WHEN LAW BECOMES GRACE

There are those who will immediately bridle at such a title, who make the distinction that the law of God can never become synonymous with the grace of God. After all, aren’t we told in the gospel of John, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ?” And isn’t that a dialectic statement permanently pitting the two aspects of God’s revelation against one another?

The answer to the first question above is yes, we are told that; the answer to the second question, however, is no, and because of the focus on these issues presently going on within the broader confines of what could be called orthodox evangelicalism (for want of a better term), this negative answer to the second of the two questions posed needs some qualification.

While admitting that there are many extremely gifted men of God within what we have labeled orthodox evangelicalism, it is necessary to see where such a distinction that denies the law any part of the grace of God contained therein comes from, and this we will do quite simply. We do not claim to be as gifted in exegesis as many (if not most) of these men (whom we will not name separately for what should be obvious reasons). Not all of these men in these movements that deny the perpetuity of the moral law of God actually advocate lawlessness in living, and often, quite the opposite. The problem lies in their denial of God’s moral law as an extension of His character which was not abrogated, as were the ceremonial and civil laws of the nation Israel, which, in and of itself, can be referred to as “doctrinal antinomianism.”  Antinomianism simply means “against the law,” and doctrinal antinomianism may not lead to practical (practicing) antinomianism, but often, sadly, does that very thing. It is chiefly in denying the perpetuity of God’s moral law, most especially in the Reformed understanding of the third use of the law, that this error propagates itself, and often, it is more those who come after the teachers of doctrinal antinomianism who advocate a practical antinomianism which focuses on God’s grace to the exclusion of good works (the error Paul refers to in Romans 6:1, 15).

For the purposes of this article, we do claim that the understanding of the three-fold use of the law, as understood within Reformed orthodoxy, is the proper biblical understanding of that border where law, indeed, becomes grace, and that it is within the confines of various other camps which deny the perpetuity of the usefulness of God’s law to the believer from which the unnecessary dichotomy, pitting God’s law against His grace, has come.

It must be understood that the term “law,” as used in both the New Testament and the Old, has reference to various things, which are defined within their context. For instance, sometimes it is referring to what theologians call “the law of nature,” while in other places it refers to the fullness of the expression of the rites and ceremonies of the Mosaic Law; in still other places it refers to the Decalogue, which, while written on tablets of stone in the establishment of the Mosaic economy, is said to be written on the hearts of all those who come to know God and Christ savingly. These categorical uses, as already said, are determined largely by context.

There are various schools of thought regarding the abrogation of the law of God as set forth in the Old and New Testaments, where one is pitted against the other, as already mentioned above. Since many great works by many gifted theologians are available to study these matters, it is not the purpose of this article to attempt to go into an in-depth study of these various views, but to promote, in as few words as possible, that which is commonly known, in Reformed theology, as the three-fold use of the law, for it is within such an understanding that the third use of the law is seen as proceeding from grace, rather than being replaced, in any manner, by grace (see, for instance, Romans 3:31).

A few brief definitions will be helpful, at this point.

Since the law, in all its forms, derives from the only true Lawmaker, God, the Scriptures state that in all its forms, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good…the law is spiritual” (Romans 7:12, 14). To gain further confirmation of the character of the law, a reading of Psalm 119 is highly instructive; in shorter form, Psalm 19:7-11 gives us insight into this character of the law.

In Romans, Paul, right before saying “the law…commandment is holy,” has made reference to the Tenth commandment from the Decalogue, and as with all other partial references to the inscripturated form of God’s moral law from the Decalogue that occur in the New Testament, this should be understood as an affirming of the entirety of the moral character of that law (cf. Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 22:37-40), which is to say, it is not subject to fleshly frailties. Again, in Romans 7:14, when Paul states that the law is spiritual, he compares it diametrically to the character of the flesh: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.” This comparison establishes that, like God, the law is spiritual, which is to say moral, and not subject to change, as it derives its spiritual character from He who gives it.

Again, because the essence, or character, of the moral law is of God’s character, it does not change, since He does not change. Where further delineation of the moral law of God is given in various ceremonial and civil commandments, these do not limit the nature of the law, as to its essence, but rather, the limitation is specifically pertaining to its application according to those ceremonial and civil laws as they are given in the covenantal context they occur within. This would mean that the application of the moral law under the economy of the Old Covenant was instituted according to the regulations God instituted which particularly pertain to that economy, and in the New Covenant, likewise, which, while the essence of the moral law can be seen not to change, the implementation of it in the required services to God parallel the specific economy. [1]

Paul again shows that the moral law of God is first seen in its natural setting, which natural setting shows the attributes of God, from whom the law derives:

Romans 1:19-20: For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Natural revelation reveals what may be known about God, but due to man’s corrupt nature, this natural revelation is not salvific. Additionally, because what may be known of God is clearly perceived in natural revelation, the moral law of God is likewise clearly perceived, for His attributes are the basis of that moral law. Since God is “holy and good” as well as altogether righteous, merciful, loving, etc. – indeed, since these qualities all derived from God’s very nature – and since the law is defined, throughout Scripture, as having these qualities, every revelation and definition of the law in Scripture may be understood as affirming that which is essential of God’s nature. We already viewed this, above, in Romans 7:12, 14, and Psalm 19.

Simply to view that God is holy and good, in infinite and eternal measure, unchangeably, we can refer to some short statements about God’s nature from Scripture. We have noted, above, that the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good…spiritual, and we may also note that God is spoken of as holy, righteous and good, as well as spiritual, in such Scripture citations as 1 Peter 1:16 (cf. Leviticus 19:2, 20:7), Psalm 145:17, 100:5, and John 4:24.  The references could be multiplied, but these will suffice to show the link between God’s moral law and His character. Both are described as spiritual for a very marked reason, which is that both are invisible, eternal, infinite, and unchangeable, since the moral law proceeds from the very character of God.

In reference to the moral law being that which marks out the character of a Christian as the result of the deposit of God’s grace within them, we will simply mention one Scripture and expand upon the meaning.

In 1 Peter 1:16, we are told, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” This is a restatement of that which was spoken to Israel when the law was given through Moses, as we see in Leviticus 19:2 and 20:7. There is a context for the passages in Leviticus, and that context is the ten words, otherwise known as the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, given in Exodus 20:1-17. It is understood that all of the Ten Commandments are the eternal foundation of every temporary ceremonial and civil statute given to the nation Israel, and therefore these ceremonial and civil laws have sometimes been defined as “the holiness code.” The purpose of the temporal, positive extensions[2] of the Decalogue among the people of the nation of Israel was to set them apart as the covenant people of God, therefore the reference and description “holiness code” (Deuteronomy 4:1-8). Although the ceremonial and civil laws were never intended to be eternal, they set apart the nation of Israel from all other nations on the earth as being the covenant people of God.

In like manner, Peter’s restatement that the eternal reality of God’s holiness is to be mirrored in His people has a context. He contrasts the price paid for those in the New Covenant directly with, first, precious metals, in v. 18, and second, indirectly, with the temporal nature of the ceremonial sacrifices of bulls, goats and other animals which prefigured the eternal sacrifice of the Lamb of God, in v. 19. We see this contrast more prominently in Hebrews 10:1-14.

