Grace

The Heidelberg Catechism on the Christian and Good Works

Grace2vol__56981.1453767389The Heidelberg Catechism is outlined or structured around three (3) points or sections, often referred to as Guilt (Q.3-11), Grace (Q.12-85), and Gratitude (Q.86-129). This outline (although not employing these exact terms) is made explicit in Q/A 2:

“Q.2. What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?
A. Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.”

The catechism is largely comprised of somewhat lengthy expositions of the The Apostles’ Creed (Q.22-58), The Ten Commandments (Q.92-115), and the Lord’s Prayer (Q.116-129). These things are commonly considered to be the ABC’s or building blocks of the Christian faith and life.

As you can see, most of the “gratitude” section of the catechism in centered around the ten commandments and the Lord’s prayer. And so how we live and pray is really about showing our gratitude to God for our salvation in Christ.

Q/A 86 marks the beginning of the “gratitude” section of the catechism. It says:

Q.86. Since we have been delivered from our misery by grace through Christ without any merit of our own, why then should we do good works? A. Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, is also renewing us by his Spirit into his image, so that with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits, and that he may be praised through us, and further, so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.

Q/A 86 basically asks the age-old question, if we are really saved by grace alone, and not by works, then why should we as believers do good works? If our works do not merit anything (and they don’t!), then why does it matter how we live?

Paul anticipates a similar objection to the grace of God in the gospel in Romans 6:1, where he writes, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (ESV) And he answers by saying “By no means!” (v.2)

The answer both in Romans 6 as well as in the Heidelberg is basically that our salvation by God’s grace in Christ includes much more than justification (as vitally important as that is). It also includes the new birth and sanctification (God’s work in us), which involves “renewing us by his Spirit into his image.”

As to why it matters how we lives as believers, Q/A 86 gives us at least four (4) reasons or purposes for the work of God’s grace in sanctification in our lives:

  1. Gratitude (“so that with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits”)
  2. Praise to God (“that he may be praised through us”)
  3. Assurance (“so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits”)
  4. Evangelism (“by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ”)

The first two of these are God-ward (gratitude & praise), the third is in some way for our own benefit (growth in assurance that our faith is, in fact, genuine), and the fourth is for the benefit of others (that they might be won to Christ). This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but it is certainly a good starting point in demonstrating the importance of good works in the life of a Christian.

Either way the primary motivation (though certainly not the only proper motivation) for living the Christian life of good works is gratitude for God’s grace in our salvation. This is the same logic that the Apostle Paul applies in Romans 12:1-2, where he writes,

[1] I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. [2] Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (ESV)

It is in light of the mercies of God toward us in Christ that we are to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God. Our primary motive for being transformed by the renewal of our minds is gratitude for the mercies of God.

A Mighty Adversative

Stott (The Message of Ephesians)

“A mighty adversative” – that is John R.W. Stott’s description of the first two words of Ephesians 2:4: “But God . . . .”

Stott writes,

“Verse 4 begins with a mighty adversative: But God . . . These two monosyllables set against the desperate condition of fallen mankind the gracious initiative and sovereign action of God. We were the objects of his wrath, but God, out of the great love with which he loved us had mercy upon us. We were dead, and dead men do not rise, but God has raised us with Christ. We were slaves, in a situation of dishonour and powerlessness, but God has raised us with Christ and set us at his own right hand, in a position of honour and power. Thus God has taken action to reverse our condition in sin.” (The Message of Ephesians, p.79-80)

No wonder some have said that the words “But God . . .” are the two most important words in Scripture!

Calvin on Why We Should not Avoid the Subject of Election

Calvin

What are we to make of the doctrine of election? Despite the fact that it is clearly taught in Scripture (and repeatedly so, I might add!), many sincere, well-meaning, Bible-believing people in the church today seem to be of the opinion that it is a doctrine (oops, that word is also on the ever-expanding list of things to be avoided in the preaching and teaching of the church) better left unsaid.  After all, many people find it to be confusing or even downright offensive.

