J.C. Ryle on the Spiritual Use of the Law

holinessCan a sinner be justified in the sight of a holy God by works, or by obedience to God’s commandments? No, of course not. In Galatians 2:16 the Apostle Paul plainly states as much:

“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (ESV)

Notice that Paul basically states this same truth at least three (3) times in just this one simple verse. (It’s as if he is trying to emphasize his point!) No one will be justified by the works of the law. No one.

Having established that, we must be careful to maintain that although we are not in any way justified by works or by obedience to God’s commandments, yet this does not therefore mean that we as believers in Christ have no more need or use for God’s law. Quite the opposite! In his book, Holiness, J.C. Ryle writes,

“There is no greater mistake than to suppose that a Christian has nothing to do with the law and the Ten Commandments, because he cannot be justified by keeping them. The same Holy Ghost who convinces the believer of sin by the law, and leads him to Christ for justification, will always lead him to a spiritual use of the law, as a friendly guide, in the pursuit of sanctification.” (p.26)

As Ryle rightly points out, the Holy Spirit not only uses the law of God to convince or convict the believer of his or her sin, and so to drive them to look to Christ by faith for salvation from sin (often referred to as the pedagogical use of the law), but after conversion also leads that same believer to what Ryle calls a “spiritual use of the law.” What is that “spiritual use” of God’s law? It is to use it as the believer’s rule for life (often called the normative or 3rd use of the law).

To the believer who has been justified by faith alone in Christ alone, the law no longer holds forth the threat of condemnation for sin, but now serves as (to use Ryle’s words) a “friendly guide” in our lifelong pursuit of sanctification.

What Is Forbidden in the 4th Commandment? (SHORTER CATECHISM Q.61)

1710_largeIn our brief series of posts examining what the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches regarding the Sabbath, we now come to  Q.61, which asks:

“What is forbidden in the fourth commandment?”

What is positively required by the commandment was dealt with at length in the previous three questions (Q.58-60). Now we see the flip side, so to speak – what we are not to do on the Lord’s day. The catechism’s answer to the above question is as follows:

“The fourth commandment forbids the omission, or careless performance, of the duties required, and the profaning the day by idleness, or doing that which is in itself sinful, or by unnecessary thoughts, words, or works, about our worldly employments or recreations.”

So the first thing that is forbidden is the “omission . . .of the duties required.” Blatant disregard for the Sabbath and for worship (both public and private) is in view here. We must not neglect to observe the holy rest and worship that is required. (See Q.60.) This happens, for instance, when we fail to faithfully attend public worship on the Lord’s day. This is what the writer of the book of Hebrews admonishes us about:

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV, italics mine)

‘Neglecting to meet together’ in public worship is all too common in our day, but apparently that is nothing new. Even back in the first century that was already “the habit of some” (v.25). For various reasons some professing believers simply don’t make it a priority. Some attend worship once or twice a year (around Easter or Christmas), and consider that sufficient to fulfill their obligation. This should not be. If this describes you, consider the words of the 4th commandment as well as Hebrews 10:25, and take those words to heart. Don’t waste your Sundays on lesser things.

Lest we content ourselves with mere church attendance, the second thing that we are told is forbidden here is the “careless performance” of the duties required. We are guilty of this when we go through the motions (even the correct motions, so to speak!) in worship. In others words, just showing up is a good start, but it is not enough. Our hearts and minds must be engaged in what we are doing. This is the kind of thing that is spoken of by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah:

” . . . this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13, ESV)

They said all the right things, but it was all just for show; their hearts were not truly into it. How often do we commit similar sins in worship? How often do we say, pray, or sing all the right things, while our hearts are far from God? Probably far more often than most of us would like to admit. There is often much to be repented of and forgiven even in our worship!

The third thing that is forbidden in the 4th commandment is “profaning the day.” What does it mean to “profane” the day? Q.61 outlines a number of the ways that we might do so. The first of those is simply “idleness.” A day of holy rest is not a day of inactivity; it is not intended to be a wasted day!

Another way to profane the day is by doing that which is inherently sinful. Of course, that holds true for every day of the week, but you could say that the offense is aggravated or made worse by doing those things on the Lord’s day! We are certainly not supposed to live wickedly Monday through Saturday, while saving our holiness for Sundays (or for an hour or two on Sundays) – that is rightly called hypocrisy. But we should be especially mindful of resting from our evil works on Sundays.

The last way of profaning the Lord’s day that the Shorter Catechism mentions is “unnecessary thoughts, words, or works, about our worldly employments or recreations.”  What does that entail?  One obvious example comes to mind – watching sports on Sundays.  Assuming (I hope) that we don’t just skip church altogether for the sake of watching our favorite NFL team, do we hurry home from church on Sundays so that we can watch the game? Or, perhaps I refrain from watching my favorite football team (yes, the Eagles) on Sundays, but do I still find myself checking on the score or following the game online? (Guilty as charged, at times.) Do we spend our time discussing work-related things unnecessarily?

