Books & Other Resources

Justification By Faith Alone (Belgic Confession Article 22)

with-heart-and-mouthThe Belgic Confession (1561) contains no less than two (2) articles dealing with the topic of justification. The first of these is Article 22 (“Our Justification Through Faith in Jesus Christ”), which is as follows:

We believe that, to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him. For it must needs follow, either that all things which are requisite to our salvation are not in
Jesus Christ, or if all things are in Him, that then those who possess Jesus Christ through faith have complete salvation in Him. Therefore, for any to assert that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides Him, would be too gross a blasphemy; for hence it would follow that Christ was but half a Savior.

“Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith apart from works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.”

First note the source of justifying faith – it is the work of the Holy Spirit who “kindles in our hearts an upright faith.” No doubt this is what Paul means in Ephesians 2:8 when he tells us that we have been saved by grace through faith, and then adds, “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (ESV). Even our very faith in Christ is the gift of God! Left to ourselves, none of us would ever believe in Christ for salvation.

Second, note the object (so to speak) of justifying faith – Jesus Christ with all His merits.” In other words, by faith we embrace or receive Christ Himself (His person) and all of His merits (i.e. His work – all that He has done for our salvation). In his exposition of the Belgic Confession (With Heart and Mouth), Daniel Hyde writes,

“By faith we look outside of our merit and ourselves. Like beggars, we receive only that which is given by another. What is given is the only One who has done anything good in the eyes of God, the only One who merited, that is, earned, and therefore was rewarded with righteousness to give to his people on the basis of his obedience to the law.” (p.294-295)

Notice thirdly the “instrument” of our justification – faith alone. We must be careful to understand that it is not faith of itself that justifies us, as if it were somehow inherently meritorious before God, but rather that faith itself is the only instrument by which we receive Christ and all of the benefits of redemption. Faith is “only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness.” Christ Himself is our righteousness. Christ Himself justifies us and saves us from our sins. 

Faith alone is the instrument of our justification, for it is through faith alone that we look outside of ourselves and “embrace Christ our righteousness,” and so are justified in Him!

 

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Book Review: God Is, by Mark Jones

God IsMark Jones’ newest book, God Is, is a book about what is often called “theology proper.” That is, it is about the study of God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture. That in itself makes this volume a welcome addition. As Jones notes in his introduction, “books on the doctrine of God are few and far between” (p.16).

Don’t let the subtitle (“A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God”) fool you. This “devotional” is by no means lacking in substance the way that books of that genre often tend to do. I don’t know of many so-called devotional books that quote liberally from the likes of Thomas Watson, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, Stephen Charnock, and Herman Bavinck (just to name a handful).

While there is a great deal of substance in this book, its relative brevity (only 215 pages, plus end notes) makes it very readable. As with his previous volume, Knowing Christ, here Jones once again takes what can be some rather complex theological concepts (like the simplicity of God!) and makes them much more accessible to the layperson. (For my review of Knowing Christ, see here.)

Each chapter, as the title suggests, deals with a different attribute or perfection of God. He opens with a chapter on the Trinity (“God Is Triune”), and follows that up with a chapter on the simplicity of God (“God Is Simple”), which is probably a concept that many readers will be unfamiliar with prior to reading this book.

Chapters 3 through 6 seem to echo the order of the attributes of God found in question and answer #4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which says,

“Q.4. What is God? A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”

  • Chapter 3 – “God Is Spirit.”
  • Chapter 4 – “God Is Infinite.”
  • Chapter 5 – “God Is Eternal.”
  • Chapter 6 – “God Is Unchangeable.”

See? You’re learning the Shorter Catechism and didn’t even know it!

There are 26 chapters in all, and all of the chapters are relatively short. (None of them exceeds 9 pages in length.) This actually makes the book very useful for devotional reading. I read just one chapter per day, and found that very helpful.

Each chapter follows a distinct and easy to follow pattern: First Jones states the doctrine of God’s respective attributes. He then follows that with a brief section demonstrating how each particular attribute of God is known and understood rightly by us in Christ alone. And finally he offers a section dealing with how these things rightly apply to the Christian life (what some of the old Puritan writers often referred to as the “uses” of the doctrine). This is doctrine with hands and feet, doctrine for life.

If I were to offer any minor criticism, it would be only this – the final two chapters (on the anger of God and the anthropomorphic way that God reveals Himself in Scripture), while being very clear, helpful, and even necessary for the book to be in some sense complete, would probably be more fitting as appendixes of some kind, rather than formal chapters in the book.

What I mean is this – the book is entitled God Is, and so each chapter deals with an attribute of God. That being the case, each chapter title begins with “God Is ___.” Those last two chapters don’t really fit that same way. Strictly speaking God is not angry or anthropomorphic in and of Himself. In other words, those things are not His essential attributes. Jones, of course, makes this very clear in those chapters. He says, for example, that “God’s anger remains an expression of his outward will, not his essential being” (p.194).

