If My People Pray (Prayer in the Midst of Pandemic)

MedicineWe are living in a rather strange, unsettling time. This is the first time that most of us have ever experienced anything like what we have seen related to the Corona Virus (COVID-19) pandemic. It reminds me of the opening verses of the prophecy of Joel:

Hear this, you elders;
give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
or in the days of your fathers?
Tell your children of it,
and let your children tell their children,
and their children to another generation.” (Joel 1:2–3, ESV)

Likewise, has such a thing as this current pandemic happened in our days or in the days of our fathers? Not that I know of.

Hundreds of thousands of cases have been reported in the U.S., and, as of the writing of this post, over 16,000 deaths have been confirmed so far. And those numbers, sadly, will no doubt continue to rise for the foreseeable future.

Even for the vast majority of people who as of yet remain uninfected, this pandemic has impacted nearly every single aspect of our way of life. Countless businesses have been forced to close their doors, many permanently so. Millions of people have lost their jobs. The national economy has all but ground to a screeching halt.

Simple things that many of us used to take for granted, such as going out to eat, social gatherings, going to public places like parks, beaches, hiking trails, the movies, etc., have all been put on hold. In many places throughout the U.S., Christians can’t even gather together corporately for public worship on the Lord’s day!

What is the solution to these things? We are often tempted to put our faith in science, medicine, the state or federal government, and other such things to solve all of our problems. Don’t get me wrong – all of these things have their proper, God-given place. God often uses these very things to bring us relief from many worldly ills.

But we must not put our faith in these things, as if the arm of flesh were sufficient to save (Jeremiah 17:5-8). That is idolatry. They are not sufficient for these things. No one is. The best scientific models have proven to be inaccurate. Doctors and medical experts, as good and as well-intentioned as they may be, are neither omniscient nor infallible. And the various leaders in our state and federal governments are only human, after all. They are not all-knowing. They are not all-powerful. And so it is futile (if not worse) to expect them to be able to act as if they were. They too need our prayers, as Paul has written (1 Timothy 2:1-4). Perhaps if we stopped expecting them to solve everything for us, we would be more apt to pray for them instead of criticizing their every move (as if we would do any better).

Just as the cause of these things is not ultimately of an earthly origin (except for sin), even so the solution is not ultimately to be found in earthly or human means either.

Are you wondering what it is that you can do in the midst of all of the uncertainty and unrest during this pandemic? Do your best to stay safe, and to be there for others in need. But there is one more thing. And this may be the most needful thing of all.

2 Chronicles 7:13-14 gives us a right perspective on these kinds of things and the ultimate solution to them. There the Lord Himself says,

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (ESV)

This passage reminds us that calamities of many kinds are often (at least in part if not the whole) a chastisement or judgment from God for idolatry and wickedness.

At times does our God not still shut up the heavens so that it does not rain? Does He not likewise send locusts or other things to devour or otherwise destroy crops or livelihoods? Does He not even send pestilence or plague? None of those things are outside of the scope of God’s all-encompassing providence.

Ought we not to see this current pandemic as an act of God’s just judgment? Does not even our own land, which has enjoyed the manifold blessings of God’s grace and mercy in abundance throughout her history, have much wickedness of which we need to seek God’s face and repent?

These things that we might think of as merely being “natural disasters” are not only part of God’s all wise & powerful providence, but they are also at times intended as a chastisement or judgment for wickedness. The Scriptures are replete with examples of such things.

God often sends drought, famine, pestilence, war, and other such calamities in order to get our attention, and to turn us from our wicked ways.

And so we as God’s people must think and act like believers, and not like deists or atheists. These things did not come about randomly or by chance. And while we may not be able to infallibly interpret God’s works of providence, we should be sure that He does all things for a reason, even the sending forth of calamity (Isaiah 45:7).

2 Chronicles 7:13-14 is a call to prayer and repentance. And there God holds forth a promise of mercy (both forgiveness and healing) to the repentant.

And so if we would see the healing of our land, we must first humble ourselves before our God and pray. To humble ourselves means to acknowledge both our sin and guilt, as well as our need for His mercy. It also means acknowledging that His judgments are altogether righteous, holy, and just.

We must pray and seek the face of God. Prayer must not be our last resort in time of crisis or calamity. The Bible says that God’s house is to be “a house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7; Mark 11:17). If we who are called by God’s name do not pray and seek God’s face, who will? And if God’s hand of chastisement does not get us praying, what will?

