Book Review: Things Unseen, By J. Gresham Machen

Things Unseen, by J. Gresham Machen, is (as the subtitle puts it), “a systematic introduction to the Christian faith and reformed theology.” And what an introduction it is!

For those who may not be familiar with Dr. Machen (1881-1937), he might be the greatest theologian of the 20th century whom no one has ever heard of before. He was a long-time professor at Princeton Seminary, before leaving that institution to found Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1929. He was instrumental in forming the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination in 1936 as well. (If you would like to learn more about Machen, Stephen J. Nichols has written a very good biography which I would enthusiastically commend to you – J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought.)

The chapters in this book were originally written for a series of radio broadcasts via the WIP radio station in Philadelphia. Those broadcasts were intended for a general audience, in many ways even with unbelievers in view. There is a decidedly evangelistic tone throughout.

He lays out the basic essentials of the Christian faith in a systematic fashion, in much the same logical order found in much more complex systematic theology texts, and yet he somehow does so in such a way as to remain remarkably accessible and readable.

He cites the Westminster Shorter Catechism liberally (pun!) throughout. At least half of the 50 chapters of the book contain direct references and quotes from the catechism. He also refers the reader to such eminent Reformed theologians as Charles Hodge, Benjamin B. Warfield, John Murray, and Geerhardus Vos throughout the book.

He addresses such topics as the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, God’s sovereignty and the freedom of man, predestination (3 full chapters), Providence, the doctrine of original sin, the threefold office of Christ (as Prophet, Priest, and King), the atonement of Christ, and the active obedience of Christ. And somehow he manages to make all of these things clear and accessible to regular, everyday Christians.

I just wish the book were longer, and that he could have lived to complete the work. Nevertheless, the ground that he covers is more than enough to get anyone well on their way in seeking to understand the Christian faith and reformed theology. If you are looking for an accessible & readable introduction to the Reformed faith, I would highly recommend this volume to you.

“The Infallible Fruits of Election” (The Canons of Dort and Assurance)

The overarching concern of the Canons of Dort is not just a doctrinal or theological one, but a decidedly pastoral and experiential one as well. And that is demonstrated in the fact that a common theme throughout the First Head of Doctrine (i.e. unconditional election) is that of assurance.

In many ways the doctrines of Arminianism undermine assurance, and so the Canons here show how a right understanding of the biblical doctrine of election actually serves to establish and strengthen the assurance of believers.

Article 11

“And as God Himself is most wise, unchangeable, omniscient and omnipotent, so the election made by Him can neither be interrupted nor changed, recalled or annulled; neither can the elect be cast away, nor their number diminished.”

Arminianism teaches a conditional election from start to finish. Not only does it wrongly teach that God’s election of sinners to salvation is based on foreseen faith at the beginning, but it also holds that one can abandon the faith and lose his or her salvation in the end, rendering God’s decree of election in a sense temporary. Article 11 here clearly refutes that error.

Contrary to the errors of Arminianism, the Canons remind us that God is “most wise, unchangeable, omniscient and omnipotent,” so that the idea that His decree could change or be in need of revision is blasphemous. Nothing can change God’s gracious decree of election from all eternity, and so “neither can the elect be cast away, nor their number diminished.”

In his book, Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort, Robert Godfrey writes:

“Election reflects the very character of God. As God is immutable, so His purpose in election is immutable. Nothing can interfere with God’s implementing his decree of election. In particular, the specific number of the elect cannot be reduced. This conviction is foundational to the doctrine of God and to predestination as well as to the teaching on assurance found throughout the canons.” (p.93)

So the biblical doctrine of election, properly understood, is a matter of utmost importance, as it has to do not just with assurance of salvation, but even with our doctrine of God. Because God is immutable, so is His decree and purpose in election. And that should be a rather encouraging truth for believers.

Article 12

“The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election, not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing in themselves, with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure, the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God — such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.”

Here in Article 12 we are taught the right way to understand the relationship between election and assurance. Believers are not to try to attain the assurance of their election by “inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God,” which is impossible for us to do. (See Deuteronomy 29:29.) Rather, we are to seek to observe in ourselves “the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God — such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.”

In other words, how do you know if you are one of God’s elect? You look to your true faith in Christ, repentance, desire to grow in holiness, etc. as the “infallible fruits” or evidence of God’s election. In this way we are to ‘make our calling and election sure’ (2 Peter 1:10). How often do sincere believers lack a sense of assurance because we look to the wrong things as evidence of our salvation?

Election is known by its fruits. And the “infallible” or unmistakable fruits of election consist not in some secret, hidden knowledge of God’s decree, nor in some kind of ecstatic spiritual experience, but rather in simple and sincere faith in Christ, repentance, etc. And so if you want to know whether or not you are one of God’s elect, the thing to ask is simply, “Am I a believer in Christ? Have I sincerely turned from sin and turned to Christ by faith?”

