Author: Andy Schreiber

The Impossibility of Good Works Apart from Justification by Faith Alone (Belgic Confession Article 24)

It has been rightly said that faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone (i.e. sanctification and good works must necessarily follow). You can even go so far as to speak of the necessity of good works, although certainly not as the grounds or basis for our justification.

But have you ever considered the fact that good works are actually quite impossible apart from justification by faith alone? The first paragraph of Belgic Confession article 24 makes this abundantly clear:

“We believe that this true faith, being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith working through love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.”

Here the Confession addresses one of the most common objections to the gospel of God’s free grace in Christ. People sometimes hear of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone (i.e. not by works), and conclude that if we are not saved by our works, and if salvation is really a free gift of God’s grace, then it does not matter how we live. Legalists will often go so far as to suggest that the gospel of free grace will invariably lead to licentiousness. (Paul addresses this same objection in Romans 6:1-14.)

In answer to this objection the Confession states,

“Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith working through love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.”

And so not only does justification by faith not lead to people being “remiss” or lacking in pious and holy living, but the Confession goes so far as to say that, “on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation.”

Justification by faith alone is the only real source of truly good (not perfect) works. Salvation by works (which is what every other religion in human history ultimately teaches) is really what results in the utter absence of good works, as truly good works are done of out a living faith and a true love for God, whereas the religion of works or legalism spurs people on to works “only out of self-love or fear of damnation.”

In the end all forms of works-based salvation (false gospels all) ironically end up destroying or preventing the very possibility of good works, while only the free grace of the gospel and justification by faith alone can ever truly lead to good works, which must be done out of love to God.

Another way of saying that is to say that good works are utterly impossible for us outside of justification by faith alone.

 

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He Suffered Under Pontius Pilate

Institutes CalvinIn a sense it is remarkable that Pontius Pilate’s name is so well-known. Of course, he is famous (or infamous) for all the wrong reasons. He is known for playing a primary role in the crucifixion of Christ. Sinclair Ferguson writes that he was “a man whom history would have well-nigh forgotten were it not for his part in this drama” (Let’s Study Mark, p.255).

Not only is Pilate’s name mentioned repeatedly in all four (4) Gospels, but it also appears three times in the book of Acts (Acts 3:13, 4:27, 13:28) and once in 1 Timothy 6:13 as well.

Pilate’s name is even included in the Apostles’ Creed, which, in speaking of the sufferings and death of Christ for our salvation, it calls us to confess as an essential part of the Christian faith:

“He suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

Likewise the Nicene Creed also states that “for us men and for our salvation,” the Lord Jesus Christ: “was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.”

But why does it matter that Jesus specifically suffered under Pontius Pilate? Have you ever wondered why that is? Why did He have to suffer and die in that particular way (i.e. the cross)?

In the 1541 edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin includes an extended exposition of sorts of the Apostles’ Creed. In his comments on Christ’s sufferings under Pontius Pilate he notes:

For since by Christ’s death sins had to be wiped away and the condemnation which they deserved removed, it would not have been enough for him to suffer a different kind of death. To duly fulfil [sic] every part of our redemption, it was necessary to choose death in a form which allowed him to take upon himself our condemnation and the payment owed to God’s wrath, and so deliver us from both.” (p.246)

In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ’s death had to be a judicial death, a death involving the passing of a sentence of condemnation and death.

Calvin goes on to say,

“If thieves had cut his throat, if he had been murdered in an affray by the hands of individuals, there would have been no semblance of satisfaction [i.e. atonement or payment for sin] in such a death. But in that he was brought as an accused before a court of law, was denounced by witnesses and condemned by the mouth of the judge, we recognize that he appeared as a criminal.” (ibid)

And so for our Lord to be the Savior of sinners, He could not just die as a mere victim or even a martyr – He had to die as a criminal, one convicted and sentenced to death. For this very reason He was crucified between two robbers (Mark 15:27), and so the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled which said that He was “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).