If this pandemic gets us praying, it will have done us much good!

And, lastly, we must turn from our wicked ways. In other words, we must repent. If we humble ourselves, pray, and genuinely repent, then we may expect the mercy of God. Then God will, by His grace, “hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” And we will find that even the repentance itself is a gift of God’s grace, as only God can grant repentance, whether to an individual sinner, or even to a nation (2 Timothy 2:25).

But notice that what comes first when God hears our prayers for mercy is not the healing of the land, but rather the forgiveness of our sins. Then and only then come His healing mercies. As Matthew Henry puts it in his commentary on these verses, “Pardoning mercy makes way for healing mercy.”

We might be tempted to focus primarily on the healing of the land, and the removal of the chastisement and suffering itself, rather than our need for repentance and forgiveness.  It is surely right to be concerned for and pray for lives to be spared. We should continue to pray for those who have been directly affected by this deadly virus. And we should be thankful to God for His mercy that so far the death totals have been far lower than the initial models predicted. We should see that as an answer to prayer, and give God the thanks and glory for it!

I must admit that at times I have even found myself being more concerned with the inconveniences and disappointments related to this pandemic, such as the inability to visit with family and friends, the restrictions on public worship, and even missing baseball (!), than with the urgent need for repentance and revival in our land, even in the church. As much as we may long for things to “get back to normal,” we should long for revival in our land even more!

We must seek forgiveness for our sins, first and foremost, and not just healing. Our sin is the real disease; our miseries are only the symptoms and results of that disease.

We who know the Lord Jesus by faith must seek God’s face and pray for revival and repentance, so that God might show mercy to us and heal our land. That is the lesson and promise of 2 Chronicles 7:13-14.

May God in His great mercy bring such revival, that He might grant repentance and faith to many, and so forgive our sins and heal our land, to His glory alone.

The Heidelberg Catechism on True Conversion (Q/A 88-90)

Heidelberg 2True Conversion

Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 88-90 deals with one of the most crucially important topics imaginable – the nature of true conversion.

Of course, it is important to rightly understand these things, not merely in an abstract, academic way, but in a personal and experiential way. In other words, every person must essentially ask themselves, ‘Am I converted?’ and ‘How do I know if I have been converted?’

The previous question (Q/A 87) asked whether or not a person can be saved if they ‘continue in their wicked and ungrateful ways and are not converted to God.’ The answer was “By no means.”

The next few questions (Q/A 88-90) flesh out for us in more detail the nature of true conversion.

Q.88. Of how many parts does the true conversion of man consist? A. Of two parts: of the mortification of the old, and the quickening of the new man.

Q/A 88 (above) provides an outline of sorts for the next two (2) questions of the Heidelberg. Q/A 89 defines the “mortification of the old man,” and Q/A 90 defines the “quickening of the new man.”


Q.89. What is the mortification of the old man? A. It is a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins, and more and more to hate and flee from them.

“Mortification” is a theological term that seems to have largely fallen out of use in our day. It was no doubt much more common when the King James Version of the Bible was the predominant translation. Consider Paul’s words in Romans 8:13 (KJV):

“For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” (italics added)

Newer translations, such as the ESV and others, render it simply as “put to death.”

Notice that this mortification or putting to death of our old man involves both the inner and the outer person. It includes both a “sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins” and a “hatred” of our sins (i.e. a changed heart), as well as fleeing from them (i.e. a changed life).

That true conversion or repentance must involve a change of heart is clear from passages such as Joel 2:12-13, which says,

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” (ESV, Italics added)

And that true conversion must also involve a change of life is clear from passages like 2 Corinthians 7:10, where Paul writes,

“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10, ESV)

“Godly grief” produces (or “worketh” – KJV) repentance. It results in a turning from sin unto God through faith in Christ. But “worldly grief” or sorrow, on the other hand, does not lead to repentance, and so only produces death.


Q.90. What is the quickening of the new man? A. It is a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.

“Quickening” (or vivification – bringing to life) is the other side of the coin from mortification; both must necessarily go together.

True conversion involves not just a “sincere sorrow of heart” for our sin (Q/A 89), but also a corresponding “sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ” (Q/A 90). And it is likewise not just a turning or fleeing away from our old way of life in sin, but also a corresponding “love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.”

The Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of these same things involved in true conversion as “repentance unto life”:

“Q. 87. What is repentance unto life? A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.”