These two Scripture references from 1 Peter and Hebrews give us the context of both God’s wrath and grace, which two attributes are inherent in His holiness.[3] By Christ’s sacrifice of Himself God’s wrath against sin (unholiness) is forever appeased for those He calls to Himself, and Christ’s righteousness is given to those same people who believe by grace given faith. Perfect obedience to God’s law was necessary, and having obeyed that perfectly, Christ offered Himself with the body God prepared for Him for our sins, which sins include our imperfect obedience. God then raised Him for our justification. Again, both these points are brought out simply in Roman 4:25, so we see that the justification which Christ earned for His people is imputed to them after that which offends God has been put to death. When considered in this way, God’s admonition through Moses, the prophets, Peter (indeed, throughout Scripture) to be holy, for I am holy, is contextually relative to our nature as redeemed children of God. We cannot literally be as holy as God, therefore, we must understand such admonitions to be striving towards that perfection of the imago dei that only exists in our Lord glorified, knowing that God will grant to us this full conformity of His command at the time He graciously completes our salvation in glory. In a practical aspect, it means to set one’s self apart for worshipful service to God because He has set one apart to Him in Christ.

It is in this manner that God’s moral law became grace, in that Christ fulfilled it, and imputed that righteousness which He earned as the firstborn of the new creation to those who place their faith in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 8:29; Colossians 1:15, 18). Because our Lord not only paid the penalty for our sins, but fulfilled the righteous requirement of the law of God, we who are joined by faith to Him are also said to fulfill that requirement, and are also constrained to follow after those eternal laws which depend from God’s own being, not for attaining right standing with God, but because in Christ, we have attained right standing with God (Romans 3:31; cf. 2 Peter 1:5-8; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14). Good works, as spoken of in the Scriptures of the New Testament as those works which are to be performed by the Christian, are not a means of attaining right standing with God, but the result of that right standing attained by faith in Christ through God’s grace, and are indeed ordained. To separate the meaning of the moral law from the meaning of good works which are preordained in Christ for those who have been saved by His grace is to separate out that unique character of being God’s children, and indeed, every list in the New Testament which mentions good works may easily be traced to the Decalogue (Ephesians 2:10; Galatians 5:22-23). This may also be observed in negative prohibitions of those sins which are a violation of the law (Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 4:17-32). Any discerning student of the Word of  God will readily acknowledge that both the negative prohibitions and the positive admonitions and commands in such lists harken back to the two tables of the law, respectively.

Therefore, to be holy because God is holy is to behave in a manner consistent with the regenerate life which is being conformed into the image of He who lived perfectly according to that same moral law of God. This is why, in Romans 3:31, the apostle Paul clearly states that our faith upholds or establishes the law. It is an agreement that those who are of the faith of Christ our Lord acknowledge the moral law of God as an accurate expression of His character and a fit meter to measure and further mold our conformity to that character as image bearers being conformed into He who is the ultimate image bearer of God (Colossians 1:15 [4]). Since it (this agreement with and obedience to) stems from grace through God’s decree, it is no more a burden that crushes those who are His in Christ, but a helper which proceeds from that same grace from which the holy character of each believer is being formed into towards that day of completion at the eschaton. Keeping the commandments of God, therefore, is both from that love that God lavished upon us in Christ, and an expression of our reciprocal, grace-dependant love of God (1 John 5:3). Therefore, it could rightly be said that, in the sense of the believer agreeing with the moral law of God, and behaving in accordance with that agreement to His moral law by a new nature imparted (Romans 6:1-4), that that which was before beyond our ability to obey is now a means of measuring our fulfillment of such commands of our God to be holy, as He is holy. That which proceeds from ordained grace is, itself, of that grace, therefore, in this sense, the law (moral) is gracious, and obedience to it is, in itself, a result of and form of that same grace.

Since nature reveals God’s divine attributes, the revelation of nature may be understood to show that which is true of the moral law of God. What can be known about God is clearly perceived; therefore what is properly moral is, likewise, clearly perceived. This representation of God through nature is known as the “natural revelation,” in theology proper (cf. above citation from Romans 1:19-20 with Psalms 19:2-6), and as it reveals the moral law that is consistent with God’s attributes, this natural revelation of the moral law is known as the “law of nature.” [5]

The basic premise of this article is thus established, and that is this: God did not give us to do good works to obtain our salvation, but as the visible fruit, or evidence, of the new nature He alone imparts to those who then exercise faith in Christ, and repentance for their sin.

Rather than being a co-mingling of grace and law, as various opponents of the Reformed definition of the three part use of the law have caricatured it, such living out good works is the  divinely powered outcome of a new life imparted.

The opponents of the Reformed three fold division of the use of the law of God have not, at this point, or at any point in church history, successfully discounted the Scripture which states that good works are ordained by God for those connected by His grace-given faith to Christ, and indwelt by His Spirit to perform, even in part, such good works. Scripture citations which they fail to adequately account for are Matthew 5:17-18, Romans 3:31, Ephesians 2:10, Titus 2:14, and indeed, a plethora of other passages which they either mistranslate, misunderstand, or otherwise seek to explain away. These opponents, although oftentimes well meaning, thus undermine the very expression of the life of Christ within us through teaching that, while not necessarily explicitly maintaining that one live a life of non-conformity to the perpetual moral law of God as revealed throughout Scripture, often results in those who follow their teaching in a manner that ends up, sadly, doing that very thing, and calling it grace (See Romans 6 references above).

God’s grace has, thus, insured that, however haltingly, we abandon lawlessness and live in expression of His perfections in Christ. He has done so by giving us a new nature, and indwelling that new nature with His Spirit to reproduce that conformity to Christ who lived God’s law perfectly. Living in conformity to Christ produces those grace-given good works of His moral law which are a signal evidence of Christ dwelling in us.

SDG –Bill

[1] See Chapter 19, 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (hereafter LBCF). Also helpful is Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, regarding the various uses of the terms for God’s law and the manifestation of the same.

[2] A discussion of the various functions of the law of God in the Scripture is beyond the scope of this article, however, regarding positive extensions in reference to the Decalogue, which represents the Moral Law of God in inscripturated form, such are said to be positive law(s); that is, they are commanded by God based upon the foundation of His Moral Law, but are not themselves intended to last forever, being temporally connected to their respective covenants. Examples would be circumcision, animal sacrifices, baptism, & etc.

[3] Although it may properly be said that God’s wrath is an attribute which may be described separately, as with all God’s attributes, it may also be properly said that this attribute is not one part of God, and another of His attributes is another part of God; rather, He is the infinite, eternal, immutable sum of His attributes, and His attributes are equally who He is in sum, definitionally speaking. That is to say, His holiness is not simply one part of Him, any more than His love is only a part of Him, but as we say that God is love, we may also say that He is wrath, righteousness, etc. We cannot split off parts of God as if He is a temporal being such as ourselves. He is completely who He is, and each attribute is as much of His essence as the other, which is to say, completely, so that holiness is inextricably interconnected with goodness, love, knowledge, wrath, etc. It should be noted, however, that out of all His attributes, that which most defines Him, in relation to His uniqueness of being as the only God (there are none others like HimIsaiah 45:21-22), is His holiness.

[4] The intent of this passage in Colossians is to show that Christ is deity; it is also to show that He is “the firstborn of all creation,” however, meaning the new creation which began at His resurrection, and will culminate at His return. Although “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2), this being like Him has particular reference to His glorified humanity, not His deity, thus, He is “the firstborn” of the new humanity which will inhabit the new creation of God.