And notice that Article 12 points out that the elect attain the assurance of their eternal and unchangeable election “in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures.” Assurance is not just automatic and may take some time, and it may come “in varying degrees” rather than in completeness or perfection.

Article 13

“The sense and certainty of this election afford to the children of God additional matter for daily humiliation before Him, for adoring the depth of His mercies, for cleansing themselves, and rendering grateful returns of ardent love to Him, who first manifested so great love towards them. The consideration of this doctrine of election is so far from encouraging remissness in the observance of the divine commands or from sinking men in carnal security, that these, in the just judgment of God, are the usual effects of rash presumption or of idle and wanton trifling with the grace of election in those who refuse to walk in the ways of the elect.”

Some who oppose the doctrine of election seem to confuse assurance with presumption, fearing that assurance would lead to loose living. But here we see the difference between assurance and presumption.

True faith and assurance lead to humility, adoration of God’s mercy and grace, and to seeking to grow in holiness and love for God because of His great love for us in Christ. It is sinful presumption (and not assurance) that rather leads to “remissness in the observance of the divine commands” and a neglect of holiness in the fear of God. And such as are remiss in these things will necessarily be lacking in any genuine assurance of salvation, as long as those “infallible fruits” of election are lacking or absent in their lives.

Election as “The Fountain of Every Saving Good” (Canons of Dort 1.9.)

In Articles 1-7 of the First Head of Doctrine (Unconditional Election), we saw in some detail where Arminians and Calvinists both agree (Articles 1-4) and where their respective views begin to diverge (i.e. the source of saving faith in Christ, God’s eternal decree, and the definition of election – Articles 5-7), we now proceed to a brief examination of Articles 8-10.

In Articles 8-10 we get to the heart of the matter regarding the doctrine of unconditional election. For here we are plainly taught that God’s decree of election unto salvation in Christ is the same in both the Old and New Testaments (Article 8); that it was not based upon “foreseen faith” or anything else in us (Article 9); and that the sole cause of God’s gracious purposes in election is merely “the good pleasure of God” (Article 10).

Article 8

“There are not various decrees of election, but one and the same decree respecting all those who shall be saved, both under the Old and New Testament; since the Scripture declares the good pleasure, purpose and counsel of the divine will to be one, according to which He hath chosen us from eternity, both to grace and glory, to salvation and the way of salvation, which He hath ordained that we should walk therein.”

Here the argument is from the immutability of God as well as the unity of God’s decree. God does not change, and His purpose in election and salvation has not changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Later in the section of this Head of doctrine detailing the rejection of errors, the Synod notes that they “reject the error of those who teach” that “there are various kinds of election of God unto eternal life . . . .” (Rejection 2)

As to the unity of God’s decree, Ephesians 1:11 tells us, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” (ESV) The counsel of God’s will is singular or simple (i.e. one, unified), even as God Himself is One. Paul there does not speak of God’s purposes (i.e. plural), but rather of His “purpose” (i.e. singular).

That God’s decree of election is one and the same in both the Old and New Testament is clearly evident because in teaching and establishing the doctrine of divine election in the New Testament, Paul explicitly points us back to the Old Testament. In fact, he does so throughout Romans chapter 9, using Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as examples of God’s saving purpose in election. For example:

“And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:10–13, ESV, Italics added)

God chose to save Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And Paul explicitly teaches us the Jacob was chosen by God before he was even born or “had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might continue” (or stand – KJV). And so God’s decree of election has not changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament.

Article 9

“This election was not founded upon foreseen faith, and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause or condition on which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc.; therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceeds faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to that of the apostle: “He hath chosen us [not because we were but] that we should be holy, and without blame, before Him in love” (Eph. 1:4).”

Here we see the Canons beginning to explicitly address the heart of the Arminians’ error regarding election. Arminianism views God’s election as being in some ways conditional. That is, it holds that God’s election unto salvation was based on something that He foresaw in those whom He would choose, such as faith, obedience, holiness, etc. This makes something inherent in us the very basis for our election.

Contrary to this unbiblical idea, the Canons here affirm that God’s election of sinners unto salvation was in no way based or conditioned upon something foreseen in them, but rather that we are chosen unto those things. God’s gracious decree of election is rather the cause of such things as faith, holiness, etc. That is why the Canons speak of God’s decree of election as “the fountain of every saving good” in us. In his book, Saving the Reformation, W. Robert Godfrey puts it this way:

“Election does not flow from faith or holiness, but rather, faith and holiness flow from election.” (p.92)

And so we are not chosen by God because we will one day believe, but rather because we are chosen by God unto salvation before the foundation of the world, we will therefore believe, repent, and walk in holiness, etc. All of those gifts and graces flow from God’s gracious decree of election, not vice-versa. And this is clearly taught in Ephesians 1:4, where Paul tells us that God chose us in Christ, not because we already were or would be holy and without blame before Him, but rather so “that we should be holy, and without blame, before Him in love” (italics added).