So my criticism is not so much of the content itself, but rather one small part the arrangement of it. It is admittedly a minor nitpick on my part, and it in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

All in all, I enjoyed this book very much and found it to be eminently clear and helpful. If you are looking for a good book on the attributes of God, I enthusiastically recommend it to you. And if you are not looking for such a book? You probably should be – pick up a copy and read it anyway! You’ll be glad that you did.

J.C. Ryle on “Jelly-Fish” Sermons

prepared to stand aloneIn his terrific biography of J.C. Ryle, Prepared to Stand Alone, Iain Murray quotes Ryle on the dangers of an aversion to “dogma” or doctrine among the ministers of the Church of England in his day. He likened this to ‘Jelly-fish Christianity,’ saying that it was,

“without bone, or muscle, or power.   . . . We have hundreds of ‘jelly-fish’ clergymen, who seem not to have a single bone in their body of divinity [i.e. their doctrine].   . . . We have thousands of ‘jelly-fish’ sermons preached every year, sermons without an edge, or a point, or a corner, smooth as billiard balls, awakening no sinner, and edifying no saint.” (p.186)

Ryle penned these words in the late 19th century (!), but they seem as timely and relevant in our day as ever. (Take heart, such things were not invented in our day!)

If you think about it, there are not many biblical doctrines which unbelievers (or even nominal Christians) are not likely to take offense at hearing. Scoffers, skeptics, and sometimes even professing believers often bristle at the most basic doctrines that are taught in the Bible – creation, providence, the Fall, depravity, sin, hell, the cross of Christ, substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, the judgment – just to name a handful. These things are no doubt repugnant to many, and always have been. But those doctrines and many others are found throughout Scripture, and so they must be clearly preached and taught.

The temptation toward “smooth” preaching is ever-present, and probably always has been. Such sermons are no doubt designed to be pleasing to the ears of the hearers and to avoid offense at all costs. But such sermons, as Ryle observed, awaken no sinner and edify no saint. As Paul told Timothy,

“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. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:1-4, ESV)

People who have “itching ears” will tend to refuse to “endure sound teaching” and “turn away from listening to the truth” (v.4), but Paul says here that this is actually all the more reason to “preach the Word” (v.2)!

May the Lord Jesus Christ, the one true Head of His church, be pleased to once again raise up a godly generation of ministers – men who have spines of steel in their doctrine and doctrine in their preaching. And may the Lord use such preaching to awaken many sinners and edify the saints!

A Word of Encouragement for Pastors/Preachers

prepared to stand alone

Preaching is hard work. It requires much prayer, study, preparation, and even practice. Doing all of that on a weekly basis (and in many cases, doing so for both morning and evening services) can add up to a real grind. Who among us is sufficient for such things? It can feel rather overwhelming at times. (Hint: Pray for your pastor!)

Some preachers seem to make it look just so easy, don’t they? And it is all too easy for us to imagine that the men whom we consider our heroes of the faith from years past found no difficulties in such things. But in his recent biography of J.C. Ryle, Prepared to Stand Alone, Iain Murray writes the following:

“He [Ryle] would later say that he was turned fifty before he learned to preach.” (p.59)

Considering that Ryle entered the pastorate at age 25, that is really saying something! Think about that – J.C. Ryle was essentially preaching twice every Lord’s day for the span of 25 years before he started to feel like he had really learned to preach! (Having just turned 50 myself, and having far less than 25 years of experience in preaching, it is encouraging to know that even someone such as Ryle felt that way once too.)

So if you are a pastor and have found the work of preaching to be rather difficult, and are discouraged by your apparent lack of progress in it, take heart – you are in good company. In two or three decades maybe you’ll start to get the hang of it, just like Ryle did!  🙂

And if you are a member of a church where your pastor(s) preaches the Word of God to you faithfully and clearly (even if unspectacularly), thank God! For that is not the case everywhere. And be patient with your pastor’s shortcomings in the pulpit – give him some time to get his proverbial sea legs under him. It might take a decade or two, but it’ll be worth it!  🙂

Book Review: Devoted to God, by Sinclair Ferguson

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315There is a great deal of ignorance and confusion regarding the subject of sanctification in our day. Perhaps that has always been the case. There are, however, some very helpful books on the subject that are available to the modern reader. (See here.) Thankfully, you can add this recent book by Sinclair Ferguson to that list as well.

The title of the book points the reader to Ferguson’s working definition of holiness or sanctification as primarily involving devotion. He writes:

“To be holy, to be sanctified, therefore, to be a ‘saint’, is in simple terms to be devoted to God.” (p.4)

This is not exactly your typical book on sanctification (not that books on that particular subject are by any means common to begin with). As Ferguson himself puts it in his Introduction:

“This is not so much a ‘how to’ book as it is a ‘how God does it’ one. It is not one dominated by techniques for growing in holiness.”