This is nothing less than a complete (although certainly not completed or perfected in this life) change or even reversal of orientation of a person toward sin and toward God!


And so you must ask yourself if these things are true in your own life. Have you been truly converted? Do you have a sincere sorrow of heart over your sins against God? Do you find yourself increasingly hating your sins and turning from them? (Repentance is a lifelong endeavor.)

Do you likewise have a sincere joy of heart in God through Jesus Christ, so that in love for Him you now increasingly delight to live accordingly to God’s commandments (albeit imperfectly in this life)?

Simply put, that is a description of a Christian. It is my sincere hope that this is a description of you. If so, thank God for His great love and mercy toward a sinner like you, that even when you were still dead in your sins He made you alive together with Christ and saved you by His grace!

And if that does not yet describe you, and you are not yet converted, take heed to the words of the Apostle Peter:

“Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.” (Acts 3:19, KJV)

Repent from your sins and turn to the Lord Jesus Christ by faith – be converted! And your sins will be blotted out and forgiven!

The Heidelberg Catechism on the Necessity of Repentance (Q/A 87)

Heidelberg 2Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 87 explicitly affirms the biblical teaching regarding the necessity of repentance. It says,

Q.87. Can those be saved who do not turn to God from their ungrateful and unrepentant ways? A. By no means. Scripture tells us that no unchaste person, no idolater, adulterer, thief, no covetous person, no drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like will inherit the kingdom of God.

Can anyone be saved without repentance? That is the question. And the answer is clear and to the point – “By no means.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith similarly states,

“Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.” (15.3)

And so while we must be careful to maintain that we are not saved by means of our repentance (as if we could somehow earn or merit our forgiveness and salvation by it), yet we must also maintain that we are not saved without it. As the Westminster Confession of Faith (above) puts it, “none may expect pardon without it.”

In his commentary on the catechism Zacharias Ursinus (the primary author of the catechism itself) explains:

“This question [i.e. Q/A 87] naturally grows out of the preceding one [i.e. Q/A 86, on good works]; for since good works are the fruits of our regeneration – since they are the expression of our thankfulness to God, and the evidences of true faith; and since none are saved but those in whom these things are found; it follows, on the other hand, that evil works are the fruits of the flesh – that they are manifestations of ingratitude, and evidences of unbelief, so that no one that continues to produce them can be saved.” (p.467) 

Repentance (i.e. turning from evil works unto God), like good works, is ‘the fruit of our regeneration’ and ‘evidence of true faith.’ And so, conversely, the lack of repentance and good works, and the continuing on in the practice of evil works are then “the fruits of the flesh” and “evidences of unbelief.”

In 1 John 3:10 the Apostle John writes,

“By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” (ESV)

On what basis does the Heidelberg Catechism teach these things? Notice that Q/A 87 points directly to the clear and explicit teaching of Scripture on this subject when it says, “Scripture tells us that no unchaste person, no idolater, adulterer, thief, no covetous person, no drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Here the catechism echoes Paul’s words to the church in Corinth:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9–11, ESV)

The “unrighteous” here are those who continue in the ongoing practice of sins like the ones Paul goes on to list there (not that his list is exhaustive by any means).

He even adds, “Do not be deceived.” Is there not a constant temptation to deception in these very matters? That was certainly the case in Paul’s day. (Or do we really think that we are so much better than the church in Corinth?)

Here once again we see the pastoral wisdom involved in the Heidelberg Catechism, as it constantly points us back to the Scriptures as the foundation for all that it teaches us. And not only that, but it also makes us wrestle with these things in such a way that as we ask and answer questions like this one, we must ask ourselves whether or not we truly see the fruits of regeneration and evidences of a true and living faith in our lives.

This, like the rest of the doctrine taught in the Heidelberg Catechism, is something that is necessary for us to know in order that we may live and die in the joy of the comfort that is ours only in Jesus Christ (Q/A 2).

What Is Repentance Unto Life? (Shorter Catechism Q.87)

The Westminster Confession of Faith contains an entire chapter on the subject of “repentance unto life.” (That alone might be surprising to some!) There it starts off by stating that this doctrine “is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ” (15.1).

It is rare enough to hear the biblical doctrine of faith in Christ being clearly preached in our day; but perhaps even rarer still is the preaching of the doctrine of repentance. And if it is “to to be preached by every minister of the gospel,” it would seem that a great many are derelict in their duty.