Article 10

“The good pleasure of God is the sole cause of this gracious election, which doth not consist herein, that out of all possible qualities and actions of men God has chosen some as a condition of salvation; but that He was pleased out of the common mass of sinners to adopt some certain persons as a peculiar people to Himself, as it is written, “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil,” etc., it was said (namely to Rebecca): “The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Rom. 9:11-13). “And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).”

Article 10 teaches us that the mere “good pleasure of God” is the “sole cause” of God’s decree of election. The sole cause of election is in God Himself, and so all of the glory for our salvation, from beginning to end, belongs to Him alone.

The Arminian view basically teaches that God chose the conditions of salvation (faith, repentance, holiness, etc.) ahead of time, rather than choosing the individual sinners themselves unto salvation. Contrary to that, the Canons here teach and affirm that God “was pleased out of the common mass of sinners to adopt some certain persons as a peculiar people to Himself.”

Once again the Canons point us to Romans 9:11-13 (i.e. God’s choice of Jacob over Esau). Here we are also pointed to Acts 13:48, which tells us, “And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” This verse does not teach us that they were ordained to eternal life because they believed (i.e. the Arminian view), but rather that the very reason that they believed and were saved is precisely because they had been previously “ordained to eternal life.”

Unconditional Election (Canons of Dort – First Head of Doctrine)

This first head of doctrine expounded and defended in the Canons of Dort is Divine predestination (or unconditional election). The Canons break down the biblical teaching on this heading or subject into 18 articles (basically sub-points), followed by 9 points of explicit rejection of errors which were (and in some cases still are) taught by those who hold to Arminianism. Rather than trying to deal with all 27 points in one study, we will simply highlight some of the more significant aspects of the Canons’ teaching over the span of a number of posts.

The first four (4) articles state truths of Scripture that are basic to any right understanding of the gospel, things which both Calvinists and Arminians would more or less equally affirm. These are summarized as follows:

1. All men have sinned in Adam and are deserving of eternal condemnation and wrath for our sins. (See Romans 3:23; 6:23.) 2. God’s love for lost sinners was manifested in Him sending His only-begotten Son so that whosoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life. (See John 3:16; 1 John 4:9.) 3. In order that sinners may come to a saving faith in Christ, God has willed that messengers of the gospel be sent out to preach. (See Mark 16:15; Romans 10:14-15.) 4. The wrath of God abides upon those who do not believe in Christ, but to all who believe are assuredly delivered by Him from the wrath to come, and have the gift of eternal life. (See John 3:16-18; 36.)

Article 5

“The cause or guilt of this unbelief, as well as of all other sins, is no wise in God, but in man himself; whereas faith in Jesus Christ and salvation through Him is the free gift of God, as it is written: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him,” etc. (Phil. 1:29).”

Article 5 is where the real differences between Calvinism and Arminianism begin to be made clear. For Calvinism (unlike Arminianism) affirms the Scriptural teaching that the ultimate cause of unbelief, sin, and guilt is not to be found in God (as if He were the Author of Sin), but rather “in man himself.” But in contrast to that, “faith in Jesus Christ and salvation through Him is the gift of God.” In establishing this from Scripture, the Canons point us to Ephesians 2:8 and Philippians 1:29.

  • “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8, ESV)

  • “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,” (Philippians 1:29, ESV)

In the former text, Paul teaches us that our being saved by grace and through faith is not our own doing, but is the gift of God. That is, not only our salvation itself, but even our faith in Christ unto salvation is not our own doing, but is the gift of God. Likewise in Philippians 1:29 Paul (in passing, no less – he makes no attempt to try to argue the point) tells us that it has been “granted” to us to believe in Christ.

Here we see the most basic difference between those who remain lost in their sins and those who are saved by the grace of God. If you are a believer in Christ, the only thing that distinguishes you from someone else who rejects Christ is the sovereign grace and mercy of God alone. In this way, all of the glory for our salvation is ascribed to God alone.

In the Arminian (i.e. free-will) view, at some point the real difference is to be found in the sinner himself. For Arminianism teaches that God elects the sinner unto salvation on the basis of “foreseen faith” (rather than electing the sinner unto saving faith – see Article 9 and Rejection of Error 5).