Not only that, but in suffering under Pontius Pilate, it was sure to come to pass that the method of execution (i.e. capital punishment) employed in His death would specifically be that of crucifixion – “death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

Calvin states,

“The cross was accursed not only in the opinion of men but by decree of God’s law (Deut. 21:23). By being nailed to the cross Christ makes himself subject to a curse. This had to happen so that the curse merited by our sins and made ready for them should be transferred to him, that we might go free.” (p.247)

Deuteronomy 21:23 specifically states that “a hanged man is cursed by God” (ESV). And so for Christ Jesus to be executed in that way was to demonstrate that He underwent the curse of God in our place – the very curse that we deserve because of our sins.

These are some of the more important reasons why we confess (in reciting the Apostles’ Creed) that “he suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

 

Pentecost and Preaching

In his book on preaching, The Heart Is the Target, Murray Capill includes a section dealing with the preacher’s need of the help of the Holy Spirit in order to preach the Word of God effectively.

There he points us to the example of the apostles on the day of Pentecost:

“The story of Acts begins with the disciples waiting in expectation for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Without the presence of the Holy Spirit, they dare not begin to preach. Only with the Spirit’s power will a man like Peter, who had previously felt such pressure from an unnamed slave girl that he denied his Lord three times, be enabled to speak boldly and courageously to thousands and be useful to God in the salvation of many souls. On the day of Pentecost, it is preaching that brings in the first gospel harvest, but it is Spirit-empowered preaching. The same fruit would have been quite inconceivable just one day earlier.” (p.40)

The only plausible explanation for the newfound boldness of Peter and the others in their preaching of the gospel was the power and work of the Holy Spirit within them.

Capill then goes on to show that the presence and work of the Holy Spirit is prominently featured throughout the rest of the book of Acts (citing no less than 18 examples!). In fact, nearly every chapter in the book makes some kind of reference to the Holy Spirit! Why is this? What lesson are we to learn from this? He writes,

“There are many other references to the Holy Spirit in Acts, but the point is clear. The Spirit is never far from the action. Or more correctly, the action of Acts is the action of the ascended Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in and through his people. Just as the advance of the gospel in Acts cannot be understood apart from the central place of preaching, neither can preaching be understood apart from the central role of the Spirit.” (p.41)

While we certainly no longer have Apostles among us, and we therefore should not be expecting or seeking for the signs and wonders that accompanied the ministry of the Apostles (what Paul calls “the signs of a true apostle” in 2 Corinthians 12:12), the ongoing advancement of the gospel in this world through the preaching of God’s Word must still be done in dependence upon the work of the ascended Christ through His Holy Spirit in and through His people.

Pentecost marked the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church, and the effects of that outpouring still continue to this day. The great Puritan theologian, John Owen, writes the following:

“The great privilege of the gospel age, which would make the New Testament church more glorious than that of the Old, was the wonderful pouring out of the promised Holy Spirit on all believers.” (The Holy Spiritp.19)

That outpouring of the Holy Spirit took place on the day of Pentecost. And so that great privilege of living in the gospel age is ours, as is the ongoing benefit of having received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church.

Even though the day of Pentecost is often misunderstood and underappreciated, it would truly be difficult to overstate its importance in the ongoing life and ministry of the church to this very day. It is only the work of the Holy Spirit that makes the preaching of the Word of God effectual for the salvation of sinners and the sanctification of the saints.

“Even More Present Than Before” – John Calvin on the Ascension of Christ

Institutes CalvinIn his 1541 edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin includes an extended exposition of the Apostles’ Creed. (That section alone is worth the price of the book.)

His comments on the the Creed’s statement regarding the ascension of Christ (i.e. “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty”) are noteworthy and helpful.

It is sometimes asked how Christ’s promise to be with us “always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, ESV) can be compatible with His ascension to the right hand of God the Father. In some sense, then, isn’t He actually not with us, or at least in some way less present with us than He was during His earthly ministry?

To this question Calvin says the following,

“Thus being received into heaven, he removed his bodily presence from our sight, not so as to leave without help believers who still have to live on earth, but to rule the world with a power even more present than before. Certainly his promise to be with us to the end of the age has been fulfilled by his ascension, for as by it his body was lifted above all the heavens, so its power and effectiveness reach far beyond all bounds of heaven and earth.” (p.253)

What an amazing statement! Even though our Lord Jesus Christ is no longer bodily present for a time until He returns, He now rules over all things “with a power even more present than before” (italics added)!