If it is so sure to confuse some people or offend others, shouldn’t we just avoid the subject altogether? No doubt that is the approach taken by many today.  In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin gives us some helpful advice on the subject:

For Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit, in which, as nothing is omitted that is both necessary and useful to know, so nothing is taught but what is expedient to know. Therefore we must guard against depriving believers of anything disclosed about predestination in Scripture, lest we seem either wickedly to defraud them of the blessing of their God or to accuse and scoff at the Holy Spirit for having published what it is in any way profitable to suppress. (Vol.2, p.924)

Only a couple pages later, he writes:

Whoever, then, heaps odium upon the doctrine of predestination openly reproaches God, as if he had unadvisedly let slip something hurtful to the church. (Vol.2, p.926)

In other words,to avoid the subject is to cast aspersions upon God Himself for including the subject (and, frankly, for doing it so often!) in His Word. To ignore or downplay the doctrine of election when it is prevalent in the text is to accuse God Himself of either including something in His Word that is unnecessary (as if He intentionally gave us something we do not need), or (worse yet) even downright harmful to His people.

So let us not deprive God’s people of something that He gave us for our good; and (even more importantly), let us not insult our heavenly Father as if He would give His children a stone when they ask for bread (Matthew 7:9).

 

The Glorious Certainty of the Gospel

Machen

What is the relationship between the grace of God in the gospel and assurance? Why is the doctrine of justification by faith alone so important? J. Gresham Machen writes,

Such is the glorious certainty of the gospel. The salvation of the Christian is certain because it depends altogether upon God; if it depended in slightest measure upon us, the certainty of it would be gone. Hence appears the vital importance of the great Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone;  that doctrine is at the very centre of Christianity. It means that acceptance with God is not something that we earn; it is not something that is subject to the wretched uncertainties of human endeavor; but it is a free gift of God. (What Is Faith?, p.200-201)

That is just one more reason why the doctrine of justification by faith alone is so important. It is not just a matter for ivory tower theologians or fodder for theological debate – far from it!  It makes all the difference in the world to each and every believer in Christ. Why? Because it is the only real way to true certainty and assurance in the Christian life.

Justification by faith alone presents us with a choice between the “glorious certainty of the gospel” (i.e. knowing without a shadow of a doubt that you have been fully forgiven and accepted by a holy God) or the wretched uncertainties of human endeavor.”

If our salvation depends upon our works in even the slightest degree, all certainty and assurance are cast aside. But if salvation is a free gift of God (which is ultimately what justification by faith alone entails), then & only then can the believer truly have the peace and assurance that comes with believing the gospel of Christ.

“The True Driving Force In Authentic Christian Living”

 

steam-289008_1280What is the primary motivation for a believer in Jesus Christ to live the Christian life?  What should drive us to (as Paul says in Romans 12:1) offer up our bodies as living sacrifices, “holy and acceptable to God”?

Guilt? Fear? The hope of gain? Trying to earn God’s favor or stay in His good graces?  While we may find ourselves from time to time being motivated by any number of those things in our pursuit of living the Christian life, none of those things are the proper fuel for the Christian’s engine, so to speak.

Trying to live the Christian life through guilt, fear, or the hope of gain is a lot like trying to drive a car with no gas and four flat tires. You just won’t get very far at all.

So what should motivate us offer up our bodies as a living sacrifice?  In Romans 12:1 Paul says that we should do so “by the mercies of God.” In other words, God’s mercy and grace toward us in the gospel of Jesus Christ should motivate us.  So our primary motivation should be, not fear or guilt, but gratitude.