Article 6

“That some receive the gift of faith from God and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree, for “known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18). “Who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will” (Eph. 1:11). According to which decree, He graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe, while He leaves the non-elect in His just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy. And herein is especially displayed the profound, the merciful, and at the same time the righteous discrimination between men, equally involved in ruin; or that decree of election and reprobation revealed in the Word of God, which though men of perverse, impure and unstable minds wrest to their own destruction, yet to holy and pious souls affords unspeakable consolation.”

In his book, Grace Defined & Defended, Kevin DeYoung writes,

“After explaining the what of judgment, gospel, and grace, Dort now brings us to the why. We can all see that some people believe in Christ and others do not. But why? What is the ultimate reason that some exercise faith, while others remain in unbelief? There are really only two possible answers: God or man.” (p.34) 

Here the writers of the Canons affirm the biblical teaching regarding the sovereignty of God over all things, which then necessarily includes such things as election and reprobation (sometimes referred to as double-predestination). All of these things are part of the sovereign decree of God from all eternity.

Notice that the doctrine of unconditional election, rightly understood by “pious souls affords unspeakable consolation.” There is a great source of comfort and assurance for sincere believers in the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace in election. (And it could be said that Arminianism is actually contrary and even destructive to that comfort.) And so this is not just some cold academic issue, but a deeply theological and even pastoral one!

Article 7

“Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He hath out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault from their primitive state of rectitude into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation.

“This elect number, though by nature neither better nor more deserving than others, but with them involved in one common misery, God hath decreed to give to Christ, to be saved by Him, and effectually to call and draw them to His communion by His Word and Spirit, to bestow upon them true faith, justification and sanctification; and having powerfully preserved them in the fellowship of His Son, finally, to glorify them for the demonstration of His mercy and for the praise of His glorious grace, as it is written: “According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, wherein He hath made us accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1:4–6). And elsewhere: “Whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified them He also glorified” (Rom. 8:30).”

Here in the first paragraph of Article 7 we finally come to what amounts to a simple definition of the doctrine of election. It is “the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He hath out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault from their primitive state of rectitude into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation.” In other words, before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), and by His sheer grace and good pleasure of His will alone, God chose to save “a certain number of persons” in Christ. And that decree of election unto salvation is unchangeable. All of those and only those whom He has chosen to save will, in fact, be saved.

And not only has God chosen us in Christ for salvation (Ephesians 1:4), but He has also chosen both the means and the manner by which He saves us – drawing us irresistibly to faith in Christ by His Word and Spirit. And moreover, He has not just chosen to draw us to faith in Christ by His effectual calling, but has also then predestined us to justification, sanctification, and glorification as well (i.e. Romans 8:30). As Paul says in Philippians 1:6, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (ESV) God finishes what He starts in us because He chose to do all of this for our salvation from all eternity by the mere good pleasure of His will, “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6).

A Brief Introduction to the Canons of Dort

The Background of the Canons of Dort

The Canons of Dort is a theological consensus document (or form of unity). The word “canon” here means a rule or a standard. And so the Canons of Dort are basically standards of doctrine.

The Canons were formulated by the members of the Synod of Dort, which was essentially the General Assembly of the Reformed church in the Netherlands. (There were also a good number of international delegates at the Synod as well.) It convened in the city of Dordrecht (often shortened simply to Dort), from which both the Synod and the Canons derive their respective names. This synod lasted from November 1618 to May 1619.

The circumstance which necessitated the calling of this Synod was a theological controversy involving the teachings and influence of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). His teachings on a number of things represented a clear departure from the Reformed faith, especially with regard to the sovereignty of God in salvation. For example, his peculiar teaching on the doctrine of election was such that God was said to have chosen to save sinners on the basis of foreseen faith, rather than simply on the basis of the free grace and good pleasure of God.

Sometime after his death, his followers (sometimes referred to as Arminians or Remonstrants) sought to avoid ecclesiastical discipline for their views from the Reformed Church in the Netherlands, and so they appealed to the civil government (the States General) for help. It is probably hard for many people in the church today to imagine such involvement between the church and state, but this has been much more common throughout the history of the church than it is in many places today.

They presented their views in summary form in a document called the “Five Articles of Remonstrance.” (A “remonstrance” is simply a protest or denunciation of some kind.) These five articles were in many ways the polar opposite of what we often refer to as the 5 points of Calvinism. The Five Heads (or chief points) of Doctrine of the Canons of Dort are the Synod’s response to and refutation of the teachings of the Arminians as articulated in the 5 Articles of Remonstrance. And so in an odd way you could say that we would not have the 5 points of Calvinism (at least not articulated as such) if it were not for the Arminians’ Articles of Remonstrance. As J.I. Packer notes in his Introductory Essay to John Owen’s book, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ:

” . . .it should be observed that the “five points of Calvinism,” so-called, are simply the Calvinistic answer to a five-point manifesto (the Remonstrance) put out by certain “Belgic semi-Pelagians” [Owen’s words] in the early seventeenth century.” (p.3)

It should be noted that while we may speak of the so-called “5 Points of Calvinism,” those points are not a summary of the teachings of John Calvin, nor did Calvin himself ever articulate them in this way (i.e. as a system of 5 points). They do, of course, accurately represent his teachings concerning divine sovereignty in our salvation.

