adminstration of the one covenant of grace and nothing but a theology imposed upon the OT would cause one to think otherwise.

Just a short point to say that I don't think that God's offer cannot be called disingenuous if their was the possibility of even one human meeting those requirements. This would, however, require a human who was born of the seed of Adam and yet not tainted by his sin. There was such a man in Jesus Christ. Granted, he was fully God but we cannot deny that he was fully human also.

It's also important to remember that God had chosen men in Christ from the foundation of the world and the whole course of redemptive history reached it's apex in Him. Again, in this sense I do not see God's offer as disingenuous.

Irish Presbyterian

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

I said this: "How could there have been an offer of life that was anything but disingenuous given that God’s people had past sins, concupiscence and Adam’s guilt imputed to them? Accordingly, I must reject this paradigm for these and other reasons. Sinai was an adminstration of the one covenant of grace and nothing but a theology imposed upon the OT would cause one to think otherwise."

You stated: "Just a short point to say that I don't think that God's offer cannot be called disingenuous if their was the possibility of even one human meeting those requirements."

In other words, when I take out the double negative, I'm left with you saying: "Just a short point to say that I do think that God's offer can be called disingenuous if their was the possibility of even one human meeting those requirements."

If one can possibly receive the offer, then it can't be disingenuous. The point is that during the period of Sinai, nobody could have earned life due to the three things I noted.

"This would, however, require a human who was born of the seed of Adam and yet not tainted by his sin. There was such a man in Jesus Christ."

Nice try!:) It is alleged by Klinians that Sinai was an offer of the covenant of life to sinners, which would seem to invalidate your point.

"It's also important to remember that God had chosen men in Christ from the foundation of the world and the whole course of redemptive history reached it's apex in Him. Again, in this sense I do not see God's offer as disingenuous."

You may introduce that premise if you wish but your conclusion still exceeds the scope of all your premises.

Cheers,

Ron

KC said...

Ron,

How long will you continue to put up with the absolute morons on message boards that avoid everything you say except the things that the are willing to twist??? I was routed here from the Puritan Board where I like to lurk and I could not believe what I was reading. I'm not as theological as you but I do know when people are on the run!!!!

KC

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

KC,

It can be a sanctifying experience at times - no doubt. Frankly, it doesn't get to me too much anymore. I've come to appreciate that when one parades his foolishness before others, then it really can't be seen as intentional. Remember the saying: "Never mistake for malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence."

Cheers,

Ron

Irish Presbyterian said...

Ron,

I was simply trying to respond in a friendly manner to your post and would have been happy to have the constructive criticism. The reason I came to your blog was because I appreciated your discussion and a lot of what you had said. However, your insults are not befitting of a Ruling Elder. Especially this:

"I've come to appreciate that when one parades his foolishness before others, then it really can't be seen as intentional. Remember the saying: "Never mistake for malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence."

(Matthew 5:22)

I have no idea who KC is but I think that calling a brother in Christ a moron is shameful. Having appreciated your work I would have expected better from you.

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

IP,

I didn’t take KC’s remark as having anything to do with you. That was the furthest thing from my mine, but my guess is you may have taken it that way. Nothing in his remark should make you believe that, at least in my estimation. For one thing, as far as I can remember you and I never interacted on the PB though I have seen your name on the board, even in a recent thread I believe. I don't see that our recent exhange on this site would have prompted such a remark as KC's, but I could be wrong.

As for my reply back to KC, let’s review the bidding. It was his belief that things I have said on the PB have been twisted and dodged. Because of that he exclaimed something like “how long will you put up with such nonsense.”
In response, first I pointed to the positive, that it can be a sanctifying experience. I then amplified that remark, saying that it doesn’t really get to me anymore. I proceeded to point out something that has been quite helpful to me and possibly could prove helpful to him. That being, when someone behaves foolishly in a public exchange of wits and in doing so misrepresents another’s position and in turn knocks down straw men, too often those who are on the receiving end of such remarks take their “opponent” (as opponents!) and consequently as one who is attacking them personally. That is quite unfortunate but it happens. I have recognized this in others and from time to time in myself I’m ashamed to say. By God’s grace “I've come to appreciate that when one parades his foolishness before others, then it really can't be seen as intentional.” If we can see that it's not intentional (because nobody would knowingly parade their foolishness), then we're more likely not to take the foolishness as a personal attack. For me, that has been very helpful. With what I believe is a tender heart before the Lord on this matter, I just don’t see my remark as incendiary. It’s just a hard fact of life that people (even Christians) often do behave foolishly and we often see that on message boards. What is also unfortunate is that all too often the people who are on the receiving end of such behavior end up taking things personally, as opposed to actually pitying the person (and even praying for the person, which I actually did the other day when a young man was so foolish as to proclaim that God could be a demon!). With all that said, I think it would be most wise if we all would strive to "Never mistake for malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence."