[5] Lex naturalls: natural law; also lex naturae: law of nature; the universal moral law either impressed by God upon the mind of all people or immediately discerned by the reason in its encounter with the order of nature. The natural law was therefore available even to those pagans who did not have the advantage of the Sinaitic revelation and the lex Mosaica (q.v.), with the result that they were left without excuse in their sins, convicted by conscientia (q.v.). The scholastics argue the identity of the lex naturalis with the lex Mosaica or lex moralis quoad substantiam, according to substance, and distinguish them quoad formam, according to form. The lex naturalis is inward, written on the heart and therefore obscure, whereas the lex Mosaica is revealed externally and written on tablets and thus of greater clarity.

Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology.

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“Just Click”

Certain doctrines should “just click” with those who seek to know God as He has revealed Himself in His special revelation to those who are His people.

For instance, that God is immutable (unchangeable) should preclude any teaching on the Doctrine of God that even comes close to suggesting that He has made Himself mutable (changeable) in any manner. The Scripture is just too clear on the fact that God does not change, period, and any suggested relational or analogical arguments to the contrary are based on a number of philosophies of man that, while seeking to guise themselves in the veneer of being based on the Biblical facts, in fact, ignore the overall context of His Scriptures.

There are some Scripture passages that actually do “stand on their own” (Although I would be one who is quick to assert that although some passages stand on their own, no single passage of Scripture stands alone). Among them are passages we value greatly, to our finite and eternal comfort and standing.

Malachi 3:6:  “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.

How does one circumvent such a passage as this with appeals to isolated anthropomorphisms and/or anthropopathisms, even when such an appeal is to various Scripture references that those so proposing these malleable qualities to our God are multiplied, without consideration of the overall context of Scripture?

The answer is, of course, that such a plain passage cannot, in fact, be circumvented, and no matter the character of those who seek to do so in the pursuit of understanding our relationship with God, there will not come any Scriptural evidence to the contrary that our God, indeed, “does not change.”

Please notice, although a large body of literature by past and present biblical scholars exists, I do not make my appeal to them. It is not that there would not be many more in defense of the classical doctrine of God, or that there are some in defense of various forms of the modified doctrine of God; no, rather, I do not wish to bias the appeal to Scripture at this point with an argument from authority, for I believe (as any unbiased reader of the Scripture must believe, at this point), that there is no ambiguity or verifiable change wrought by the corpus of the entirety of Scripture to this simple statement of our God: “I do not change.”

Wherein, then, inclusive of the entirety of the body of Scripture, are we to understand that our God means, by this unequivocal statement (that He does not change), as to His unique essence, or being, but that He does change as to His relation to His creation? Where is this distinction of ontological meaning given us in the Scripture, if it indeed is given (which I purport it is not)?

As a “for instance,” in Genesis 6:6, we are told, “And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” This seems to indicate an actual change in the manner in which God viewed those He created, but in view of His proclamations that we are saved because He does not change, are we to see this statement as if it were indicative of His changing relationally to those He has created? In other words, do we manipulate the Scriptural data in a manner wherein God seemingly contradicts Himself?

Is not the very fact that our God does not change the foundation of our comfort in His promises?

This is not intended to be an exhaustive article on the various anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms of Scripture; rather, it is an invitation for us to view our God as He has presented Himself within that Scripture, for our comfort and benefit.

What it boils down to is whether or not God changes in His intrinsic character – all arguments from anthropomorphisms or anthropopathisms in Scripture do, and indeed must, not only pale, but become the finite representations of aspects of God which they are intended to be, if God, as He presents Himself in Holy Writ, in reality, declares that He does not change, whether intrinsically (as to His infinite, eternal self), or relationally (as those who argue that the anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms given to us to describe characteristics of our God insist is the case, thereby differentiating between God’s eternal, infinite character, and the manner in which He relates to His creation after He, in fact, created).

This is, after all, the crux of the matter: if God changes, those who are His cannot expect His infinite, eternal promises to be effectual, regardless of explanations of His relationship with His creation being in flux because He has, indeed, created. The foundation of our hope is that God cannot lie, and cannot fail to keep His promises, in accordance with His character. If, at any time, His attributes can ebb or increase, or He adds new attributes to Himself to relate to us, our foundation has become that which we are: mutable, like the creation, not the Creator.

The plain fact of the matter is that, despite analogical language (wherein God reveals eternal, infinite aspects of Himself to us by use of terminology we understand in relation to ourselves), we have the assurance of Scripture that tells us, quite plainly, our God does not change.

There are those who appeal to the incarnation, wherein God the Son took upon Himself human form, to show that God, prior to the incarnation, after creating, also took upon Himself relational attributes in order to properly communicate Himself to His creation. However, again, going to the Scripture, we have a plain statement, as to the divinity of God the Son:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)

That this verse is speaking about our Lord’s divinity is apparent, because even during His incarnation, as to His humanity, He “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2:52) This does not presuppose any change to the divine, but rather, the human nature. Our Lord, living as a man, was subject to temptations, suffering, and eventually, death on the cross, as ordained before the world began. All these things establish the fact that our Lord, as to His humanity, was fully human (though without sin), but when we consider His divinity, we are assured that He does not change.

Since this is a short and simple article, at this point, one wonders, why would anyone wish to prove that God, whether the Father, Son or Holy Spirit, indeed does undergo change, in relation to His creation?

One brother whom I respect greatly said that he thought such a modified version of the doctrine of God better explained the biblical data. He then went on to address the passages where God demonstrates aspects of Himself to us in terms which we would use to describe ourselves as proof that such analogical language surely could not be used to simply show us that God does not change, but, in fact, shows us that He does have changes (such as mutable emotions). Passages such as God repenting (being sorry, regretting) that He had made man (Genesis 6:6) and being grieved in His heart for doing so, certainly must mean that God had emotions similar to those we experience, right?

Also, are we not told we can grieve the Holy Spirit of God (Ephesians 4:30)?

We certainly are, and certainly God intends us to understand from such passages that He has emotions (this will be further addressed below), but the question would be, at this point, that although God uses such anthropopathic expressions to define aspects of His eternal, infinite, immutable being to us, are we to assume He intends us to comprehend such as contradicting those other passages which tell us he does not change?

Again, going to the Scripture, we find God stating the difference between Him and His created creatures, through the prophet Balaam:

Numbers 23:19: God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?

The point of the passage is rather obvious. Although God uses analogical language to describe aspects of His eternal, infinite, unchanging character to His creatures, He is not like His creatures in any aspect or respect. Therefore, when we read again that He is not a man that He should repent (have regret) in 1 Samuel 15:29, and that statement comes after God telling Samuel that He regrets having made Saul king (1 Samuel 15:11), we do not understand this as God having emotions such as those He created experience, nor do we understand it as God contradicting Himself. Consequently, because God states so categorically in His Scriptures that He cannot change, and that He is not like His creatures, we must look for evidence in those Scriptures that inform us what, exactly, He means by using such analogical language to define those aspects of Himself which are definitively not like man’s.

Isaiah 46:9-10Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.

Psalm 50 is very instructive in showing the difference between God and those He created. After reciting that which is proper before Him, and that which is not, and what He, as the only One who can and will judge the peoples, He makes this statement:

 

Psalm 50:21:  These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.

This is the verdict from God, who is not such a one as those whom He is judging, to those who lived in a manner where they said they served the Lord, yet were themselves liars, spurned His precepts, agreed with and practiced thievery, and spoke evil and slandered all those around them. His judgment is based in who He is, which never changes, and so is righteous, against those who are the epitome of inconstancy.