In his book, Rediscovering Holiness, J.I. Packer writes,

The secular world never understands Christian motivation. Faced with the question of what makes Christians tick, unbelievers maintain that Christianity is practiced only out of self-serving purposes. They see Christians as fearing the consequences of not being Christians (religion as fire insurance), or feeling the need of help and support to achieve their goals (religion as a crutch), or wishing to maintain a social identity (religion as a badge of respectability). No doubt all these motivations can be found among the membership of churches: it would be futile to dispute that. But just as a horse brought into a house is not thereby made human, so a self-seeking motivation brought into the church is not thereby made Christian, nor will holiness ever be the right name for religious routines thus motivated. From the plan of salvation I learn that the true driving force in authentic Christian living is, and ever must be, not the hope of gain, but the heart of gratitude. (p.75)

So if you want some practical advice on living the Christian life, one of the most helpful things you should do (although certainly not the only thing) is to consider and mediate upon the mercies of God in the gospel.  In the words of Psalm 103:2, we must “forget not all his benefits.”

The more we grasp the greatness of God’s mercies and grace toward us in Jesus Christ, the more we will be filled with gratitude and love for our God & Savior.  And that will be the true driving force in our discipleship.

J.I. Packer on Justification

behind-bars

J.I. Packer gives us a beautiful  description of what happens in the justification of a sinner through faith in Jesus Christ:

Justification is the truly dramatic transition from the status of a condemned criminal awaiting a terrible sentence to that of an heir awaiting a fabulous inheritance. (Knowing God, p.133)

Much more than just the commutation of sentence, more than even pardon for sin, in justification sinners are actually accepted as righteous in God’s sight.  How is that possible?  It is “only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q.33).

Part of our justification is being accepted by God.  And not just being accepted, but also adopted as the children of God in Christ (1 John 3:1; Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q.34)!   So instead of the well-deserved expectation of judgment and condemnation for our many sins, believers in Christ now have “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4, ESV).

The Apostle Paul also writes about our inheritance in Christ:

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, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11-14 ESV)

That is what makes the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ so good!  That is why the grace of God in Jesus Christ toward sinners is so utterly amazing!

Grace and the Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

Sorry, this isn’t going to be a deep philosophical discussion of the spiritual truths that we can discern from America’s obsession with all things zombie-related.  (For that, you can check here.)

But if we really understood what the Bible says about the depravity and utter inability of man in sin, we would find it no less frightening than a zombie show (even if less outwardly grotesque).  The Apostle Paul tells us that outside of Christ we are all dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1).  Not just sick; not just limited in our abilities; not just neutral in regard to good or evil; but spiritually dead in our sins.

The Heidelberg Catechism describes our depravity outside of Christ (including our total inability to do any true spiritual good or believe in Jesus, and our inclination toward sin) this way:

Q.8. But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil? A. Yes, unless we are born  again, by the Spirit of God.

The Westminster Larger Catechism tells us that the corruption of our nature by sin in Adam is so complete that we are “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined toward all evil, and that continually” (Q.25).

What does that mean in terms of our ability to hear the gospel and respond to it with saving faith?  It means that even if all of our outward circumstances tended toward leading us to believe in Christ for salvation, we would never turn to Him by faith.  Even if we were rightly & clearly taught the Word of God and the gospel of Christ from our youth, that seed would never take root in our dead hearts of stone.

The walking dead cannot and will not believe, not on their own.

And this has been borne out in the pages of history and Scripture.  A sobering example is that of the Pharisees and Scribes.  John Foxe writes,

At the first preaching of Christ, and coming of the Gospel, who should rather have known and received Him than the Pharisees and Scribes of that people which had His law? And yet who persecuted and rejected Him more than they themselves? What followed? They, in refusing Christ to be their King, and choosing rather to be subject unto Caesar, were by the said Caesar at length destroyed. (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, p.2)

Think about that for a moment.  He couldn’t be more right!  We are so accustomed to reading the gospels and seeing the Pharisees and Scribes cast as the bad guys (so to speak), that it is all too easy to forget that they were supposed to be the good guys!

If anyone should have readily believed in Jesus as the Messiah, it was them!  If anyone should have known to expect His coming and believe, it was them!  And yet we find that time & time again, they are the very ones rejecting Him, opposing Him at every turn, testing Him, and seeking to kill Him!

