This is our acquittal: the guilt that held us liable for punishment has been transferred to the head of the Son of God [Isa. 53:12]. We must, above all, remember this substitution, lest we tremble and remain anxious throughout life–as if God’s righteous vengeance, which the Son of God has taken upon himself, still hung over us.
–John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, 2 vols., Library of Christian Classics (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1:509-10.
The love, therefore, wherewith God loveth, is incomprehensible and immutable. For it was not from the time that we were reconciled unto Him by the blood of His Son that He began to love us; but He did so before the foundation of the world, that we also might be His sons along with His Only-begotten, before as yet we had any existence of our own. Let not the fact, then, of our having been reconciled unto God through the death of His Son be so listened to or so understood, as if the Son reconciled us to Him in this respect, that He now began to love those whom He formerly hated, in the same way as enemy is reconciled to enemy, so that thereafter they become friends, and mutual love takes the place of their mutual hatred; but we were reconciled unto Him who already loved us, but with whom we were at enmity because of our sin. Whether I say the truth on this, let the apostle testify, when he says: “God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He, therefore, had love toward us even when we were practising enmity against Him and working iniquity; and yet to Him it is said with perfect truth, “Thou hatest, O Lord, all workers of iniquity.” Accordingly, in a wonderful and divine manner, even when He hated us, He loved us; for He hated us, in so far as we were not what He Himself had made; and because our own iniquity had not in every part consumed His work, He knew at once both how, in each of us, to hate what we had done, and to love what He had done.
Books by Augustine
In the first place we shall, of course, remember that all that we have received has been by grace. And if those who hold the Reformed faith do greater justice to the idea of God’s grace in the salvation of sinners, then they ought to be the humblest of all men. They ought to enter most sympathetically into the mind and heart of him who makes this objection. Did they not themselves kick against the pricks and rebel against the overtures of God’s grace?
And this attitude of humility holds over against those who with him name the name of Christ, as well as over against the unbeliever. With Bavinck let us say that all true Christians are at heart Augustinian and with Warfield let us say that every Christian who calls out unto God in anguish of heart is really a Calvinist.
Books by Van Til
What is this book about?
This book is about the atonement (6, 9) as it is viewed objective and subjectively, that is, the atonement seen both from the perspective of historia salutis (i.e. Christ’s once-for-all accomplishment of redemption) and ordo salutis (Christ’s application of redemption to his church). On the former, professor Murray treats the necessity, nature, perfection, and extent of the atonement; on the latter, he explains effectual calling, regeneration, conversion (faith and repentance), justification, adoption, sanctification, union with Christ, and glorification. Therefore, professor Murray treats succinctly the various topics that you may find in a larger dogmatics or systematic theology textbooks under the sections on the work of Christ and/or soteriology.
This little book’s great importance lies in how it introduces the reader to the big picture of Christ’s mediatorial work. Without understanding that Christ first accomplishes salvation for us and then dispenses his benefits to us (i.e. objective accomplishment, then subjective application; historia salutis, then ordo salutis) Christians are led into all manners of Pelagian heresies (i.e. most of what passes for American “Christianity” these days); for, without Christ’s full, objective mediatorial work, we are left in a sea of subjectivity, without a perfect law-keeper, without a perfect satisfaction, without an advocate before the Father, without a great High Priest in the heavenlies praying for us and ministering his Gospel benefits to us. In a word, then, this book is about the big picture of how the Gospel works: Christ accomplishes salvation for us; then, Christ applies salvation to us.
What is the book’s context?
John Murray (1898-1975) was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. This book is primarily didactic, rather than polemic. Professor Murray sets forth his arguments plainly from Holy Scripture. The few polemical elements that enter into Murray’s purview are aimed at 20th century liberalism (31) and mysticism (77, 168). All in all the reader can expect a straightforward, humble explanation of the atonement from a Reformed perspective.
What is unique about the book’s content?
Readers will appreciate Murray’s keen ability to succinctly define theological terms, such as: propitiate (30), sin (32), faith (107), justification (119), et. al. Thus, Murray leads you along and teaches you along the way, rather than speaking over your head.
Also, Professor Murray is an organized and systematic thinker. His arguments proceed in outlined form and follow logical sequences. You may disagree at points with Murray’s argument; but, you will probably never complain of Murray being unclear or disorganized.