Furthermore, God declares He has decreed the end from the beginning, and that His counsel will stand. In that counsel, we know that He decreed, at a certain point and time in redemptive history, to have His Son pay the penalty for the sins of His people. Is it so difficult to understand that God expresses those divine emotions He defines in a manner which sounds similar to His creatures according to decreeing so from evermore? Is it so difficult to believe that this God, who has unequivocally told us that He does not change (and that such immutability is the reason that His decreed mercy keeps us from being consumed by His decreed wrath), has purposed, within that eternal counsel, to express divine anger, love, etc. at specific times and points in His creation, towards various of His creatures, in accord with His will?

In this way, we understand that although God expresses emotions, these are not mutable expressions of change in His being, but decreed expressions of His willed intentions towards various of His creatures, and in this way, we may, indeed, understand that He is not like us whom He created. These decreed expressions are, according to His omniscience, given to interact with His creatures at specific times, in specific places, according to that same active foreknowledge of all the events He decreed coming to pass at those intersections of finite time and space, in order to communicate His will and Himself to His finite creatures, to accomplish His willed ends.

This is perfectly in accord with the language of His decreeing the end from the beginning, and makes perfect sense of the biblical data, so that we do not have to seek to accommodate His manner of being, which has no beginning or end, and cannot be acted upon by an outside agent or force, with the finite means of our understanding.

Indeed, with the apostle, all we can do is behold the infinite, eternal, unchanging God with awestruck wonder, and it seems fitting to end this short article with his words:

Romans 11:33-36: Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

SDG – Bill

Was Louis Berkhof an Antinomian? No.

Let’s let Berkhof speak for himself. Here he is specifically speaking on sanctification.  Please note what Berkhof points out about Karl Bath’s views of justification and sanctification. He writes, “And just as man remains a sinner even after justification, so he also remains a sinner in sanctification, even his best deeds continue to be sins. Sanctification does not engender a holy disposition, and does not gradually purify man. It does not put him in possession of any personal holiness, does not make him a saint, but leaves him a sinner. It really becomes a declarative act like justification. McConnachie, who is a very sympathetic interpreter of Barth, says: “Justification and sanctification are, therefore, to Barth, two sides of one act of God upon men. Justification is the pardon of the sinner (justificatio impii), by which God declares the sinner righteous. Sanctification is the sanctification of the sinner (sanctificatio impii), by which God declares the sinner ‘holy’.” However laudable the desire of Barth to destroy every vestige of work-righteousness, he certainly goes to an unwarranted extreme, in which he virtually confuses justification and sanctification, negatives the Christian life, and rules out the possibility of confident assurance.”

Berkhof states that  Barth is trying to prevent  self-righteousness in the believer but goes too far and confounds justification and sanctification. In fact what he criticizes Barth for, in my opinion, can be said of Tullian Tchividjian and his followers.  To be sure Berkhof is no antinomian but neither is he in the same field as Tullian on this topic.

2. IT CONSISTS OF TWO PARTS. The two parts of sanctification are represented in Scripture as:

a. The mortification of the old man, the body of sin. This Scriptural term denotes that act of God whereby the pollution and corruption of human nature that results from sin is gradually removed. It is often represented in the Bible as the crucifying of the old man, and is thus connected with the death of Christ on the cross. The old man is human nature in so far as it is controlled by sin, Rom. 6:6; Gal. 5:24. In the context of the passage of Galatians Paul contrasts the works of the flesh and the works of the Spirit, and then says: “And they who are of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with the passions and the lusts thereof.” This means that in their case the Spirit has gained predominance.

b. The quickening of the new man, created in Christ Jesus unto good works. While the former part of sanctification is negative in character, this is positive. It is that act of God whereby the holy disposition of the soul is strengthened, holy exercises are increased, and thus a new course of life engendered and promoted. The old structure of sin is gradually torn down, and a new structure of God is reared in its stead. These two parts of sanctification are not successive but contemporaneous. Thank God, the gradual erection of the new building need not wait until the old one is completely demolished. If it had to wait for that, it could never begin in this life. With the gradual dissolution of the old the new makes its appearance. It is like the airing of a house filled with pestiferous odors. As the old air is drawn out, the new rushes in. This positive side of sanctification is often called “a being raised together with Christ,” Rom. 6:4, 5; Col. 2:12; 3:1, 2. The new life to which it leads is called “a life unto God,” Rom. 6:11; Gal. 2:19.

3. IT AFFECTS THE WHOLE MAN: BODY AND SOUL; INTELLECT, AFFECTIONS AND WILL. This follows from the nature of the case, because sanctification takes place in the inner life of man, in the heart, and this cannot be changed without changing the whole organism of man. If the inner man is changed, there is bound to be change also in the periphery of life. Moreover, Scripture clearly and explicitly teaches that it affects both body and soul, 1 Thess. 5:23; 2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 6:12; 1 Cor. 6:15, 20. The body comes into consideration here as the organ or instrument of the sinful soul, through which the sinful inclinations and habits and passions express themselves. The sanctification of the body takes place especially in the crisis of death and in the resurrection of the dead. Finally, it also appears from Scripture that sanctification affects all the powers or faculties of the soul: the understanding, Jer. 31:34; John 6:45;—the will, Ezek. 36:25–27; Phil. 2:13;—the passions, Gal. 5:24;—and the conscience, Tit. 1:15; Heb. 9:14.

4. IT IS A WORK OF GOD IN WHICH BELIEVERS CO-OPERATE. When it is said that man takes part in the work of sanctification, this does not mean that man is an independent agent in the work, so as to make it partly the work of God and partly the work of man; but merely, that God effects the work in part through the instrumentality of man as a rational being, by requiring of him prayerful and intelligent co-operation with the Spirit. That man must co-operate with the Spirit of God follows: (a) from the repeated warnings against evils and temptations, which clearly imply that man must be active in avoiding the pitfalls of life, Rom. 12:9, 16, 17; 1 Cor. 6:9, 10; Gal. 5:16–23; and (b) from the constant exhortations to holy living. These imply that the believer must be diligent in the employment of the means at his command for the moral and spiritual improvement of his life, Micah 6:8; John 15:2, 8, 16; Rom. 8:12, 13; 12:1, 2, 17; Gal. 6:7, 8, 15.
E. The Characteristics of Sanctification

1. As appears from the immediately preceding, sanctification is a work of which God and not man is the author. Only the advocates of the so-called free will can claim that it is a work of man. Nevertheless, it differs from regeneration in that man can, and is in duty bound to, strive for ever-increasing sanctification by using the means which God has placed at his disposal. This is clearly taught in Scripture, 2 Cor. 7:1; Col. 3:5–14; 1 Pet. 1:22. Consistent Antinomians lose sight of this important truth, and feel no need of carefully avoiding sin, since this affects only the old man which is condemned to death, and not the new man which is holy with the holiness of Christ.

2. Sanctification takes place partly in the subconscious life, and as such is an immediate operation of the Holy Spirit; but also partly in the conscious life, and then depends on the use of certain means, such as the constant exercise of faith, the study of God’s Word, prayer, and association with other believers.