The Lord Jesus Himself certainly preached repentance. Mark 1:14-15 says,

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (ESV)

And so our Lord Jesus proclaimed “the gospel of God” (v.14). And what did that gospel message include? The call to “repent and believe.” Some might think that the call to repentance somehow goes against grace, but that can hardly be the case if Christ Himself preached repentance! As Thomas Watson puts it,

“By some Antinomian spirits it [i.e. repentance] is cried down as a legal doctrine; but Christ himself preached it.” (The Ten Commandments, p.205)

Not only that, but the Apostles preached repentance as well. On the day of Pentecost the Apostle Peter preached to the crowds in Jerusalem, and what did he say to them? “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (ESV, Italics added). He called upon them to repent.

In Acts 20:21 the Apostle Paul reminded the Ephesian elders that he testified both to Jews and to Greeks “of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Again – faith and repentance.

So what does it mean to repent? The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides us with a helpful definition:

Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

What does such repentance involve? First, it involves a true grasp or understanding of two (2) things:

  1. Your Sin
  2. The Mercy of God in Christ

First, repentance unto life involves having a true sense of your own sin. In other words, you come to understand your need for the Savior. The Lord Jesus came to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). Part of being saved involves understanding just what it is that you are being saved from in the first place!

Much preaching today seems to exclude this entirely. Often the appeal is made solely on the basis of felt needs instead of the need for forgiveness and cleansing from sin. Some preaching practically gives one the impression that the sinner himself is the victim, rather than the guilty party or perpetrator.

The second thing that we must grasp is the mercy of God in Christ. A true sense of our sin does us no good unless we also then understand and believe that there is abundant mercy to be found from God through faith in Jesus Christ. Notice that salvation from sin is the result of God’s mercy and grace alone.

That is why the Westminster Confession of Faith explicitly teaches us that repentance does not earn forgiveness:

“Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.” (15.3)

We are not to rest upon (i.e. trust in) our repentance, rather than upon Christ for salvation.  No one is saved by repentance (as if it were the meritorious grounds for forgiveness), but no one will be saved without it either.

Having a true sense of one’s own sin, and a grasp of the mercy of God that is to be found in Christ, repentance then involves the sinner, “with grief and hatred of his sin,” turning from his sin unto God. It is a spiritual “about-face” of sorts. The Apostle Paul speaks of this in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10,

“For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (ESV)

The Thessalonians turned to God from idols. (It is quite impossible to truly serve God and idols – Matthew 6:24.) And in doing so they came to “serve the living and true God” (v.9). And that is really the essence of what the last part of the answer to Q.87 speaks of when it tells us that repentance unto life involves the sinner turning to God “with full purpose of, and endeavor[ing] after, new obedience.”

It is a popular notion to define “repentance” by the etymology of the most common New Testament Greek term, which would then suggest that it is simply a “change of mind.” While repentance certainly does involve a change of mind (about one’s sin and about the mercy of God in Christ!), it does not stop there, does it? No, it involves a turning from our sins unto God, with the “full purpose of, and endeavor[ing] after, new obedience.”

Any sense of one’s sin that does not lead to a hatred of and a turning from those sins unto God, is something far less than what could rightly be called a “true sense” of one’s sin in the first place.

Last but not least, notice that the first thing that the answer to Q.87 mentions about repentance unto life is that it is a “saving grace.” So it too is a part of the salvation that God graciously gives to us in Christ. That is why the Scriptures speak of God being the One who alone grants repentance (Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25).

Becoming “Sermon-Proof” (John Owen on The Dangers of Sin)

mortificationofsinIn his book, The Mortification of Sin, John Owen notes (among other things) the importance and necessity of having “a clear and abiding sense” in our minds and consciences of “the guilt, danger, and evil of sin” (p.65). Without a clear, biblical understanding of sin for what it really is, we will be ill-equipped to “put to death the deeds of the body” by the Spirit (Romans 8:13).

There he points out a number of the many dangers that sin poses to us, the first of which is the danger of being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). He writes:

“This hardening is so serious that your heart becomes insensitive to moral influence. Sin leads to this. Every sin and lust will make a little progress in this direction. You who at one time were very tender and would melt under the influence of the Word and under trials will grow ‘sermon-proof’ and ‘trial proof.'” (p.68)

Sermon-proof. What a sobering phrase! It is bad enough that so many in our day simply avoid hearing the preaching of the Word in public worship altogether; but how much worse is the condition of those who, though they regularly attend the preaching of the Word, nevertheless have grown immune to its benefits.