Furthermore, Reformed readers will appreciate Murray’s confessional sensibility and creativity. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms are always humming implicitly just below the surface, popping up explicitly at times in Murray’s thoughts.
The one aspect of Murray’s presentation I found odd is the chapter on “union with Christ” (ch. 9). I don’t mean odd in the sense of wrong, quite the contrary–This chapter was perhaps my favorite of the whole book! However, it seems odd in the sense of out of place in Murray’s line of thinking.
In Murray’s argument, the eternal aspect of redemption precedes and grounds the entire accomplishment and application of redemption (163-164). In other words, union with Christ “is in itself a very broad and embracive subject” which “when viewed, according to the teaching of Scripture, in its broader aspects it underlies every step of the application of redemption” (161). If the eternal grounds the temporal at “every step,” then it would seem more appropriate to move the chapter on union with Christ to the beginning of the book, allowing the eternal plan to ground both the accomplishment and the application of redemption. Such a re-arrangement of chapters would allow God’s glory to come into its own as, to use the Reformed dogmatics terms, the pactum salutis would precede and ground both the historia and ordo salutis (or, to use trinitarian concepts, the opera Dei ad intra precede and ground the ad extra).
Murray’s own comments at the start of ch. 9 indicate that he himself was not comfortable with how he arranged the placement of ch. 9. However, my contention is that the principles Murray was driving at when discussing the eternal union with Christ ought to be strengthened so as to come into their rightful place in relating the heavenly realm to the earthly, giving full priority and preeminence to the former. Such an effort to ground redemption fully in God’s eternal glory may require a new title as well: Redemption Planned; Redemption Accomplished; Redemption Applied.
Overview: My personal statement on justification
For last semester’s systematics 3 course I was required to write a very brief (no more than 5 pp.) “personal statement” on the doctrine of justification. Furthermore, the professor asked us to read Richard Gaffin‘s By Faith, Not By Sight and a couple of chapters from N. T. Wright’s What St. Paul Really Said and to include some interaction with these books in our personal statement. (How one could accomplish this task in 5 pp. or less is beyond me!)
Being a Presbyterian, the leitmotif of my tradition’s application of Scripture to the question, How does God justify sinners?, is found in the Westminster Standards. So, my personal essay is an attempt to briefly explain the main parts of “justification” as defined by the Westminster Shorter Catechism question 33.
I thought the point I made from Gaffin’s work about justification being a multi-dimensional/eschatological act is important; the grader, however, thought I didn’t interact enough with Gaffin’s book. (I plead the 5pp. requirement as too restrictive for the task I was asked to do.) Perhaps I could have done more to bring out Gaffin’s main emphases, especially that the Christian life (of which justification is surely an aspect) is at every point resurrection life.
My entry into the vast (and growing) corpus from N. T. Wright is puny. Perhaps this is partly the cause of the grader challenging my point on Wright’s ecclesiology. He or she did not like my statement in the third to last paragraph:
Rather, Wright’s definition of justification only offers sinners ecclesiastical acceptance in one another’s sight.
At this early point in my reading of Wright on justification (and I’ve got more than a long ways to go, I freely admit), I don’t care if he wants to re-define terms (like making “justification” an ecclesial concept rather than a soteriological concept) for his own creative pedagogical purposes, as long as–and here come my beef–he doesn’t do away with the substance of soteriology. Specifically, at least one aspect of soteriology’s substance that I find troubling in Wright’s formulations is that Christ’s active obedience is not as robust (explicit?) as it ought to be to reflect the New Testament’s presentation of the law-keeping Christ (as opposed to merely the penalty-paying Christ).
In my small theological experience thus far, Reformed covenant theology appears to let all of the aspects of Christ’s obedience come into their own in a robust manner that exceeds lesser formulations. (The first-second Adam motif comes to mind in terms of biblical theology; The covenant of life/works and covenant of grace comes to mind in terms of systematics.) Therefore, with my aforementioned qualifications/self-maledictions in mind, I am still waiting to see where Wright deals with the imputation of Christ’s obedience (in all of its aspects: law-keeping and penalty-paying) to the elect.