The Canons of Dort is not a Confession of Faith in the sense that it does not give us a full summary of all of the main points of doctrine inherent in the Christian Faith. For that, you would instead need to look to Reformed consensus documents like the Belgic Confession or the Westminster Confession of Faith. Instead, what the Canons are is a robust statement and defense of the main points of biblical teaching regarding the sovereign grace of God in the salvation of sinners.

Dr. Cornelis P. Venema writes,

“On the basis of its deliberations, the Synod of Dort judged the five articles of the Remonstrants to be contrary to the Word of God and the confession of the Reformed churches. Against the Arminian teachings of election based on foreseen faith, human depravity, resistible grace, and the possibility of a lapse from grace, the Canons set forth the Reformed teachings of unconditional election, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.” (But for the Grace of God: An Exposition of the Canons of Dort, p.13)

We may find it a bit strange that the Reformed church as a whole would respond in such a robust manner to the rising influence of Arminianism within her ranks, especially given that in many ways Arminianism seems to be the predominant view among American evangelicals today. (Calvinism would certainly seem to be in the minority in evangelicalism these days.) But when you consider what was (and is) at stake, both pastorally (re. the comfort and assurance of believers regarding the security of their salvation from beginning to end) as well as doxologically (i.e. that all of the glory for our salvation goes to God alone), it becomes quickly apparent why the work of this Synod was so vitally important, and remains just as relevant to the peace and purity of the church today, some 400 years after they were first written.

Outline of the Canons of Dort

The Five Heads of Doctrine are as follows:

  1. Of Divine Predestination

  2. Of the Death of Christ and the Redemption of Men Thereby

  3. Of the Corruption of Man

  4. Of the Conversion of Man to God, and the Manner Thereof

  5. Of the Perseverance of the Saints

Incidentally, the third and fourth Heads of Doctrine are actually combined or treated together as a unit. You may also notice that these points of doctrine are not in the order commonly associated with the 5 points of Calvinism as expressed in the acronym,TULIP. (TULIP = Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints) That is simply because the Five Heads of Doctrine contained in the Canons correspond point by point, in the same order as the 5 Articles of Remonstrance for which they were written as a response and refutation.

In the Canons each of the 5 Heads of Doctrine is divided further into numerous points or articles which expound the true doctrine at length, followed by various points in which the errors of Arminianism are explicitly rejected and condemned as being outside of the pale of Reformed orthodoxy. In this way there is abundant clarity about what the biblical and reformed teaching on these thing is as well as what it is not.

Lord willing, we hope to go through each Head of Doctrine at length in future posts, examining them in the light of Scriptures.

Giving Thanks to God for God

Thanksgiving is a time for us to give thanks to God for all that we have. But 2020 has been a rather tough year in a number of ways, and so it is understandable if some people do not really feel much like giving thanks after all. In fact, in some ways I’m sure that many of us will be more than a bit thankful when this particular year is finally in the rear-view mirror.

But there is still much to be thankful for, even in 2020. The Bible is practically filled with exhortations calling the people of God to give thanks to Him, and nowhere is that more evident than in the book of Psalms. Psalm 136 is a great example. In fact, giving thanks to God is its main theme.

In v.1-3 the Psalmist writes,

“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever;” (ESV)

Three times there (and once more at the end of the Psalm in v.26) we are exhorted to give thanks to God. The rest of the Psalm goes into some detail about all of the great things that God has done both in creation itself as well as in delivering His people from their enemies. And these are all set before us as reasons to give God thanks.

But look again at v.1-3 (above). What is the very first reason the Psalmist gives us for giving thanks? It is not just what God has done for us (as important as that certainly is), but rather who God is. Why are we to give thanks to the LORD? First and foremost because “he is good,” and because “his steadfast love endures forever.” That last phrase is repeated in each and every verse (a total of 26 times!).

The great Puritan Bible commentator, Matthew Henry, puts it this way: “Give thanks to the LORD, not only because he does good, but because he is good . . . .”

That is why the Psalmist tells us to “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good” (v.1). God is good. Do you ever just thank God because He is good? Not just because He has been so good to you (which is also a good reason to thank Him), but just because He Himself is good!