3. Sanctification is usually a lengthy process and never reaches perfection in this life. At the same time there may be cases in which it is completed in a very short time or even in a moment, as, for instance, in cases in which regeneration and conversion are immediately followed by temporal death. If we may proceed on the assumption that the believer’s sanctification is perfect immediately after death—and Scripture seems to teach this as far as the soul is concerned—, then in such cases the sanctification of the soul must be completed almost at once.

4. The sanctification of the believer must, it would seem, be completed either at the very moment of death, or immediately after death, as far as the soul is concerned, and at the resurrection in so far as it pertains to the body. This would seem to follow from that fact that, on the one hand, the Bible teaches that in the present life no one can claim freedom from sin, 1 Kings 8:46; Prov. 20:9; Rom. 3:10, 12; Jas. 3:2; 1 John 1:8; and that, on the other hand, those who have gone before are entirely sanctified. It speaks of them as “the spirits of just men made perfect,” Heb. 12:23, and as “without blemish,” Rev. 14:5. Moreover, we are told that in the heavenly city of God there shall in no wise enter “anything unclean or he that maketh an abomination and a lie,” Rev. 21:27; and that Christ at His coming will “fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of His glory,” Phil. 3:21.
F. The Author and Means of Sanctification

Sanctification is a work of the triune God, but is ascribed more particularly to the Holy Spirit in Scripture, Rom. 8:11; 15:16; 1 Pet. 1:2. It is particularly important in our day, with its emphasis on the necessity of approaching the study of theology anthropologically and its one-sided call to service in the kingdom of God, to stress the fact that God, and not man, is the author of sanctification. Especially in view of the Activism that is such a characteristic feature of American religious life, and which glorifies the work of man rather than the grace of God, it is necessary to stress the fact over and over again that sanctification is the fruit of justification, that the former is simply impossible without the latter, and that both are the fruits of the grace of God in the redemption of sinners. Though man is privileged to co-operate with the Spirit of God, he can do this only in virtue of the strength which the Spirit imparts to him from day to day. The spiritual development of man is not a human achievement, but a work of divine grace. Man deserves no credit whatsoever for that which he contributes to it instrumentally. In so far as sanctification takes place in the subconscious life, it is effected by the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit. But as a work in the conscious life of believers it is wrought, by several means, which the Holy Spirit employs.

1. THE WORD OF GOD. In opposition to the Church of Rome it should be maintained that the principal means used by the Holy Spirit is the Word of God. The truth in itself certainly has no adequate efficiency to sanctify the believer, yet it is naturally adapted to be the means of sanctification as employed by the Holy Spirit. Scripture presents all the objective conditions for holy exercises and acts. It serves to excite spiritual activity by presenting motives and inducements, and gives direction to it by prohibitions, exhortations, and examples, 1 Pet. 1:22; 2:2; 2 Pet. 1:4.

2. THE SACRAMENTS. These are the means par excellence according to the Church of Rome. Protestants regard them as subordinate to the Word of God, and sometimes even speak of them as the “visible Word.” They symbolize and seal to us the same truths that are verbally expressed in the Word of God, and may be regarded as an acted word, containing a lively representation of the truth, which the Holy Spirit makes the occasion for holy exercises. They are not only subordinate to the Word of God, but cannot exist without it, and are therefore always accompanied by it, Rom. 6:3; 1 Cor. 12:13; Tit. 3:5; 1 Pet. 3:21.

3. PROVIDENTIAL GUIDANCE. God’s providences, both favorable and adverse, are often powerful means of sanctification. In connection with the operation of the Holy Spirit through the Word, they work on our natural affections and thus frequently deepen the impression of religious truth and force it home. It should be borne in mind that the light of God’s revelation is necessary for the interpretation of His providential guidances, Ps. 119:71; Rom. 2:4; Heb. 12:10.
G. Relation of Sanctification to Other Stages in the Ordo Salutis

It is of considerable importance to have a correct conception of the relation between sanctification and some of the other stages in the work of redemption.

1. TO REGENERATION. There is both difference and similarity here. Regeneration is completed at once, for a man cannot be more or less regenerated; he is either dead or alive spiritually. Sanctification is a process, bringing about gradual changes, so that different grades may be distinguished in the resulting holiness. Hence we are admonished to perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord, 2 Cor. 7:1. The Heidelberg Catechism also presupposes that there are degrees of holiness, when it says that even “the holiest men, when in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience.” At the same time regeneration is the beginning of sanctification. The work of renewal, begun in the former, is continued in the latter, Phil. 1:6. Strong says: “It (sanctification) is distinguished from regeneration as growth from birth, or as the strengthening of a holy disposition from the original impartation of it.”

2. TO JUSTIFICATION. Justification precedes and is basic to sanctification in the covenant of grace. In the covenant of works the order of righteousness and holiness was just the reverse. Adam was created with a holy disposition and inclination to serve God, but on the basis of this holiness he had to work out the righteousness that would entitle him to eternal life. Justification is the judicial basis for sanctification. God has the right to demand of us holiness of life, but because we cannot work out this holiness for ourselves, He freely works it within us through the Holy Spirit on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to us in justification. The very fact that it is based on justification, in which the free grace of God stands out with the greatest prominence, excludes the idea that we can ever merit anything in sanctification. The Roman Catholic idea that justification enables man to perform meritorious works is contrary to Scripture. Justification as such does not effect a change in our inner being and therefore needs sanctification as its complement. It is not sufficient that the sinner stands righteous before God; he must also be holy in his inmost life. Barth has a rather unusual representation of the relation between justification and sanctification. In order to ward off all self-righteousness, he insists on it that the two always be considered jointly. They go together and should not be considered quantitatively, as if the one followed the other. Justification is not a station which one passes, an accomplished fact on the basis of which one next proceeds to the highway of sanctification. It is not a completed fact to which one can look back with definite assurance, but occurs ever anew whenever man has reached the point of complete despair, and then goes hand in hand with sanctification. And just as man remains a sinner even after justification, so he also remains a sinner in sanctification, even his best deeds continue to be sins. Sanctification does not engender a holy disposition, and does not gradually purify man. It does not put him in possession of any personal holiness, does not make him a saint, but leaves him a sinner. It really becomes a declarative act like justification. McConnachie, who is a very sympathetic interpreter of Barth, says: “Justification and sanctification are, therefore, to Barth, two sides of one act of God upon men. Justification is the pardon of the sinner (justificatio impii), by which God declares the sinner righteous. Sanctification is the sanctification of the sinner (sanctificatio impii), by which God declares the sinner ‘holy’.” However laudable the desire of Barth to destroy every vestige of work-righteousness, he certainly goes to an unwarranted extreme, in which he virtually confuses justification and sanctification, negatives the Christian life, and rules out the possibility of confident assurance.

3. TO FAITH. Faith is the mediate or instrumental cause of sanctification as well as of justification. It does not merit sanctification any more than it does justification, but it unites us to Christ and keeps us in touch with Him as the Head of the new humanity, who is the source of the new life within us, and also of our progressive sanctification, through the operation of the Holy Spirit. The consciousness of the fact that sanctification is based on justification, and is impossible on any other basis, and that the constant exercise of faith is necessary, in order to advance in the way of holiness, will guard us against all self-righteousness in our striving to advance in godliness and holiness of life. It deserves particular attention that, while even the weakest faith mediates a perfest justification, the degree of sanctification is commensurate with the strength of the Christian’s faith and the persistence with which he apprehends Christ.*

*Berkhof, L. (1938). Systematic theology (pp. 533–537). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co.