Read and Respond to my Paper
As always, I’d love to hear your comments, critiques, etc., as I seek to live more faithfully in Christ’s light. For those of you who have read more Wright than me, can you point me to where he discusses (or discounts?) Christ’s active obedience?
As a follow up to his recent interview on 60 minutes regarding Joel Osteen’s heterodox theology, Dr. Mike Horton published a review of Osteen’s latest book, Become a Better You. The essence of Horton’s review comes as no surprise:
- Osteen preaches a health-and-wealth/prosperity Gospel, which comes across even more strongly in this second book (as compared with Your Best Life Now).
- Osteen changes the Christian Gospel by redefining orthodox terms such as faith, sin, salvation, blessing, deliverance, etc., into subjective, works-righteousness Pelagianism.
Behind the smile lurks a theology that will rob you of the Gospel’s joyous freedom. The seed of success is not deep within yourself, waiting for you to draw it out as Osteen would have you believe. The only seed that will save you from sin and death is the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15), God’s own Son, who was “born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5 ESV).
(To see the Hebrew text you need the free Ezra SIL SR unicode font.)
We have seen that the blessed man is like a tree. Now the text invites us to explore further into the nature of the blessings attained by “treeness.”
שָׁת֪וּל עַֽל־פַּלְגֵ֫י מָ֥יִם
Specifically, the blessed man is like a tree which “was transplanted by channels of water.” First, what does it mean to be planted/transplanted?
Qal Passive Participle: “to be planted/transplanted” (שָׁת֪וּל)
The blessed tree is one that is planted. (The verb can mean both “plant” and “transplant.” Here it is likely the former. See TWOT, II:960.) The passive participle used here as an adjective to describe the tree implies that there is a planter. Who, then, is the planter? The following factors help to answer this question:
- Common sense (i.e. trees do not plant themselves),
- the grammar of the passive participle,
- the transplanted tree imagery as it is used in the prophets (i.e. Ezekiel 17; Ezekiel 19; Hosea 9:13),
- and the same imagery used elsewhere in the Psalter (i.e. Psalm 92:12-15 ) all lead the reader to the answer: Yahweh is the sovereign Planter who plants the blessed tree.
What might first appear to be a minute grammatical point about a passive participle yields an important truth about man’s relation to God: No man plants himself by God’s life-giving waters; rather, God Himself plants His own blessed trees. Let no man think he can take initiative on his own in becoming a Torah-keeper (i.e. a covenant of works); God of His own initiative transplants dead, Torah-breaking stumps from their dry desert graves to His lush, life-giving riverbanks (i.e. a covenant of grace). In Matthew Henry’s words:
The divine blessing produces real effects. It is the happiness of a godly man, [1.] That he is planted by the grace of God. These trees were by nature wild olives, and will continue so till they are grafted anew, and so planted by a power from above. Never any good tree grew of itself; it is the planting of the Lord, and therefore he must in it be glorified. Isa. lxi. 3, The trees of the Lord are full of sap.
In the next post we’ll look at the next qualifier of the blessed man’s “treeness”: What does it mean to be planted “by rivers of water”?
Thesis: God even uses hurts to sanctify Christians
Positioning himself in a long line of Christian tradition that seeks to draw Christians onto the “way of life” (i.e. Didache 1:1-2; c.f. Deut. 30:19, Psa. 1:1-2; John 14:6) with promised blessing, healing, and restoration, Dan Allender’s The Healing Path summons doubting, despairing, and disappointed Christians to embrace these downfalls as God’s strange tools of healing along the path of faith, hope and love.1
In essence, Dr. Allender seeks to give Christians a grand change in perspective: instead of being controlled by the devastating effects of the Fall, Christians are to see how God is controlling even the fallen world (with all of its hurts, lost dreams, devastations, etc.) in such a way as to invite them into His glorious joy, if believers will only see their lives from His perspective. In mode, Dan’s book is a cry for restoring human dignity.