Sermon-proof. That is a fitting description of the people of Isaiah’s day:

“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10, ESV)

To be sermon-proof is to continually hear, but not understand, to see, but not perceive. And what is the end result? A refusal to “turn” (or repent) and “be healed.” No wonder the writer of the book of Hebrews warns us of the “deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13)!

Are you sermon-proof? Do not content yourself with the mere hearing of sermons. Hearing sermons is certainly a good start, but it is not nearly enough. Hearing sermons, even on a regular, weekly basis is no firm evidence that one is not sermon proof. One can hear sermons until the proverbial cows come home, and yet do so with no benefit whatsoever.

Let us learn to attend the preaching of God’s Word in public worship “with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.90).

And, as the writer of the book of Hebrews puts it, let us “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13, ESV).

Playing with Matches? sense tells us not to play with matches. Most of us develop a healthy respect for fire at a young age. You only need to be burned once to learn not to get too close to an open flame. As the old saying goes, if you play with fire, you are going to get burned (cf. Proverbs 6:27).

Needlessly exposing yourself to the occasion of sin (i.e. that circumstance, place, or person which is likely to tempt you to commit sin) is a lot like playing with matches or pouring gasoline on a fire.  Nothing good will come of it. Thomas Brooks offers some words of wisdom regarding such things:

“He that adventures upon the occasions of sin is as he that would quench the fire with oil, which is fuel to maintain it, and increase it.” (Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, p.68)

So if you are struggling with a particular sin, ask yourself this question: Are you unnecessarily exposing yourself to the occasion of that sin? If so, you are (to use Brooks’s words), actually giving your sins “fuel” to maintain them and increase them! It is not without good reason that Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer, not only to ask for forgiveness (Matthew 6:12), but also to ask that we not be led into temptation (Matthew 6:13). That request is basically concerned with the occasion of sin.

If you are not paying attention to the occasions of sin in your life, you may very well be pouring gasoline on the fire. And if that is the case, is it really any wonder that the fire is not quenched, but rather increased?

Thomas Brooks on the Nature of True Repentance

Brooks Precious RemediesIn his book, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, Thomas Brooks notes that there are three (3) essential aspects of true repentance:

First, “The formal act of repentance is a changing and converting” (p.57). In other words it involves a turning of one’s life from darkness to light; it is a conversion. It is no mere oblique change of direction in a person’s life.

Second, “The subject changed and converted is the whole man” (ibid). It involves not just a change of the outward actions, but also of the heart, the innermost part of a person. Not just the practice, but the very person is also changed.

Third, this conversion of heart and life is a change (or turning) “from sin to God” (ibid). Brooks writes, The heart must be changed from the state and power of sin, the life from the acts of sin, but both unto God; the heart to be under his power in a state of grace, the life to be under his rule in all new obedience” (ibid).

The point he makes here is to show what a difficult thing it is to truly repent. In fact, it is humanly impossible to convert one’s self. He writes, “It is not in the power of any mortal to repent at pleasure” (p.56). God Himself must grant and work repentance in the heart and life of a sinner (2 Timothy 2:25).

Satan often deceives sinners into thinking that they are more than able to repent whenever they want (as if it were within their own power and ability to do so), and so leads men and women to keep putting off repentance until a later date. But Brooks warns that “it is as hard a thing to repent as it is to make a world, or raise the dead” (p.60). In other words, it takes the power of God Himself. No wonder Hebrews 13:3 warns us about being “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” It is a difficult (even impossible) thing as it is for a man to repent and turn to God, but even more difficult if one continues to put it off and so becomes even more hardened in sin and unbelief!

May God in His mercy grant repentance to many, to the praise of His glorious grace.

5 Counterfeits of Sanctification

WatsonThomas Watson’s book, A Body of Divinity, is a wonderful exposition of part 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It is among the best writing in the Puritan tradition – thorough, thoroughly Scriptural, heart-searching, practical, and pastoral. I heartily recommend it (and anything else written by Watson, for that matter).  Charles Spurgeon calls this volume Watson’s “principal work” (xi).