A “Marrow” Man on Sanctification

The following is a quote from Thomas Boston, a man involved in the “Marrow” controversy, on sanctification. This quote is fitting in light of the recent controversy on sanctification. It is rather strange that people are trying to lump Tullian Tchividjian with the” Marrow” men. The following quote would seem to be something that Tullian would seem uncomfortable with – exhorting believers to holiness with the use of the Law and also with threats.

This double seal answers to the two parts of the covenant; Jer. 32:40, “And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me.” This covenant shall not fail on God’s part, for it hath this seal, the Lord knoweth them that are his;” nor on the part of the saints, for it hath this seal, “Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” Let us attend,

1. To the seal itself, which, in its general nature, is a command of sanctification; in which consider, to whom it is directed, upon whom this awful charge is laid. They are the Lord’s own words, directed to every one that nameth the name of his Son, that is, to all who profess Christ. And this character of professors serves not only to distinguish them from those without the church, who are incapable of apostacy; but also shows the obligation laid on them to holiness by their profession, the holy name named by them binding them to a holy life. The inconsistency between the holy profession and an unholy life, which, though men join together, God will have separated, sooner or later, for he will strip them either of their fair name, or their foul heart and life, in time or in eternity. Consider, the duty commanded, “to depart from iniquity,” as from a thing one formerly stood to and followed. Iniquity is that thing which we all naturally follow as a master and leader; but there must be a falling off from it, an apostacy, or falling away from sin, as the word imports. And this is the way to prevent apostacy from the Lord; for this does import, that it is some one iniquity or other indulged, and left to reign in the heart, which betrays professors into apostacy, as Judas, Demas, &c. Consider,

2. How this can be a seal to secure the saints and elect ones from apostacy, since it is but a commandment? To this I answer, that the nature of the preceding seal would seem to have required this expression, “And they that are his depart from iniquity.” But it is in form of a command, to show that the saints depart from iniquity by choice, and that they are by the Lord himself powerfully determined to this choice; so that their perseverance is both rational and gracious. It is a command, at the same time it is a powerful and efficacious command of God, like that in Gen. 1:3, “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light;” a command which effects what it requires in all who are his. It is such a command as that in Num. 16:26, (quoted above), which brought away from the tents of Dathan and Abiram, all who were not to be swallowed up with them. And this command is going through wherever the gospel is preached, and will go till the last day; like a brisk wind separating the corn from the chaff, carrying away from the tents of sin all who are ordained to eternal life, though others dwell on in them still. Thus, though the profane and hypocritical, and all who are not the Lord’s, are still held by some one bond of sin or other which is never broken: yet this powerful word looses the bands of all sin, sets them and their sins asunder, and keeps them asunder, who, being sealed with the first seal, are his. And all this God’s efficacious word can do, as well as keep the world from returning into its primitive mass of confusion; Heb. 1:3, “Upholding all things by the word of his power.” And so it is a seal securing them from apostasy.”*
*Boston, T. (1851). The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: A Series of Sermons and the Christian Life Delineated. (S. M‘Millan, Ed.) (Vol. 10, pp. 11–12). Aberdeen: George and Robert King.

As A Little Child?

There is a movement in many of today’s churches that takes the tact of being simple in their understanding, thinking that the theology taught in our great God’s Scripture is intended for only those who are pastors, teachers, and theologians (this is said with the understanding that all pastors are teachers, all teachers are pastors, and all pastor-teachers are theologians), and that the language of theology, which has accompanied the growth and expansion of the church throughout redemptive history, is reserved for these individuals alone.

A consequent attitude that accompanies the first is that it is the pastors, teachers and theologians work to make this theology of the Scriptures, as understood and expounded throughout the history of the church to myriads of believers, as simple as possible to understand by those who attend to partake of the means of grace (preaching, teaching, praying, fellowship, and the sacraments as utilized in corporate worship in a local covenant body of believers each Lord’s Day).

Although this is laudable on the surface of the proposition, it belies that which is, in actuality, being expressed: Don’t give us deep theological terminology, that is your purview; give us the watered-down version of what God has been pleased to teach you, that we may understand it!

Texts such as Matthew 18:3 are cited in support of this overriding presupposition:

Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (ESVall citations will be from this translation, unless otherwise noted)

Other texts which speak to the maturing of each member of the body of Christ in the knowledge of the Lord will be brought to bear, benefiting our understanding of the verses cited above to show that one must be as a child in their understanding of evil, but in doctrine, which is to say the application of knowledge and wisdom of God’s Word, they must cooperate with our God’s grace, in order to properly live and grow in the Christian faith; that any would think the former meaning (as to being children in regards to evil) is to be understood with regard to doctrine and maturity, is sad, because nothing could be further from the truth of our God’s Scripture!

 For instance, Paul, in writing to the fractious Corinthian church, gave them this gentle, but strong, admonishment:

 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. (1 Corinthians 14:20)

 At this point, although it would be fruitful to go into the Greek, we will simply look at the words as they occur in the English text, with two helpful exceptions and additions concerning the voice of two words, in the Greek, to emphasize that we are acted upon to initiate and continue the change and progression of that change whereby God makes us His children, and that we cooperate thereafter in this functioning God’s grace; the reason for sticking, in main, to the English, is simple: I once heard a caller call into a show called The Dividing Line, hosted by Dr. James White. They asked what the text meant in the Greek, and much to their disappointment, Dr. White replied, “The same thing it means in the English.” What Dr. White was saying was not that the Greek of the New Testament is not worth studying, but that the good translations we have faithfully translate that language into modern day vernacular that is able to be studied and understood by any believer who has been born again, and so has the regenerate reason, given to each believer via the Holy Spirit in the new birth, that is able to meditate upon the Scriptures and come to the deep truths which God has given us in His Scriptures.

This is also not to say that we should not use study aids (yes, such study aids are not simply reserved for the pastor-teachers and theologians). God has blessed the church with a succession of faithful men who, in turn, have passed on His truth to other faithful men, for the purpose of building up the local and universal body of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 2:2), and we would be remiss, as believers in Jesus Christ, if we did not take advantage of this vast repository of knowledge. Today, especially, when there are so many free commentaries, systematic theologies, historical theologies, Biblical theologies, church histories, Reformed confessions, audio and video lectures of seminary level, sermons, and various other resources available for free on the Internet, there is really no excuse for any believer in Jesus Christ to not avail themselves of these amazing resources.

I have spoken, on the internet, to many believers in what is termed “emerging nations” (we must be politically correct, mustn’t we?) who are familiar with and use this vast storehouse of wealth available through the Internet, so I tend to turn a deaf ear to those who protest that they have not the resources at hand to study the great doctrines of the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.”

So, getting back to 1 Corinthians 14:20, let us look at the meaning the Holy Spirit intended, through the apostle Paul, for us to understand in that text.

In this text, in direct opposition to the widely held belief that the foregoing text in Matthew 18:3 is telling believers to be simple in all that they say or do, the apostle is giving an expansion and exposition upon what our Lord determined us to understand by His words. That is, to turn and become like children is not intended for us to understand that we must be simple in our understanding, but rather, to be simple in our trusting our Lord and God, as the little child who, trusting their parent, might thrown themselves off a porch into the waiting parent’s arms, knowing that they will be caught and suffer no harm. You turn is rendered converted in the NASB and NKJV, and conversion is the process that begins with the new birth and continues throughout the lifetime of each believer, each member of the body of Christ; become is rendered exactly the same in each English version. In the Encarta Dictionary Microsoft makes available (English, North American Version), these various meanings are given for the conversion:

  1. Change something’s character – to change something from one character, form, or function to another, or be changed in character, form or function.
  2. Change something’s function – to change the function or use of something, or be able to change the function or use.
  1. Change somebody’s beliefs – to adopt new opinions or beliefs, especially religious beliefs, or change the opinions of beliefs of somebody.