What sets this book on holiness apart (Yes, that was a pun!) is that Ferguson provides us with what he calls a “manual of biblical teaching on holiness” (xi) that is almost entirely passagetical and exegetical. In other words, each chapter deals with a particular passage of Scripture on the subject of sanctification, and largely consists of an exegesis or interpretation of that passage.

That is not to say that there is not a systematic bent or logical progression of topics from one chapter to the next, merely that the overall thrust of the book is exegetical rather than strictly systematic. This, I think, is one of the real strengths of the book.

The passages that he deals with are as follows:

  • 1 Peter 1:1-25
  • Romans 12:1-2
  • Galatians 2:20
  • Romans 6:1-14
  • Galatians 5:16-17
  • Colossians 3:1-17
  • Romans 8:13
  • Matthew 5:17-20
  • Hebrews 12:1-14
  • Romans 8:29

You may notice that the above list consists exclusively of passages from the New Testament. While that is the case, Ferguson does refer to the Old Testament quite a bit throughout the book. If I were to nitpick, the only (admittedly small) thing that I would question would be the absence of a text from the epistles of the Apostle John.

Exegetical books can at times be a bit tedious to read, especially for the lay person, but this volume is not written like an exegetical commentary. Instead, it is both scholarly and accessible, which is one of the many strengths of this book. It serves as a basic introduction to the subject of sanctification, all the while teaching or modeling for the reader the ‘how to’ of exegesis or interpretation as a bonus of sorts.

So if you are looking for a helpful book on the subject of holiness or sanctification, and one that drives you more directly into a study of the Scriptures themselves, this is just the book for you! Read it devotionally, one chapter at a time. Read it with your Bible open in front of you as well. Either way just read it – you will be glad that you did!

You can order a copy for yourself here: Devoted to God

A Footnote on the Neglect of God’s Law

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315In one of the many footnotes in his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes a sobering observation about the all-too-common tendency in many evangelical circles today to neglect God’s law:

“The contrast between older evangelical teaching on the law and its relative relegation today may be illustrated by the fact that the catechisms written by Luther and Calvin at the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation devoted considerable attention to the exposition of the law. They were followed by the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms which devote around one third of their questions to the exposition and application of the Ten Commandments. By contrast, were catechisms to be written today by evangelicals it is doubtful whether the law would receive much if any detailed attention.” (p.163, footnote 6)

The Westminster Shorter Catechism devotes no less than 41 (Q.41-81) of its 107 total questions to dealing with a right understanding of the ten commandments.  In other words, nearly 40% of the Shorter Catechism is spent focusing on this summary of the moral law of God! Likewise the Heidelberg Catechism includes 24 questions (out of a total of 129), divided up over the span of 11 Lord’s days, to the same subject. So 11 out of the 52 weeks in a calendar year are to be spent dealing with instruction on God’s moral law.

This should be instructive to us as believers. How much time do we spend considering God’s law or meditating upon it?  Psalm 1 calls upon us to delight in “the law of the LORD, and so to meditate upon it “day and night” (Psalm 1:2). This should also be instructive to those of us who have the privilege of serving the Lord as pastors & teachers in His church. Do we devote much time & attention to teaching God’s law to His people? If we do not, we would seem to be neglecting, not only the law of God, but also the best examples from among our Reformed fathers in the faith.

We must not relegate the law of God to the status of a mere footnote of the Christian faith.

Sinclair Ferguson on the Law and Love

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315Many in our day seem to pit law and love against each other, as if love somehow renders the law of God unnecessary, or as if rules and relationships (or loving ones anyway)  were mutual exclusive. But is this the biblical way of looking at it? What is the right way to view the relationship between law (specifically the ten commandments) and love?

In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson writes,

“In fact love was always at the heart of God’s law. It was given by love to be received in love and obeyed through love. The divine commandments could be summed up in the great commandment to love God with heart, soul, and strength. Thus Jesus himself teaches that if we love him we will keep his commandments. Paul adds that rather than nullify[ing] the law the gospel strengthens it. Moreover specific laws from the Decalogue are almost casually sprinkled throughout the New Testament. Not only does love not abolish the law, but the law commands love!” (p.162-163)

Even in the very text of the ten commandments themselves this is explicitly stated. Look at the text of the 2nd commandment (as stated in Exodus 20:4-6):

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (ESV, italics mine)

Those who commit the sin of idolatry are said to “hate” God. Why? Because they commit idolatry. In other words, if they truly loved God, they would not commit idolatry (or have other Gods before Him, or take His name in vain, etc.). Love, in many ways, is defined by its actions. So while love certainly involves more than our outward actions (i.e. it includes right motives), it does not involve less than our outward actions (i.e. it doesn’t render them meaningless or unnecessary).

And how does God Himself describe those who love Him? As those who “love me and keep my commandments” (v.6). So love and commandment-keeping go together – and they always have. And (as the saying goes), what God has joined together, let no man separate.