Are you not feeling all that thankful right now? Are you having a tough time giving thanks this year? It is certainly understandable, as I have said before. But may I then encourage you all the more to make it your aim to seek to know God better?

There can truly be no more important thing that you could do than that. The Bible goes so far as to say that knowing God (not just knowing about God, although it certainly includes that) is eternal life! John 17:3 says,

“And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (ESV)

Certainly if you know the Lord and have eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, you of all people have every reason to give thanks to God. For it is in Christ that we have been given every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3).

Not only that, but the better that you come to know the God of creation, providence, and salvation, the more reasons you will find to give thanks in all things, even in 2020 and beyond. May we all learn to give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, and His steadfast love endures forever!

A Common Pastoral Temptation in Studying the Word

There are many pitfalls and temptations of various kinds inherent in the work of pastoral ministry. (Please pray for your pastors!) No doubt this is why Paul tells Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16, ESV) Pastors not only need to “keep a close watch” on what they teach, but also on themselves as well. Paul even adds that we must “persist in this.” We never arrive or outgrow this need for self-watch.

Now those of us who are in full-time ministry have, as part of our work, the great privilege and blessing of spending a good bit of time in studying the Word of God. It has been said that we are paid, not so much to do the work of ministry (as if it were just our jobs), but in order to be freed up to do the work of ministry. And part of that certainly includes time in study and in prayer.

Having said that, there are some peculiar temptations that may arise in the midst of that time in study and sermon preparation. Have you ever listened to a sermon and immediately thought to yourself (or even said to someone next to you in church), “I know someone who really needs to hear this sermon!” Now that may be true enough, but sometimes when we think this way it shows that we are not necessarily focusing on our own need for hearing that same sermon. If we, for example, are focusing so much on someone else’s shortcomings and sins that are addressed in the sermon text, there is a greater likelihood that we might neglect to focus on our own need for grace and repentance. And if that is the case, we have probably failed to benefit from the ministry of the Word much at all that day.

Well, a similar mindset can creep in unawares among pastors as well, even if it takes a slightly different form. This happens when I as the pastor find myself studying a given text of Scripture primarily with my listeners in mind first. Now don’t get me wrong – having the congregation in mind is certainly a necessary part of good sermon preparation. But it cannot start there. Starting there shortcuts the process in some rather important ways.

In his book, Shepherding God’s Flock, Jay Adams writes,

“One great temptation, for instance, is for the minister to read the Scriptures only in terms of sermons and ministry. Since he must preach to others, counsel with others, and in a dozen different ways minister from the Book to someone else, it is not hard for the minister to neglect the sort of reading that is calculated to penetrate his own heart and affect his life.” (p,23)

Personally, I believe this to be one of the more common temptations that many pastors face. And it is a rather subtle temptation at that, which makes it even more difficult to recognize.

Adams wisely notes that one obvious solution to this temptation is for the minister to “develop the practice of studying devotionally.” This involves studying, even as part of sermon preparation, “first with the aim of personal application” to himself, and only then with the aim toward applying it to the members of his congregation.

You might think that sounds simple, but I can assure you from personal experience that it is not nearly as easy as it sounds to keep such a perspective in mind.

Another practical suggestion is to seek to spend some time in reading and study that has no direct bearing on one’s preaching and teaching at the moment. This may not be easy to do, as there is only so much time in a day, but I believe it to be well worth the time.

So for my fellow pastors out there, I hope that you find this brief post to be helpful and encouraging. And if you ever find yourself stuck in the grind (so to speak) of studying just to preach to other people on Sundays, I sincerely hope that you will prayerfully consider these things, and get back to studying devotionally, as Dr. Adams suggests. (I know that I certainly need that reminder from time to time.)

And for those of you who are church members, may I humbly ask that you pray for your pastors, and encourage them in their work, which is for your benefit (Hebrews 13:17)? And see what you might be able to do as a church to enable your pastors and elders to avail themselves of opportunities for personal study and growth in the faith. That could even be through such things as attending a sound Christian conference or retreat from time to time. (Even seasoned pastors need to be ministered to, preached to, and taught from time to time.)

The Foundation of Our Prayer (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 120)

The Heidelberg Catechism closes with an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer (Q/A 116-129). In Q/A 120 it explains the importance and significance of Christians being able to address God in prayer as “Our Father.” There it says:

Q.120. Why hath Christ commanded us to address God thus: “Our Father”? A. That immediately, in the very beginning of our prayer, He might excite in us a childlike reverence for and confidence in God, which are the foundation of our prayer, namely that God is become our Father in Christ, and will much less deny us what we ask of Him in true faith than our parents will refuse us earthly things.