Think about what that says about the nature of sin, depravity, and unbelief.  That is what depravity does to the heart and mind – not just deadening people to the truth of God’s Word, but convincing them that they are the experts, the guardians of it, while they are, in fact, radically opposed to it!

And if that could (and did!) happen with them, what hope does anyone have on their own to believe in Christ for salvation?  None.  On our own we are all hopeless; we are unable to believe; we are the walking dead.

That is why salvation is, and can only be, the work of God’s free grace; it is all of His mercy.  In Ephesians 2:4-10, Paul writes,

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

God, because of His great mercy, love, and grace toward people who are dead in their sins, makes us alive in Christ.  The above text could not be more clear or more thorough in pointing out over & over again that our salvation is all the work of God.  It is by His grace, not by anything that we do.  Even our faith is the gift of God.

Only God can take the walking dead and make them spiritually alive in Christ.  Only He can take cold, dead hearts of stone (that were totally unable to repent & believe, that were totally inclined toward sin) and turn them to flesh, so that we believe in Christ and walk in newness of life!   Praise the Lord for His grace, mercy, and love toward sinners!

Grace Experts

2074_large

God’s love is a gift, and gifts (by definition) are free.   Children typically understand that truth much better than us adults.

The Jesus Storybook Bible has a great illustration about kids and grace.

So while Jesus’ friends were arguing, some people who knew all about getting gifts – in fact, you  might say they were gift-experts – had come to see Jesus. Who were they? They were little children. (p.258)

When it comes to receiving gifts, kids get it.  The rest of us?  Not so much.

Have you ever received a Christmas or birthday present from an unexpected source?  Maybe a friend whom you don’t see on a regular basis, or a distant relative?  What was your first thought? (C’mon, now, be honest.)  Have you never found yourself, instead of being grateful, actually worrying because you then felt an obligation to give them something in return?  Maybe you haven’t, but I know that I have.

We just hate to think of ourselves as being in anyone’s debt.  But a gift (if it is really a gift) does not put us in debt; it should make us grateful, it should make us (dare I say it) happy!  It should simply tell us that we are loved.

No wonder Jesus tells us that we would do well to be more like children in some ways:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:1-4 ESV)

So kids really are the greatest.  Why?  Because they are the “gift-experts” or grace-experts, if you will.   We can all learn a thing or two from kids about humbly receiving the grace of God.  In a way, if we don’t, we will “never enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.3).

We should all seek to grow to maturity in the faith (Hebrews 5:11-6:3), but part of Christian maturity involves growing in childlike-ness (I know, we pastor-types are always making up words) regarding our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and our grasp of and reliance upon His grace.

So if you are the parent (or grandparent!) of small children, you must certainly teach them, but don’t forget to take the time to learn from them as well.  We could all benefit greatly from the help and example of certified grace-experts!

The Grace of Giving

MH910221024

The grace of giving should be a distinguishing characteristic of the Christian church.

I know what you’re probably thinking: “It’s somehow always about money, isn’t it?”  But bear with me – don’t go packing your bags for that guilt trip just yet!

First, we can see from the example of the church in the book of Acts that the grace of generosity was characteristic among Christians from the earliest days of the church’s infancy.

In Acts 2:42-47 we read:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

And the same thing happened later on in the book of Acts as well.  A large crowd of Gentiles in Antioch heard the gospel and believed.  They were then taught the great truths of Scripture by Barbabas and Saul for an entire year (!).  And what was the result?  Once again, it was generosity toward their fellow believers who were in need.

And Acts 11:27-30 says,

Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

Not only that, but look at what the apostle Paul has to say about the subject.  He thought it was so important, that he exhorted the church at Corinth to “excel” in the grace of giving. And he did so by reminding them that this particular grace was evident even among some of the poorest churches in Macedonia:

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints—and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also. (2 Corinthians 8:1-7 ESV)

Notice the arithmetic of grace that Paul mentions:

Abundant Joy + Extreme Poverty = Overflowing Generosity

That being the case, there was no excuse for a well-to-do church to not be excelling in that same grace of giving.  And there still isn’t.