I sincerely hope you might think the best about me (for your sake as well as mine) and reconsider the manner and the context in which I employed my words. I don’t believe I was engaging in name calling. To reference Matthew 5:22 to me is a bit alarming. I won’t presume to exegete the passage for you but I would encourage you to wrestle before the Lord with what you have suggested in all that you said.

I have no idea who KC is but I think that calling a brother in Christ a moron is shameful. Having appreciated your work I would have expected better from you.

I would encourage you to be careful in lumping people together.

I appreciate your post, IP. Although my conscience does not accuse me, you’ve reminded me to be doubly careful in how I word things, for I would hate for someone like yourself who in some measure appreciates my work to have any hindrance to receiving what could be profitable.

Ron

Anonymous said...

does anyone see the irony in all this? irish presbyterian in his 2nd post did exactly what KC was a talking about...

i do have one question though is why di you ron publish kc's post to begin with?

Irish Presbyterian said...

Ron,

Thanks for the reply. I can now appreciate that there was no personal malice intended in your words. The only point I would add is that, coming from a slightly different cultural background to yourself, I might read certain remarks in a different light. When you said the words
"...one parades his foolishness before others..." I hope that you can see how I might take that as a personal slur in the context of my reply to your excellent article. Even if re-reading your remarks in their context I must apologise for 'lumping' you in with others, I hope you can see how I might have read it as a personal attack.

My reference to Matthew 5:2 was simply to make the point that we must be careful how we say things about others, especially brothers in Christ. It certainly wasn't to suggest you had broken this command. Even if someone can be proved to be entirely right we must reckon with the fact that others may read it differently and we just need to be very careful. That said, I realise that I need to take my own advice.

I still admire your work here and pray that God continues to use it to edify other believers. I just wanted to be honest about how I saw things and I'm glad for your wisdom in your reply.

Thanks, IP

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

The term “moron” may have been a bit much (I agree), but if one has ever experienced the PB he might be a bit sympathetic to KC’s remark and be willing to grant him some latitude. Having said that, if I was indeed guilty for publishing KC’s remark, then I believe I was even more at fault for publishing IP’s remark. After all, IP said my behavior was unbecoming of an elder and that I was in danger of hell fire, and for what?

I try to publish posts such as those if I can in any possible way use them for the good.

Pax,

Ron

P.S. Your original point is noted. I do see the irony of IP's second post. I don't think he comes close to comparing with those KC referred to, unless of course IP digs in and continues to argue his case. I have no reason to believe he will. I have all the hope in the world that he might even retract some of his remarks.

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

These posts are appearing out of order. My response to anonymous was prior to IP's most recent response.

IP,

I was hoping all things and my hopes were met. Thank you for your thoughtful response. Unfortunately, it’s too often a rare thing when someone so quickly makes amends. I’m impressed and grateful.

Thank you for your kind words regarding my musings. And again, your point regarding culture is most appreciated and will serve as a good reminder to me personally.

Ron

polymathis said...

FYI: for an excellent take on obedience and faith, Calvin's sermon on Deut. 7:12ff. is excellent.

In fact, every minister ought to have his sermons on Deuteronomy.

Steven said...

btw Ron

When I linked you to the Stanford Encyclopedia article on the argument you give that foreknowledge is incompatible with free will, I did so so that you could read on different responses to the argument. I don't know if you are necessarily well-acquainted with the various responses out there, so I figured maybe you would like to discuss them.

I didn't link to the article for no reason at all.

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

Thank, Steve.

Ron