Does that sound like an impossible standard to try to live up to? Does it sound unattainable? Sure it does. But what are we to do about that fact? Are we to throw our hands up in the air and give up on making any sincere or serious effort at obeying the law of God in these things? Certainly not. You would never dare to apply that logic to the commandment against adultery, would you? (I sincerely hope not.) Would you call someone a “legalist” because he or she took the implications of the 7th commandment seriously, and sought (however imperfectly) to refrain even from lustful thoughts? Of course not, right? Well, the same principles clearly apply to the 4th commandment!

So what are we to do? If need be, we must repent of our transgressions of the 4th commandment. If you have neglected the gathering together of the Lord’s people for public worship, resolve by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to do so no longer. Make worship on the Lord’s day your priority. And seek to delight in it as well (Isaiah 58:13). That is something that may take some time to cultivate and learn; and it doesn’t necessarily happen overnight. But it is well worth the time and effort required.

Feeding the Flock With a Slingshot? (Dabney on Polemics in Preaching)

dabney-eeFeeding Christ’s sheep is a common metaphor for the preaching and teaching aspect of pastoral ministry. When the risen Christ told Simon Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:17), He certainly intended Peter to understand that if he (Peter) truly loved Him, one of the primary ways that he was to show it was in feeding Christ’s sheep by ministering the Word of God to them faithfully.

The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3:2), the writer of the book of Hebrews (Hebrews 5:12-14), and even the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:2) likewise all used imagery involving feeding (or eating) to describe the ministry of the Word.

And so a right view of the preaching and teaching ministry in the church will necessarily involve seeing it in some way as (among other things) feeding Christ’s sheep. That should have a profound influence on the way that we approach preaching in the church. True Christian preaching should be done for the glory of Christ, and for the benefit (even the spiritual nourishment) of the flock.

In his book, Evangelical Eloquence, Robert L. Dabney (1820-1898) offers a number of critiques and cautions about certain kinds of preaching that are not fitting in the church. One of those preaching styles or practices might be described as polemics-centered preaching.

What is polemics? It can be defined as the practice of refuting error by means of dispute or argumentation. It can rightly be thought of as at least one aspect of destroying arguments raised against the knowledge of God and taking every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Certainly there is a place for that in the preaching and teaching of the church.

Nonetheless, Dabney had the following to say about the kind of preaching that focuses almost entirely on polemics:

“In [other pulpits] the Sabbaths of the people are wholly occupied with those polemics by which the outworks of Christianity should be defended against the foreign assaults of infidel philosophy; as though one would feed the flock within the fold with the bristling missiles which should have been hurled against the wolves without.” (p.39)

Now here he is not condemning any and all polemics in our pulpits – far from it! There is nothing wrong with polemics in the pulpit per se. There is most certainly a use (even a need) for it at times. Without it, the flock will be unprepared for some of the assaults from within or without that might threaten the doctrinal integrity and unity of the church. But not all polemical issues are relevant (or even accessible) to the flock.

Sometimes, as Dabney rightly points out above, polemical preaching can be aimed at the wrong audience. Sometimes the staff (or the “bristling missiles,” as Dabney puts it) that should be used with force against the wolves, ends up being misdirected at the sheep instead. Such preaching is surely no way to feed Christ’s flock.

So let us feed Christ’s sheep in all of our preaching and teaching in the church. And let polemics have their proper place in our preaching and teaching, to be sure, but not the central place, lest we mistakenly try to feed Christ’s sheep a steady diet of stones or “bristling missiles.” Let us be careful not to try to feed Christ’s sheep with a slingshot. It not only fails to keep the wolves away, but it also leads to a malnourished flock.

When a Sermon Degenerates Into A Speech

dabney-eeWhat is the difference between a sermon and a mere speech? How can one tell the difference between the two?

In his book on the subject of preaching, Robert L. Dabney (1820-1898) makes the following observation:

“The preacher relies alone upon evangelical inducements, and refers every conviction of the reason ultimately to God’s testimony. I elaborate this all-important distinction carefully; perhaps my reasons for it are difficult to grasp, because of their simplicity. The end, I repeat, of every oration is to make men do. But the things which the sermon would make men do, are only the things of God. Therefore it must apply to them the authority of God. If your discourse urges the hearer merely with excellent reasons and inducements, natural, ethical, social, legal, political, self-interested, philanthropic, if it does not end by bringing their wills under the direct grasp of a “thus saith the Lord,” it is not a sermon; it has degenerated into a speech.” (Evangelical Eloquence, p.34)

Surely Dabney is correct here. At the end of the day, if the force behind a sermon does not reside primarily in the authority of the Word of God (“a thus saith the Lord”, as Dabney puts it above), then it is not truly a sermon at all, but has “degenerated into a speech.”

It may be a fine speech – it may be carefully crafted and articulated; it may even “make men do” something, and so be thought to be effective, but it is not a sermon in the most basic sense of the word, and therefore has no place in the pulpit of a Christian church.

In the preaching in our churches, let us (again, to borrow Dabney’s phrase) rely on evangelical inducements alone, and seek to bring the wills of our hearers under a direct grasp of the truth and authority of the Word of God in Scripture. The Lord’s people need sermons, not speeches.