Not only that, but Calvin goes on to say that Christ’s ascension, far from undoing His promise to be with us always, is actually the very fulfillment of it! It is because Christ has ascended “above all the heavens” that His “power and effectiveness reach far beyond all bounds of heaven and earth.” And so it is because of Christ’s ascension that He is actually with us always, even to the end of the age!

The Belgic Confession – Article 7 (The Sufficiency of Scripture)

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.

Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all: for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore, we reject with all our hearts whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us, saying, Prove the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: if anyone comes unto you, and brings not this teaching, receive him not into your house. (Belgic Confession, Article 7)

The Sufficiency of Scripture for Faith and Practice

Article 7 of the Belgic Confession deals with the sufficiency of Scripture. It states that the Scriptures alone “fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein.”

To say that the Scriptures “fully contain the will of God” is to say that nothing that we need for faith or practice is lacking in it, and so nothing may be added to or taken away from it. The Scriptures themselves teach this:

  • “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (2 Peter 1:3–4, ESV, Italics added)
  • “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:18–19, ESV, Italics added)

To say that the Scriptures “fully contain the will of God” is also to say that in the Bible God has revealed to us everything that we need to know about faith (what we are to believe) and practice (how we are to live). Similarly, the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (Q.3). These are the principal or primary aims and ends of Scripture.

  • The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;” (Psalm 19:7, ESV)
  • “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:32, ESV)
  • “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16–17, ESV)

This, however, does not mean that God has revealed everything that there is to know about everything, much less that the Scriptures are somehow encyclopedic in nature. There are many things that God has not revealed to us in the pages of Scripture:

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29, ESV)

Even the history (for example) that is contained in the Bible, while true & inerrant, is not exhaustive in nature – it is not intended to be. The Gospels do not tell us everything that we might want to know about Jesus. The Apostle John plainly states that if he were to have included everything that the Lord Jesus did, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). But the Scriptures do tell us everything that we need to know about the Lord Jesus Christ in order to be saved.

The Sufficiency of Scripture as Our Infallible Rule (or Standard)

Belgic Confession Article 6 dealt with the right way to view the Apocrypha – as non-canonical, extra-biblical writings that may be read and possibly even learned from, “so far as they agree with the canonical books,” but which are not authoritative, and must be judged according to the testimony of Scripture, which is our sole authority for faith and practice.

Here Article 7 similarly deals with how non-canonical, extra-biblical writings (as well as customs, councils, confessions, etc.) are to be viewed in light of the sufficiency of Scripture in particular. The Confession states:

“Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God . . . .”

All too often even when the authority of Scripture is affirmed, its sufficiency is either implicitly or explicitly denied. And so (to use the phrase from this Article) the Scriptures alone are to be our “infallible rule,” by which we are to test all things.

  • “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20–22, ESV)
  • “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1, ESV)

And so the ancient ecumenical creeds, and the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms (to name just a few examples), however true, useful, and helpful they may be, are not (and should never be) our ultimate standard for faith & practice. That is a place rightfully reserved for the Scriptures alone. They are subordinate standards, and must themselves even be tested by the Word of God.

He Ascended into Heaven

The ascension of Christ is easily one of the most neglected doctrines of the Christian faith. (And that is saying something!) Michael Horton writes,

Given the place of the ascension in the New Testament (especially in the Epistles), it is surprising that it plays a relatively minor role in the faith and practice of the church. Though affirmed, it does not seem to occupy the same status as Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.” (The Christian Faith, p.533)

Horton is in no way overstating the case. We as believers should esteem the ascension of our Lord Jesus much more highly than we commonly do – even as highly as His incarnation, death, and resurrection. His ascension plays every bit as much a part in Christ’s accomplishment of our salvation as His incarnation, death, and resurrection.