What about us?  Do we excel in the grace of giving?  If not, why not?

Is poverty (admittedly a very relative term) a valid reason?  We might think so, but that sure didn’t stop the churches of Macedonia, did it?  In fact, while their “extreme poverty” could have been viewed as a reason not to give, the thing that made all of the difference was their abundance of joy in the gospel.

Because of the joy that they had in Jesus Christ, they not only gave beyond their means (v.3), but even begged (!) Paul to allow them to participate in relieving the needs of the saints (v.4).

And Paul not only urged them to give on the basis of the godly example of the churches of Macedonia, but, ultimately, on the basis of the gospel.  In v.9 he reminds them of the sacrificial love of Christ, saying,

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (v.9).

So Christ is our ultimate example of the grace of giving, but Paul is saying much more than that, isn’t he?  Christ’s grace toward us in becoming poor resulted in His people becoming rich!  The riches that Jesus won for us on the Cross are not financial in nature (despite what some prosperity preachers may say), but they are no less real! 

In fact, our riches in Christ are far more real than anything that we could have in a bank account or investment portfolio. (Elsewhere we are told that we have an “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” – 1 Peter 1:4.)  The riches of Christ bring such joy to the life of a believer that he or she almost cannot help but be generous.

If we really know that we have treasure in heaven, we will be much more generous with our earthly treasures, whether great or small.  We may (mistakenly) think of giving in legalistic terms, but it’s really all about grace (or should be).  No wonder Paul calls it an “act of grace” (2 Corinthians 8:7)!

May we excel in our joy in Jesus Christ, that we might also excel in the grace of giving!

In Adam’s Fall Sinned We All

MH900314008

What is the biblical understanding of Original Sin?  Another way of putting that question would be to ask, How did we all become sinners in the first place? 

In Adam’s fall sinned we all.

James Boice writes,

That all people sin might be affirmed by any honest secular writer. What a secular writer is not likely to say, however, but which the Bible says plainly, is that there is a necessary connection between all individual occurrences of sin. In other words, the point is not merely that all people sin and are therefore sinners, though that is true. The point is that all sin because they are sinners. The original sin of Adam and the guilt of sin in some inevitable way passed upon the entire human race. The biblical view is that God holds the entire race to be guilty because of Adam’s transgression. (Foundations of the Christian Faith, p.205)

So while many might be willing to acknowledge the fact that all people sin and are sinners, few and far between are those people who are also willing to acknowledge how we all ended up that way.

In Adam’s fall sinned we all.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism affirms this biblical teaching as well:

Q.16. Did all of mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression? A. The covenant [of works] being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.

Similarly, The Heidelberg Catechism affirms Original Sin:

Q.7.  Then where does man’s corrupt nature come from? A. From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise. This fall has so poisoned our nature that we are born sinners – corrupt from conception on.

So Adam was not only the first sinner, but also the first representative (federal head) of the entire human race.  So when he sinned and fell, he did so not only for himself, but on our behalf as well.  And the proof is in the result – we are all sinners.  We all sinned in Adam; we all fell in Adam, just as if we had ourselves partaken of the forbidden fruit.

Thankfully, by God’s grace that is not the end of the story.  The Lord Jesus Christ came into the world as the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), as a new federal head or representative, not unto sin and death, but unto righteousness and life!  The Apostle Paul writes,

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:18-21 ESV)

Sin abounded in Adam, but grace abounded all the more in Jesus Christ!  His death on our behalf brings us justification & life through faith in Him.

In Adam’s fall sinned we all, but in Jesus Christ we have the perfect righteousness of the incarnate Son of God Himself!  No wonder Paul says that grace abounds!