Through his creative, playful, and engaging writing one cannot help but feel Allender’s keen awareness of both the majesty of human dignity created in God’s image and the devastation of sin’s defacing that magnificent dignity.2 And it is in this crux of devastation, an overwhelming tension between what is and what was supposed to be, that Dan challenges his readers to live with holy discontent. He wants Christians to see that God restores our dignity-He makes us more human; He gives us back the dignity that humanity lost (and continues to deface).3 And further, Dr. Allender attempts to take us by the hand to show us how God gives humanity back its dignity amidst the brokenness of life.4
With this goal in mind Dan speaks to the inner parts of the heart, wooing readers to the risk of hope with evocative and earthy illustrations that put into words the heartfelt desires for redemption that are often difficult to communicate on one’s own.. He whets Christians’ palette with the taste of glory. This book is most helpful in peeling back the lid if your heart and guiding you into the dark crevices, both revealing the brokenness and hurt and then helping you to find language to express the strange pains on your insides. In other words, The Healing Path is a useful aid in learning the grammar of the human soul.
As good as Allender’s book is in terms of understanding one’s own heart, however, it evidences some serious weaknesses in terms of explaining how one finds and treads God’s healing path.
Critique: Without the objective accomplishment of salvation by Christ as the robust foundation for the application of Christ’s benefits, one risks subjectivity and Pelagianism
As necessary and useful as it is to learn how to diagnose the hurts in one’s own soul, the subjective application of Christianity’s redemption is powerless without first being robustly connected to Christ’s objective accomplishment of redemption. The one is not possible without the other. There is one mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5); all of the benefits of redemption are bound up in Christ’s person and work (Eph. 1:3) before being applied as gifts to Christ’s people (Eph. 2:8-10). Therefore, it is incorrect and misleading to invite Christians onto the healing path in order to receive the benefits of redemption without drawing believers’ faith onto the accomplished work of the Mediator.
In other words, the danger of Allender’s work is not one of saying untrue things about the application of redemption, but of not clearly giving the whole story, the accomplishment in Christ before the application to believers, the objective and the subjective. This theological deficiency reveals itself time and again in Dr. Allender’s practical applications. Notice, for example, how a lack of clarity on the objective work of Christ accomplished in history on behalf of the elect leads to a confusing, Pelagian-like exhortation to meet God half-way with open arms:
Opening the heart to face the complexity of living in this world requires waiting for truth to come to us. We are to move toward reality, but we can’t go the whole distance; truth must come to us. We are to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, but change-profound, unquestionably supernatural transformation-comes not from our will, but from God’s mercy. We must stretch out our arms to life, but God arrives when he wills.5
The exhortation to “stretch out our arms to life” in the tension of the fact that “God arrives when he wills”–a description of the application of redemption to a world not yet totally renewed–only makes sense in terms of one who knows he is already an adopted son of God through Christ’s objective accomplishment of salvation for him. Without this objective work, the believer has no reason to wait in hope and no ability to stretch out his arms (Romans 3).
Furthermore, in terms of redemption accomplished, believers do not have to “wait for truth to come” because Truth Himself (John 14:6) has already come in Christ both in His own person and work and in His outpouring of His Spirit on all believers (i.e. Joel 2, Acts 2). “Supernatural transformation” depends wholly on God’s work accomplished in Christ objectively, in real history 2,000 years ago, being now applied by the same Mediator, our Great High Priest whose subjective application of mercy to us is grounded in His objective work (Hebrews).
Going directly to subjective application of Christ’s benefits without referring to the objective accomplishment of Christ’s earning salvation is what causes the Pelagian confusion: without the objective work of Christ believers are awash in a world of subjectivity, having no hope that Christ will “show up” or “lean into our situation” as Allender likes to say.
Another place reveals the same Pelagian proclivity. Dr. Allender again attempts to apply the benefits of sanctification directly to believers without any reference to Christ as the sanctifier of His people, the objective (outward and ordinary, WSC 88) means of grace God has given for our sanctification, etc:
We all want to change, but change requires a herculean effort that seldom brings the immediate benefits needed to reinforce the initial cost and disruption change entails. The formula for change seems to be: high cost today–no gain for a long, long, time; high gain in the distant future–if one perseveres daily in hope.6
Again, rather than pointing his readers first to Christ’s coming down to earth to accomplish the salvation and sanctification of His people and to Christ’s ascending to the throne of heaven to be vindicated as Lord of Heaven and Earth and to give as gifts the benefits of salvation to His children (gifts including sanctification), Dr. Allender points his readers to themselves with a vague exhortation that “reaching out to eternity is to live with an unquenchable hope, refusing to resign to being as we are in the world as it is.”7
This exhortation turns the Scriptural pattern on its head. For, in the Scriptures, God (eternity) comes to man on God’s own initiative and through God’s appointed Mediator; this pattern is seen most clearly in God’s sending His Son as the incarnate Christ (John 1; 3:16). God only sees His children through the lens (as it were) of the Mediator. And as it is with God, so with man: God’s children only see God in the face of Christ. It follows, then, that applying God’s benefits to man must come via the Mediator.