Become is defined, in this same English dictionary, in the following manner:

  1. To change or develop into something.

For further understanding, we give the definition of the Greek words for converted and become as used in the Matthew passage: to change one’s manner of life, with the implication of turning toward God—“to change one’s ways, to turn to God, to repent;” “unless you change and become like children. [1] It is of interest to note that the voice of this verb converted in the Greek is passive, meaning that the subject is being acted upon by an outside agent, in this address of our Lord, and in the context of our being acted upon in conversion in this manner; the word become is defined “to come to acquire or experience a state—‘to become.’”[2] It is in the middle voice, meaning that the subject is acting upon itself, therefore showing our cooperation with our God in loving, thankful, worshipful obedience in this ongoing process of conversion.

All of the above definitions have application to what happens to a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ when God, by His Holy Spirit, applies the work of His Son on the cross and in resurrection to them. There is first a fundamental change of being that occurs on the spiritual level, which the Scripture defines in this manner:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:1-6)

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses. (Colossians 2:13)

That which was dead in sins and trespasses, therefore, God has made alive – there is a fundamental change in nature, a vital change in the essence of who we are, that was not there before, and this is wrought by the Spirit of God by applying the redemptive, mediatorial work of our Lord Jesus Christ as He was born, lived, died, and was resurrected to satisfy God’s wrath against us and give us to partake of that resurrected life He was given for the purpose of displaying God’s glory in the riches of His grace in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:7). However, this is but the first part of conversion, that which God has done to us, and it does not end here.

It must be understood, here, that this paper is not an exposition of the ordo salutis (order of salvation), and we are not seeking to define, develop, and illustrate each aspect of that ordo salutis within the confines of this article; rather, we are merely seeking to show that that which traditionally, within the Reformed faith, occurs after regeneration, and the positive outworking of that regeneration in faith and repentance (both the positive and negative sides of belief in our Lord Jesus Christ), which carries on into and through that initial transformation after these things (sanctification), is but a continual process, initiated by God, monergistically, in time and history for each individual believer (regeneration), which consequently carries throughout the Christian life from that moment on and up to glorification (which, despite all our efforts and a loving, thankful, worshipful obedience, which obedience itself is given us to perform by the ongoing grace which saved us, must itself be said to be monergistic – we in no manner affect any aspect of our glorification at the eschaton; our efforts this side of the eternal state only have reference to our present state of holiness before God, none of which we earn, but which we do co-operate in growing in).

Thus, the sense of conversion, as used in this paper, is looking at not only that change wrought to our nature (soul, spirit) at the moment of spiritual conception (regeneration), but as this change affects our lives immediately after, and throughout, our present time of living, prior to the eternal state in which we are perfected by the same grace that saved us; we are looking at the ongoing provision of our God’s grace, during our time before glorification, which enables and empowers us to grow in that grace, knowledge and holiness which are pleasing to our God, and culminates in His changing us to be like He is (cf. 1 John 3:2b; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:29).

Hopefully, those who are reading this will understand that we speak of conversion, therefore, as an ongoing process which is more fully defined in considering the other aspects of the ordo salutis, yet does not change the fact that conversion is, in consideration of all these things, wrought by God at the first, carried forth in cooperation with His grace during our lives while still within these tents of corruption housing our regenerate spirits, and finally completed by Him at the time of the redemption of our bodies. This is the reason we gave various English dictionary definitions and the definitions of the words and voice of the words in the New Testament Greek in our Matthew passage. So, this is to say, conversion is initiated by God at the point of regeneration, and we cooperate with His glorious grace thereafter, in this intermediate state, until He completes us in redeeming our bodies to be like that of our glorified Lord’s body; therefore, in this sense, we may truly say, regeneration is the beginning of conversion whereby we are enabled and empowered to live in a progressive manner of godliness and holiness until and up to the time where God resurrects our carnal bodies to that state of perfection wherein we will no longer be subject to the vagaries of sin, sickness and death, but will perfectly worship the Lord in spirit and truth forevermore.

We are told to be renewed in our minds instead of being conformed to our former manner of life, which renewal is ongoing, and affects our behaviors (Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 1:7; cf. Colossians 3:1-17, esp. v. 10). The fundamental change to that essence, or nature, which is our life, is to be used in regenerate reason (discerning what is good and evil, what is perfect and acceptable to our God), and this occurs in our gaining that knowledge that is inherent in the Scriptures (John 17:17), by the working of the indwelling Holy Spirit, in a progressive, or maturing, manner (there are various other Scriptural, theological terms to define the things which occur in ongoing conversions which we are not going into in this paper, as it is beyond the scope of this present writing). Therefore, Paul’s instruction and command to be infants in evil has to do with the manner in which we live, since we have been born again by the grace of God through His Spirit. We are to be as trusting towards God, our heavenly Father (more!) as a child is towards that parent they throw themselves trustingly into the arms of, and to be as children regarding doing and saying what is evil according to our former way of life.

However, Paul also commanded the Corinthians (and us, by extension and use of the sanctifying Word of God) that they not be children in your thinking. We have covered, in large part, what this means in the above portions of this article, but will now take a bit more space to flesh it out somewhat.

A child has a limited view of the world in which they live; while not born innocent of the inherent sin nature all gain through Adam, they are ignorant of much of what goes on around them in the world. They are driven by basic appetites and desires; love, hunger, acceptance, greed, pleasure and so forth.

Who among us has not seen a little child, deprived of that which they want, go into a fit of rage?

As the child grows (but still could be called a child), they form societal bonds with other children and with those in their family that are entirely based upon these needs. Peer pressure comes into play, and a child will do the most outlandish things in order to be accepted among their peer groups. It is in this respect that Paul tells the Corinthian believers do not be children in your thinking, that is, as respects the way you think, do not be guided by desires to be accepted among others who behave in certain manners, or by the desire to show yourself better than the others; in contradistinction, be guided by the Holy Spirit applying the sanctifying influence of the Word of God, since you have been graciously adopted into His family through the work of His Son. This is what Paul means in the terminus of his command to the fractious, peer driven Corinthians when he says do not be children in your thinking… but in your thinking be mature.

To illustrate what maturity is for the believer, we submit it is a growing in the knowledge and grace of our God in the Lord Jesus Christ so as to affect not only their thinking, but their behaviors (speech and actions), effectively causing them conform to the image of He who died for them, then rose in glory (Romans 8:29; cf. Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 6:14; Romans 6:4-5).