And so the opening address of the Lord’s prayer teaches us the “foundation” of all true Christian prayer, which consists in at least two (2) things: “childlike reverence for and confidence in God.”

Not just reverence for God, but a “childlike reverence” is a necessity for Christian prayer. As a child normally looks up to his or her earthly father with a reverence as one who is able to provide for their needs, in an even greater way we are to look up to or have a deep reverence for God as our heavenly Father. In the same way, as children are also normally confident in the willingness of their earthly fathers to provide for them and to give them what they ask for, even so in a greater way believers are taught here to look unto God in prayer as our Father in heaven, being confident in His willingness to give good things to His children who ask.

Our Lord Jesus taught the very same thing in Matthew 7:7–11, where He says,

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (ESV)

Jesus here makes the argument from the lesser to the greater. If we who are earthly fathers (“who are evil“!) are disposed to “give good gifts” to our own children, how much more should we have confidence that our heavenly Father’s willingness to “give good things to those who ask him!” (v.11)

Or do we think that we are somehow better than God in that regard? Do we imagine that we are better parents to our own children than God Himself is to those who are His adopted children in Jesus Christ? May we never have such a high view of ourselves, nor such a low view of God!

As a believer in Christ, do you have this kind of confidence in God’s willingness to hear and answer your prayers? Are you approaching God as your Father in Jesus Christ, with childlike reverence and confidence, that He is even more willing to hear and answer than you are to pray? That, as Q/A 120 points out, is the indispensable “foundation of our prayer.” If you lack that childlike confidence in God, you are certain to find prayer difficult, and will not persevere in prayer very long. But if you are approaching Him in prayer as your heavenly Father, and trusting in His goodness and willingness to hear and answer your prayers, that changes everything!

May God be pleased to work in us that which is pleasing in His sight, so that we might learn the lessons of the opening address of the Lord’s prayer, so that when we call upon God as our heavenly Father, we might learn to have great confidence in His goodness and His willingness to “give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11, ESV)

Prayer as the Chief Part of the Thankfulness that God Requires of Us (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 116)

heidcat2__03083.1480713175Why should we as Christians pray? Why is it necessary for us – why do we need to pray? No doubt there may be any number of good answers to that question. We pray because we are needy people (Psalm 70:5; Matthew 6:8). We pray because God gives good gifts to His children who pray (Matthew 7:11). We also pray because we are commanded to do so in the Word of God (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

The Heidelberg Catechism concludes with an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer (Q/A 116-129). And in introducing the Lord’s prayer, it teaches us that the primary reason (although certainly not the only reason) that believers need to pray is that it is the main way that we express our gratitude to God for our salvation in Jesus Christ:

Q.116. Why is prayer necessary for Christians?A. Because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us; and also, because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only, who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them.

Again, notice that the first reason for prayer given here in Q/A 116 is gratitude. That says a lot about both the motive for prayer as well as its very nature. This fits in well with the entire 3rd section of the catechism (Q/A 86-129), which is all primarily about how we are to show our gratitude to God for our salvation. (See Q/A 2.) Gratitude is to be our primary motive for obedience to God’s commandments (Q/A 86-115) and for prayer (Q/A 116-129).

It is no coincidence that giving thanks and prayer are linked together in Scripture. Here are just a handful of examples:

  • “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Philippians 1:3-5 ESV)
  • “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6 ESV)
  • “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 ESV)

And if you add to that the dozens of times that the Psalms speak of giving thanks to the LORD (e.g. Psalm 7:17; 9:1; 30:4; 33:2, etc.), the list gets even longer. After all, in a sense, many of the Psalms are both songs and prayers.

You can’t really give thanks without praying. (To give thanks to God is to pray!) And you probably won’t persevere very long in prayer if your heart is not filled with gratitude to God for all of the blessings that He has bestowed on You in Jesus Christ. No wonder the Heidelberg Catechism calls prayer “the chief [i.e. the most important] part of the thankfulness God requires of us” (Q/A 116).

In addition to that (and then only secondarily to giving thanks to God), the catechism goes on to teach us that we are also to pray “because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only, who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them.”

This is a direct connection to the previous question (Q/A 115), which says that the strict preaching of the ten commandments should more and more reveal our sinful nature to us, so that we seek forgiveness of sin and the righteousness in Christ alone (i.e. justification), as well as so that we might “constantly endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God” (i.e. sanctification & growth in grace).

This should be a much more common theme and request in our prayers than it tends to be. We should sincerely and continually ask God for His grace and His Holy Spirit, and give Him thanks for them, for without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).

How much different might our prayer lives be as believers in Christ if we were to view prayer not merely as a duty to be performed, nor even as a means to an end, but first and foremost as “the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us” – as the primary way that we express our gratitude to our Heavenly Father for His saving grace and kindness toward us in Christ!