Dangerous Subjectivism: Faith = Memory
Dr. Allender’s penchant for subjectivism (a failure to show how the objective work of God’s Mediator relates to the subjective application of redemption) is dangerously clear in one striking passage in which he grounds faith completely on the believers subjective memory rather than in God’s gift (Eph. 2:8). Notice how this dangerous subjectivising move kills any chance for a believer to know (contra John 17:3; 21:24; 1 John 5:13) that the objective Christ did empty Himself, taking on flesh for the accomplishment of our redemption in real time and space:
The external world and our internal gyroscope are never so clear that we have absolute assurance that a personal God is at work redeeming us. Instead, we have a gallery of pictures-a wall of remembrance that holds the faces of the actors in our lives who spoke their part in the play of our redemption.8
Nothing but a “gallery of pictures” in our own minds? This strong subjectivity is foreign–yea an offense–to the Christian Gospel as proclaimed in the Holy Scriptures. For in the Scriptures salvation is everywhere rooted in God’s objective work in Christ; salvation depends wholly on Christ’s work outside of me, not my memory of that work inside my own head. Read 1 Corinthians 15! Without this objective work outside of me there is no salvation to be applied to me! “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”9
Still a helpful book if read critically
Such examples of Dr. Allender’s skipping over the objective work of Christ to directly apply the subjective benefits of Salvation abound in this book, and the discerning Christian reader will not want to skim lightly over this shortcoming. Furthermore, much more could be said on issues that stem from this root problem, such as Dan’s misguided approach to ecclesiology.10 Nevertheless, in spite of these strong concerns Dr. Allender has given Christians a book that can be of great use, especially in terms of learning the grammar of the soul, as long as the reader engages this soul-reading activity with one eye fixed firmly on the objective work of God’s only Mediator between God and man, our strong Saviour, Jesus Christ.
10. For example, Dr. Allender, a professional psychologist (neither a pastor nor a theologian) prescribes an ecclesiological view that downplays the spirituality of the church, blends general and special office, has no use of the means of grace, etc. etc. (see chapter 12). His ecclesiological view is thus misguided in that he makes no reference to the spiritual weapons that God has prescribed for the church with which to fight its spiritual holy war: preaching of the Word of Christ, administrating Christ’s sacraments, and enforcing Christ’s discipline.
Although the Gospel’s light shines into our deepest darknesses, giving God’s people freedom from sin’s slavery, the dread blackness of shame, especially shame from sexual addictions, constantly deceives Christians into shutting their eyes. Sexual sin leaves one awash in an ocean of guilt, feeling as if the True Light is not already shining. Is the Gospel of Christ powerful enough to give true and certain freedom from the power and debilitation of shame’s blinding darkness?
In his penetrating and practical article, Gutsy Guilt, Pastor John Piper points Christians to Christ’s brilliant victory. Turning to Colossians 2, Piper explains the foundation upon which Christians can boldly open their eyes to the objective light of Christ and the benefits of His victory over sin and death. Surprisingly, the way Christians conquer the shame of sin is through Christ’s shaming of sin on the cross. Only with such a powerful weapon as Christ’s shaming victory can Christians overcome the false shame of sexual sin, or any other sin.
Here’s the opening to Pipers powerful article:
The closest I have ever come in 26 years to being fired from my position as a pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church was in the mid-1980s, when I wrote an article for our church newsletter titled “Missions and Masturbation.” I wrote the article after returning from a missions conference in Washington, D.C., with George Verwer, the head of Operation Mobilization.
Verwer’s burden at that conference was the tragic number of young people who at one point in their lives dreamed of radical obedience to Jesus, but then faded away into useless American prosperity. A gnawing sense of guilt and unworthiness over sexual failure gradually gave way to spiritual powerlessness and the dead-end dream of middle-class security and comfort. (Read the full article…)