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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.