In his treatment of the subject of sanctification (Q.35 of the catechism), Watson lists 5 counterfeits of sanctification. These are essentially works of self-deception on the part of the unregenerate. In his words, These are “things which look like sanctification, but are not” (p.242). They are as follows:

1. Moral Virtue – Sometimes we can mistake a “fair deportment” (his words) or a generally moral lifestyle for the work of God’s grace in the sanctification of a believer.  Not having one’s life marked by scandal is a good thing, but it falls far short of sanctification. Many an unregenerate person can make such a claim, but surely this is no mark of the work of God’s saving grace in the heart and life.

2. Superstitious Devotion – He notes that this counterfeit version of sanctification “abounds” in the Roman Catholic church (which he refers to as “Popery”), but such superstitious practices abound among Protestants in our day as well. Watson goes so far as to say, “If to tell over a few beads [i.e. the Rosary], or bow to an image, or sprinkle themselves with holy water were sanctification, and all that is required of them that should be saved, then hell would be empty, none would come there” (p.243). Going through religious motions, however sincerely, is not substitute for sanctification.

3. Hypocrisy – This counterfeit of sanctification is (to use his words) “when men make a pretence [sic] of that holiness which they have not” (p.243). This is the worst kind of self-delusion, for in this counterfeit one robs or defrauds himself; “the most counterfeit saint deceives others while he lives, but deceives himself when he dies.” Such a phony holiness is a self-deception that will provide no true and lasting comfort to the soul at death’s door.

4. Restraining Grace – This is where “sin is curbed, but not cured” (p.244). In other words, it is when someone refrains from a particular sin or vice without actually hating that sin or vice. He is not speaking of sinless perfection here, but rather a changed heart, which where it once loved sin, now hates the very sins against which is struggles against in this life. This is what the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.87 means  when it defines “repentance unto life” as “a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience” (italics mine).

5. Common Grace – This last counterfeit of sanctification that Watson lists (and his list is by no means necessarily exhaustive) is where a sinner comes to some apprehension of the gospel message or conviction of sin that, in the end, still falls short of conversion. Perhaps such a person attends the public worship of the church for a time; maybe he even (at least temporarily) feels drawn to the message of Christ, but true repentance and faith in Christ are still sadly missing. This is the man or woman who keeps Christ at arm’s length, but never bows the knee as his or her Lord in this life.

It is clear that these things were not merely academic issues to Watson. This is the work of a careful and caring doctor of souls, an evangelist and pastor of the first order. Sanctification in general seems to be a topic that has fallen on tough times and deaf ears in many corners of the church today. Judging by the evident needfulness of Watson’s words here even back in his day (17th century England), maybe that has always been the case. May it be that God may continue to use the wise, biblical counsel from books this this one to awaken many a self-deceived sinner to truly repent and turn to the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation.

Book Review: The Hole In Our Holiness


Kevin DeYoung’s book, The Hole In Our Holiness (2012, Crossway) is one of the most helpful books that I have read in a long time regarding the Christian life.

In its brief 146 pages, DeYoung puts the horse (the gospel) firmly before the cart (living the Christian life), as it should be.  The cart can never truly get very far without the horse!  In our day it seems that many pastors and writers either put the cart before the horse (or practically omit the gospel altogether) by legalistic or moralistic teaching, or they focus on the gospel nearly to the point of omitting the cart (what can often amount to a soft form of antinomianism).  DeYoung ably shows that the writers of Scripture did no such thing – they taught doctrine and practice, faith and life – and that in the correct order.

So this book is both instructive and corrective.  He shows us that the right motivation and fuel for living the Christian life (to borrow Jerry Bridge’s phrase – the pursuit of holiness) is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  We who are in Christ have been saved by God for God – for holiness (chapter 2).  He also shows the correct biblical relationship between the gospel and the law of God (chapter 4).    In this chapter he fights against the unbiblical extremes of both legalism and antinomianism.

He notes what should be common knowledge among Christians today, but often is just not clearly understood – that sanctification, while a work of God’s grace in the lives of all true believers, still takes effort on our part.  He writes,

It is the consistent witness of the New testament that growth in godliness requires exertion on the part of the Christian. (p.88)

Amen to that!  Growth in godliness doesn’t just happen; it isn’t just automatic.  There is no “cruise control” or “autopilot” in the Christian life.