A Mutilated Faith

calvin-commentaryWhat does it mean to believe in Jesus Christ? What is faith? The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines faith as follows:

Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

So saving faith is faith that ‘receives and rests upon’ Christ alone for salvation. And true saving faith receives and rests upon Christ “as he is offered to us in the gospel.” It must be said that much of what often passes as preaching of the gospel of Christ does not fit that description. For how is Christ offered to us in the gospel? Is Christ offered as the Savior from the penalty of sin only, or as the Savior from sin – from its penalty, power, and (in the life to come), even its very presence?

The Scriptures plainly tell us that Jesus came to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), and that His gospel is sent forth to offer both forgiveness and sanctification (Acts 26:18). Clearly, then, Christ is offered to us in the gospel both for our justification as well as our sanctification, and He must be received as such.

Calvin (in commenting on Romans 8:13), puts it this way:

“It is, indeed, true, that we are justified in Christ by the mercy of God alone, but it is equally true and certain, that all who are justified are called by the Lord to live worthy of their vocation. Let believers, therefore, learn to embrace Him, not only for justification, but also for sanctification, as He has been given to us for both these purposes, that they may not rend him asunder by their own mutilated faith.” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 10, p.167)

Those who would believe in Christ for justification alone (i.e. for forgiveness and acceptance before God as righteous as in His sight), but not also for sanctification, have a (to use Calvin’s phrase) “mutilated faith” that effectively seeks to ‘rend Christ asunder’ (or split Him in two). But a divided faith in a divided Christ saves no one. So let us learn, as Calvin says, to embrace Christ for sanctification as well as justification, for “he has been given to us for both these purposes.”

John Owen on the Incomprehensibility of God

mortificationofsinJohn Owen (1616-1683) is often referred to as “the Prince of the Puritans.” The more I read of his considerable works, the more I wish he had put together a volume(s) of systematic theology. In reading through his various writings, though, one could nearly cobble one together. (Perhaps a new book idea for one of the accomplished Puritan scholars of our day?)

For instance, in one of his most well-known works, The Mortification of Sin, he touches on the subject of the incomprehensibility of God. I dare say that if one wanted to know Owen’s view on that great and humbling subject, The Mortification of Sin would probably not be the first volume of his writings that would spring to mind.

There he writes,

“First, we know so little of God because it is God we are seeking to know. God Himself has revealed Himself as one who cannot be known. He calls Himself invisible, incomprehensible, and the like. We cannot fully know Him as He is. Our progress often consists more in knowing what He is not, than what He is. He is immortal and infinite and we are only mortal, finite, and limited.” (p.92)

Now when he says that God “cannot be known,” he is not saying that we cannot know God truly, or that God is completely unknowable. After all, note that he says that “God Himself has revealed Himself” as such. So we can most certainly know God as He has revealed Himself, but we can never fully or comprehensively know God, primarily because He is infinite, and we (as mere creatures) are finite.

It is surely no accident that this quote is found in a chapter on “Humility.” And, considering the subject matter of the book as a whole (i.e. mortifying sin, per Romans 8:13), we can see how eminently practical even the biblical view of the incomprehensibility of God can be! Who says that theology isn’t practical!

Note: While there may not be a volume available (yet?) on the systematic theology of John Owen in particular, there is a truly outstanding book available that pieces together something of a systematic theology of the Puritans in general. That book is A Puritan Theology, by Joel Beeke and Mark Jones.

Helpful Resources on Holiness & Sanctification

Books on Holiness.jpgI recently remarked in a sermon that if you were to go to a typical Christian bookstore, you would almost certainly find shelf after shelf of books on any number of subjects, including such things as finances, politics, psychology, raising children, successful living, and even Christian health or diet books (!). On top of it all, you would surely find all kinds of Christian fiction. But what about books about holiness? (The old saying about finding a needle in a haystack comes to mind.)

Thankfully, there are some really helpful books on the subject of holiness. Here are just a handful of them (in no particular order):

  1. Holiness, by J.C. Ryle. This is one of my all-time favorite books. It is a classic, and for good reason. It is one of those books, that I find myself turning to again and again.
  2. Rediscovering Holiness, by J.I. Packer. This was a real eye-opener for me. This was the book where I first learned that gratitude for God’s grace in the gospel of Christ is the primary motive for obedience for a Christian.
  3. The Pursuit of Holiness, by Jerry Bridges. Bridges is always, solidly-biblical, accessible, read-able, and eminently-helpful. (Is that enough hyphens and superlatives?) Another really good book by him on a similar subject – The Discipline of Grace.
  4. The Hole In Our Holiness, by Kevin DeYoung. If you are looking for a book to help you understand the Christian life – the what, why, and how of pursuing holiness and following Christ, then I highly recommend this book to you! (See my review here.)
  5. The Mortification of Sin, by John Owen. Owen can often be somewhat difficult to read, but this abridged version is an exception to that rule, and is tremendously helpful.

There are doubtless many other great books on the subject that are available (even if they aren’t the best-sellers in our day), but I hope that this short list of some of my favorites will be enough to help get you started!