I can think of no better way to show this that the writer of the epistle of Hebrews words to the Jewish Christians at the end chapter 5 and the first two verses of chapter 6:

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:11-14)

Notice, here, four things: (1) They have become dull of hearing – their long disuse and ignorance of sound doctrine has, over time, caused their spiritual perception, regarding the things of God, to be so muffled as to make them unable to understand them when they are taught. This takes place over a period of time, and can lead not only to a stunted spiritual growth and understanding of the things of God for the believer, but, for the false professor, can be the beginning of the very real and deadly sin of apostasy (if God does not show mercy and bring them to understand the truth as it is in Christ Jesus – 2 Timothy 2:24-26) (2) They have been instructed of the Word of righteousness enough, by this time, so that they ought to be teachers. This does not have reference to the pastoral gift given in the office of pastor/elder, but to a common understanding of the Word of God that has grown, in maturity (there’s that word again), to the point where the believer is able to instruct a new believer, or one who is less mature in the faith, regarding the things (doctrines) of that faith (“faithhere meaning the body of doctrines of the Christian faith), in these doctrines. (3) They have regressed in their Christian maturity to the point where they are admonished and rebuked: you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. (4) This has affected their ability to discern, or distinguish, between good and evil, which is implied as a negative condition by reference to the positive example of those who are called mature and have had their discernment trained by constant practice. They have come to the place, in other words, where they no longer possess the skill to determine the doctrines of the Christian faith which go beyond the basics, and need to attentively listen to one who does have such skill, with humility, in order to come back from their stagnation in the doctrines of God as set forth in Scripture to a place where they are again growing (maturing) in their faith.

The writer to the Hebrews further explains what he means at the beginning of chapter 6:

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. (Hebrews 6:1-2)

Although there is a specific historical context for these words to the Jewish Christians that must be considered in a direct exposition of these verses, we may also broaden them out to gain that exposition which directly relates to the situation of all Christians in all ages of the history of the church.

Elementary doctrine simply means, for our purpose, those beginning teachings which were our introduction into the Christian faith. We are never to forget the great grace God showed us in regenerating us, so that we could confess our sins and place our hope of life eternal in Christ Jesus, but to remain upon these doctrines over and over again, to the exclusion of the further teachings contained in the Scriptures of our God regarding that necessary growth in the Christian life, is to stunt one’s spiritual growth. Therefore, the author of Hebrews goes on to say not laying again a foundation, which is to say that which everything else stands upon, as a house stands upon the foundation laid in order to build the walls, which in turn support the roof, and so forth. The foundation the writer to the Hebrews speaks of is referring to elements contained in Mosaic worship, for he is addressing those who were being enticed and persecuted to turn again to these things, which gives the reason for such strong language in the warning passages in this same epistle (which passages we mention in passing, it not being relevant to our present discourse to expound upon them); for our purposes, we may say that we are not to again lay that foundation of those elementary doctrines which have to do with initial repentance of sins (dead works), for we are saved, or have believed in God through Christ Jesus to save us from our sins, and to have the mind-set that we must again be saved is to deny that glorious work of effectual, eternal grace that our God has worked for us in Christ Jesus. We are also not to again to express such rudimentary faith toward God, meaning that initial belief “that He exists and that He rewards those who seek him,” (Hebrews 11:6b), for believers who have been walking a life of faith well know this as a fundamental truth. Also, instruction about washings referred to certain rites as practiced by the Jews who did not believe in Christ, but for our benefit, we may say it intends that which would positively incur further favor for us with God, based upon our merit of doing such a thing, as at our initial baptism, which, of course, could not be the case in subsequently sought baptisms based on doubt of the foregoing elementary doctrines; the laying on of hands signifies God’s blessing at the time of the believer’s baptism, and is still practiced by some churches at that time, as well as at the ordination of elders and deacons, and at the time of baptism, or of reinstatement of a penitent who had formerly strayed from the communion of the saints (as stated in our Confession of Faith, LBCF 26.9, regarding these officers of the church). It is not necessary that the laying on of hands be done again (except in the case of the penitent, as practiced by various churches) to vouchsafe that blessing of God which was so signified at the believers’ initial baptism – which is to say, when they first believed (for it was common in ancient times, and still is, in churches of Christ which take seriously the commandments contained in the Scripture, that when one has been discipled in the faith to the point where they make such a certain, postive confession, the ordinance was to follow as immediately as possible – Matthew 28:19b; Acts 2:39 &etc.).

This is followed by the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. It should be immediately apparent that these things have reference to that beginning of the Christians’ confession of faith in Christ Jesus, and are not, as some think, to be done over and over again, negating the very promises of our Lord that He will never forsake us or allow us to perish, but that He insures we who are His will have eternal life, be raised in glory on the last day, and persevere until that day by the same grace that saved us and continually upholds us (John 6:37-40; 10:27-29; Matthew 28:20b; Philippians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Corinthians 1:7-8; cf. 2 Peter 1:1-12 [part. v. 10]; Jude 1:20-21). Eternal judgment, as mentioned here, has to do with that fear which accompanies those who believe they will be subject to it, and such fear is foreign to the child of God, but is certainly a very real thing to one who knows of the things of God yet has not professed faith in Christ, or one who has professed such falsely (1 John 4:18; cf. Hebrews 10:26-27).

Those who have made a genuine confession of faith in Christ should not be in a position of again repenting from dead works, making acknowledgement of faith in the one true God and His Son, Jesus Christ, again be preoccupied with doctrines concerning baptism, the laying on of hands in assurance of God’s pardon during this sacrament, and the resurrection of the dead unto judgment eternal. For those who are in a church where only the basics are taught, over and over, such might be somewhat excusable, and we would hold their elders responsible for stunting and even regressing their growth and maturity in Christ; for those sitting under solid Scriptural teaching, as these Jewish Christians were (which we noted from Hebrews 5:12-14), the blame must rest upon themselves for ignoring and forgetting that which they are being taught, and the reprimand of admonishment is well placed; and you see, the context from 5:12-6:2ff is all of a piece, for both speak of the elemental (or foundational) things of the faith, and the blame is on those who have had solid teaching, because they have become dull of hearing and are, to use the negative sense of the positive from v. 14, feeding on milk (which here intends food for babies, not the pure spiritual sustenance of the Word with solid doctrine, as in 1 Peter 2:2).

Before continuing, it must be understood that we have merely sketched out some general considerations from these texts in Hebrews, especially in the first two verses of the 6th chapter – this is not intended to be an in depth exposition of these verses. For that, I would recommend John Owen’s exegesis of these vv. in his exposition of Hebrews, and for a simpler but very good treatment, Dr. James White’s exposition of the same available on sermonaudio.com.

So, you see, there is a simplicity to trusting God that does not – and according to Scripture, should not and must not – bleed into the continuing growth in the faith (doctrines of God in Christ Jesus), and it is not merely the purview of the pastor-teacher-theologian (again, we insist that the pastor, or elder, is to be all of these); rather, trusting God in all things as a young infant and child trusts his daddy, we are to learn of the things of God. This is what it means to be a disciple. It is not forced upon any; rather, it is learned from the sanctifying influence of the Word of God as given to certain men of God and ministered to the hearers, all by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, in conclusion, those who disdain and refuse to learn the theology of God, as taught by faithful men throughout the centuries of the existence of the church, are in direct disobedience to the commandment of God. Theological terminology should be that which is desired by the disciple; it was used by the apostles, and God has seen fit to use such in the ongoing realization of His church, as a preview, in local and world-wide covenant communities, of that which is to come at the eschaton, when we will be blessed to know our Lord as He has known us, and all of the things we have been learning will be made most plain to us, in the most joyous, thankful, worshipful manner that we are yet unable to imagine (but we can study about these things now, and “grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”).

SDG – Bill H.


[1] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains, 41.50 & 31.60 (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (509). New York: United Bible Societies.

[2] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains, 13.48 (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (153). New York: United Bible Societies.