There is also a chapter devoted to the topic of “Saints And Sexual Immorality” (chapter 8).  This section is sadly all too necessary in our day and age.  DeYoung notes that often when it comes to sexual immorality, those within the church just do not seem much different from those without.  He writes,

If we could transport Christians from almost any other century to any of today’s “Christian” countries in the West, I believe what would surprise them most (besides our phenomenal affluence) is how at home Christians are with sexual impurity. It doesn’t shock us. It doesn’t upset us. It doesn’t offend our consciences. In fact, unless it’s really bad, sexual impurity seems normal, just a way of life, and often downright entertaining. (p.108)

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!  It is easily the best book on that subject that I have read in quite some time. (Other helpful books on the subject include J.I. Packer’s book, Rediscovering Holiness, Jerry Bridges’ book, The Discipline of Grace, and J.C. Ryle’s classic book, Holiness.)

You can order a copy here: The Hole In Our Holiness

Is Something Missing from Our Message?

In Acts chapter two, Peter preaches a very powerful sermon to a large crowd at the temple.  He preached about the Lord Jesus Christ – His death, resurrection & ascension.  He pulled no punches, even reminding the crowd that they themselves were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (v.23).

Look at the reaction of the crowd that had previously been mocking the preaching of the apostles. Verse 37 says, “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Notice two (2) things about their response to the preaching of Christ crucified: First, they were cut to the heart. They were convicted of their sin and guilt before a holy God. Second, they no longer had any delusions of trying to only come to God on their own terms.

May I be so bold as to say that this is precisely where much of today’s evangelism goes wrong. Sometimes today’s evangelism goes wrong in that it simply does not involve preaching the gospel; it does not include the message of Christ crucified and risen from the dead.  But at other times it goes awry in that we are so desperate for results that we are quick to accept almost anything and everything as being indicative of saving faith.  No real conviction of sin? No problem. Our hearers only “coming to Jesus” in order to address felt needs or in order to help them straighten their lives out? Sounds great! No repentance? Some preachers today even go so far as to say that repentance is completely unnecessary or, worse, that it is an attempt to add our works to the grace of God in salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth. And nothing could be further from the gospel that we find in Scripture.

What was Peter’s answer? Peter pointed them to the promise of God in Jesus Christ. Verse 38 says,“And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  He tells them to “repent.” This is truly (and sadly) one of those precious words that has been slowly disappearing from the Christian vocabulary. You will rarely hear of repentance in sermons today. And that should clearly not be the case.

Peter preached repentance in that first sermon in Acts chapter 2. Was that an isolated instance?  By no means.   What was the very first message that the Lord Jesus Himself preached?  Mark 1:14-15 says,

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Similarly, Matthew 4:17 says,

“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.””

So the kingdom of God and the call to repentance were clear and consistent themes in the preaching of Jesus Christ from the very beginning of his earthly ministry. Not only that, but our Lord Jesus Christ clearly taught the apostles that repentance was to be an essential part of their preaching. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, he includes his account of the Great Commission.

Luke 24:45-48 says,

“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

So Jesus opened their mind to understand the Scriptures, showing them that His death and resurrection were at the heart of the Old Testament from beginning to end. And what else did He help them to understand about the Scriptures? That from beginning to end the message of salvation has always been characterized by the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of the Christ.

So repentance has always been an essential part of true Christian preaching, an indispensable part of the gospel message, and a necessary component of faithfulness to the Great Commission. One writer has said,

Repentance is a missing link in much present-day evangelism; yet it is part of the doctrinal content of our message. It is not new methods that we need. It is the very message of evangelism that needs to be restored; not just a ‘tune-up,’ but a complete overhaul. (Ernest C. Reisinger, Today’s Evangelism, p.37)

But what does it mean to repent? The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives us a very helpful definition of what it calls “repentance unto life.”

Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

It is no wonder that in his book, Rediscovering Holiness, J.I. Packer writes, “Repentance is in truth a spiritual revolution.”  It is a total change of mind, heart & disposition toward sin and toward God.  It is the ultimate u-turn.  To use military imagery, it is a spiritual “about-face.”

Have you understood the depth of your sin and guilt? Have you turned from your sin and turned to Christ by faith? If not, you may be a lot of things, but a Christian is not one of them.  Turn from your sin unto Jesus Christ by faith so that all of your sins may be forgiven, cleansed by the blood of the Savior.

May we in the church learn to faithfully proclaim the same message that the Lord Jesus & His Apostles did, And may we see the same results – the Lord adding daily to his church those who are being saved (Acts 2:47).