The Heidelberg Catechism on the Strict Preaching of the Ten Commandments

heidcat2__03083.1480713175Preaching through the Ten Commandments does not seem to be nearly as common in Reformed churches today as it has been in years and generations past. Perhaps some mistakenly believe that to do so in some way implies or lends itself to a kind of legalism of sorts. To be sure, there are legalistic ways of preaching God’s law, but this should in no way prevent us from preaching and teaching the Ten Commandments in our churches in a godly and edifying way.

Q/A 115 marks the end of the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the Ten Commandments (which consists of Q/A 92-115), and it addresses this very topic, saying:

Q.115. Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?A. First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ; likewise, that we consistently endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we might become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us in the life to come.

This question logically builds upon the previous two (2) questions, where we are taught that the tenth commandment (“Thou shalt not covet” – Exodus 20:17) requires of us that we obey all of God’s commandments from the heart (Q/A 113), and reveals to us that in this life “even the holiest of men” cannot perfectly keep God’s commandments, but “have only a small beginning of this obedience” (Q/A 114).

Here in Q/A 115 the writer of the catechism anticipates a possible objection about the usefulness and necessity of the preaching of God’s commandments in the life of the Christian. If even the holiest of men in this life only have a “small beginning” of the obedience and holiness that is required of them, then what is the use of preaching and teaching the commandments so strictly? Not only that, but why should the catechism itself spend so much time on the subject (no less than 24 questions over a span of 11 Lord’s Days)?

Given the fact the the Heidelberg Catechism itself was intended to be used as, among other things, a preaching guide in the churches, and has been preached as such in Reformed churches all over the world for hundreds of years since it was first published, you might say that Q/A 115 at least in part serves an apologetic purpose of sorts, in that it defends or at least gives us the rationale behind including such a lengthy exposition of the ten commandments in the course of its instruction.

Interestingly, in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus (the principal author of the Heidelberg Catechism itself) goes into great detail answering the arguments or objections of “the Antinomians, Libertines, and other profane heretics of a similar cast, who affirm that the law is not to be taught in the church of Christ.” This almost certainly shows that he had their arguments in view when he composed Q/A 115.

Ursinus goes so far as to state and refute no less than 11 (!) common objections that such heretics made against the strict preaching and teaching of God’s law. Some of these very same arguments are raised in one form or another by modern antinomians of various kinds in our own day as well.

For example, he points out that some object to the strict preaching of God’s commandments on the basis that we are unable in this life to perfectly keep or obey them. Ursinus essentially answers this objection in his commentary by restating the answer to question #115. He also points out that “the law may, to a certain extent, be kept by the regenerate” (p.615). In other words, the fact that we cannot perfectly obey God’s law in this life does not mean that we cannot sincerely obey it at all.

Another common objection (both in Ursinus’s day as well as our own) is based upon a misunderstanding of Paul’s words in Romans 6:14, where he says that we as believers are “not under law but under grace.” Ursinus writes,

“This, however, is to misunderstand the words of the Apostle; for the expression, Not to be under the law, does not mean, that we are not to yield obedience to the law, but that we are freed from the curse and constraint of the law; . . . .” (p.617)

The Westminster Confession of Faith likewise states:

“The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” (19.5)

The gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ does not in any way “dissolve” or do away with our obligation to obey God’s law, but rather does “much strengthen this obligation.”

So why is it necessary that the commandments of God be so strictly preached? Q/A 115 offers us at least two reasons. “First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ.” In other words, a thorough familiarity with the law of God and the hearing of God’s commandments being “strictly preached” ought to help us to understand more and more just how sinful we still are in this life. And this is something that we will need to learn “all our lifetime.” As Paul says in Romans 3:20, “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (ESV)

This, of course, is not an end in and of itself, but rather serves the purpose of making us as believers to “become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ.” It should safeguard us from any delusions of perfectionism or self-righteousness, and cause us to more earnestly seek God’s mercy in forgiving our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). As Paul says in Philippians 3:8–9,

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— (ESV)

Not only that, but the strict preaching of the ten commandments is also for the purpose “likewise, that we consistently endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we might become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us in the life to come.”

In other words, it should lead us more and more to grasp our need for the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives, and to pray for His work in us, in order that we might be more conformed to the image of Christ and walk in newness of life according to the power of His resurrection (Philippians 3:10-11).

And so herein lies the pastoral wisdom of including within the catechism such a lengthy section dealing with the Ten Commandments, and why God’s commandments still ought to be strictly preached in our churches. These things are needful for every believer, for God uses the preaching of His commandments (as He does all of Scripture) as an instrument of our sanctification in Christ, by the working of His Holy Spirit within us.