Both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed include Christ’s ascension as an essential truth of the Christian faith:

  • “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
  • “and [He] ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father;” (The Nicene Creed)

Not only is the historical fact of His ascension recorded for us in the Gospels (Mark 16:19-20; Luke 24:50-53) and in the book of Acts (Acts 1:1-11), but references to it are found throughout the rest of the New Testament as well.

A simple search of passages in the New Testament that speak of Christ being exalted to ‘the right hand of God’ comes up with nearly two dozen instances, a number of which include quotes from Psalm 110:1 (i.e. “The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” ESV)

The book of Acts refers to Christ’s ascension repeatedly. (It cannot be understood properly apart from it!) The book of Hebrews does the same. One of the major themes of the book of Revelation is that Christ is reigning over all things for His church and will return in glory to judge the living & the dead.

The Apostle Paul refers to Christ’s ascension repeatedly in his letters. For example, in the book of Ephesians, he points us to it no less than three (3) times. In Ephesians 1:15-23 he writes,

15 For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (ESV)

In the very next chapter Paul goes on to apply this great reality and doctrine in the lives of believers. In Ephesians 2:4-7 he writes,

4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (ESV)

So God not only made us alive together with Christ and saved us by grace (v.5), but He also “raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ! By virtue of our union with Christ (which in some ways was the grand theme or at least recurring sub-theme of Ephesians 1:3-14), believers died with Christ, were raised with Christ, and have even been seated with Him in the heavenly places!

But Paul isn’t done yet! In Ephesians chapter 4 he goes into some detail about the results of Christ’s enthronement in heaven.  In Ephesians 4:7-13 Paul (quoting Psalm 68:18), says that Christ giving Spiritual gifts to His church was the result of His ascension:

7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says,

          “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
            and he gave gifts to men.”

9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, (ESV)

Does the New Testament’s emphasis on the ascension of Christ surprise you? It probably shouldn’t. Christ’s work as our Mediator – His present & ongoing work for our salvation as our great Prophet, Priest, and King, all involve His ascension to the right hand of God the Father. (Again, see the book of Hebrews.)

May God grant us understanding into these things (even as Paul prayed in Ephesians 1:15-23, above), and move our hearts by His Holy Spirit, that we might be more inclined to live, worship, witness, and work in light of the truth that our faithful Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, is even now seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, reigning over all things for the sake of His church!

The Importance and Power of Preaching

Heartisthetarget CapillThe opening paragraph of Murray Capill’s book, The Heart Is the Target, is about as good a summary of the importance and power of preaching as can be found outside of the pages of Scripture itself.

“Throughout the long history of the church, nothing has won as many souls, changed as many lives, built up as many saints, and strengthened as many churches as the faithful preaching of God’s Word.” (p.13)

 Is that how we commonly think of preaching, even in Reformed theological circles? Do we really believe that the preaching of the Word of God from Sunday to Sunday is powerful and effective for the conversion of the lost? Or do we imagine that other things (i.e. less “preachy” means) are more effective and more to be preferred?

What about the building up or edification of the saints? Do we view the preaching of the Word of God as being a powerful and effective means of believers being built up in the faith and equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17)? Or do we hang our proverbial hat on lesser things (i.e. small groups or other church-related programs)? Nothing wrong with programs per se, but an undue emphasis on our own programs may belie a subtle lack of confidence in the preaching of God’s Word.

We should view the preaching of the Word of God as primary in the life of the church. That is certainly the view of preaching that is espoused in the Westminster Standards. For example, the Westminster Shorter Catechism says the following about preaching as a means of grace:

“Q. 89. How is the word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.”

Reading the Bible is certainly important (whether one’s own personal Bible reading of listening to the Scriptures being read in public worship). But the Holy Spirit “especially” uses the preaching of the Word of God to convict and convert sinners, and to build them up in holiness and comfort, “through faith, unto salvation.”

Wherever and whenever the true preaching of the Word of God has been recovered and rightly emphasized, souls have been won, lives have been changed, saints have been built up, and churches have been strengthened.

No wonder the Apostle Paul so solemnly charged Timothy to preach the Word:

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:1–2, ESV)