Category Archives: Dogmatics/Systematic Theology

Book Review: Visual Theology

Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth about God, Tim Challies and Josh Byers, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  Paperback, 155 pages.

I’ve read and reviewed several systematic theologies.  These books were geared towards pastors, theologians, or theological students.  They follow the same basic structure and, because they’re Reformed, they tend to say the same things in mostly the same way.   Visual Theology has “theology” in the title, and it generally steers in the Reformed direction, but that’s where the similarities end.

Visual Theology is decidedly not directed at the ivory tower – though scholars will certainly reap spiritual benefits if they read it.  Instead, it’s for regular people in the pew.  It also recognizes that some of those regular people are more visual in their learning style.  So, Tim Challies delivers clear prose and Josh Byers illumines with effective infographics.  All up, it’s not only a beautiful book, but also pedagogically powerful.

Conventional systematic theologies cover such topics as God, creation, salvation, and the last things.  Visual Theology is different; it has four parts:  grow close to Christ, understand the work of Christ, become like Christ, live for Christ.  It’s Christ-centered and relationally oriented.  It’s theology that, as Challies says, “is about growing in godliness” (p.12).  You can only grow in godliness in a healthy relationship with Christ.  Visual Theology shows why and how.  I found valuable insights new to me (especially in the third section on hating and fighting sin), but also many familiar truths expressed or illustrated freshly.

As I mentioned, generally this book leans Reformed.  For example, the use of creeds is affirmed (p.85); the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sin is quoted (p.94); the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is affirmed (p.27); and justification is properly defined as a declaration of righteousness (p.33).  Commendably, Visual Theology teaches a monergistic view of salvation which includes unconditional election.

By the authors’ own admission, the book “is not a thorough introduction to Christian doctrine” (p.79).  Some readers will detect gaps.  Allowing for the intent of the authors, but also for full disclosure to readers of this review, let me mention two.  Visual Theology is almost completely positive in its presentation of biblical teachings.  That means there’s not much, if anything, in the way of exposure or addressing of errors.  Next, its relational framework is a plus, but it is surprising that the biblical framework for a healthy relationship between God and humanity is missing.  There’s no explicit mention of the covenant of grace.

I have one noteworthy concern:  the authors are Baptists and this becomes evident in the description of baptism:  “The water of baptism represents the washing away of sin, while going into the water and coming back out represents death and new life” (p.27).  The first part of that sentence is true, and the second part can be true, but more needs to be said.  The authors assume immersion of the believer as the norm for baptism.  As one would expect from Baptists, the sprinkling of babies is not even in the picture, nor is the relationship between baptism and the covenant of grace.  However, this is one short paragraph in an otherwise great book and it is far from being a polemic for the Baptist position.  Discerning readers should be able to chew the rest of the meat while spitting out this bone.

This book could be useful as edifying reading for a Sunday afternoon.  Perhaps it could also be used as a textbook for an adult education class.  For those who might use it in an educational setting, there’s also a website with the infographics available as PowerPoint slides and moreVisual Theology is innovative in its approach, almost entirely reliable in its content, and attractive in its presentation.  You’ll find it both enjoyable and edifying!


Essential Latin for Reformed Christians: “Simul iustus et peccator”

Today’s bit of Latin lingo is often linked to Luther.  Martin Luther often gets the credit for noticing the biblical teaching that each Christian is “at the same time just and a sinner” (simul iustus et peccator).  Certainly he was not the last theologian to insist on this — countless others after him, both Lutheran and Reformed, have said the same.  It cannot be labelled one of Luther’s idiosyncrasies.

To understand the meaning of this seemingly contradictory statement, one has to grasp the doctrine of justification in general, and the meaning of imputation in particular.  Without those well in hand (or mind), human nature will invariably lead one to extreme views.  Typically, because we overestimate our own condition even as Christians, the view will almost always be imbalanced towards the iustus side of things.  So let’s review justification and imputation to avoid imbalances and extremes.

Justification is God’s declaration that a person is right with him on account of what Christ has done in his perfect life and death on the cross.  It is a judicial declaration — which means that the Judge issues it from his bench.  His declaration is more than acquittal and forgiveness, as wonderful as those are.  More, the declaration includes positive righteousness.  Because of Christ all our wrong-doing is pardoned, and also because of Christ, God’s requirement for perfect law-keeping in the present and future is fully met.  Justification is a one-time event, not a process to be repeated — once justified, always justified.  As a result of this one-time judicial declaration, the person justified is adopted into God’s family.  We go from the courtroom to the family room.  We no longer relate to God as a Judge, but as our heavenly Father.

So what is imputation and how does it fit into the doctrine of justification?  Imputation is often described as crediting or accounting.  Our English word “imputation” translates the Greek logizomai.  You find that word used in the original of Romans 4:3, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.”  While the word logizomai is not used, the idea of imputation is also found in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”   At the cross Jesus was made to be sin — though he was of himself innocent, he became the thing against which God has infinite wrath:  sin.  How did this happen?  Through imputation.  Our sin was imputed to him (credited) to such a degree that the Holy Spirit says he was “made to be sin.”  And remember:  all the while, in himself he was perfectly righteous.  Now notice that there is a double-imputation in 2 Corinthians 5:21.  All our sin was imputed to Christ, but his righteousness is imputed to us.  I like to call this “the sweet swap.”  God credited our sin to Jesus, and God credited Jesus’s righteousness to us.  The righteousness of the Redeemer is imputed to us (credited) to such a degree that the Holy Spirit says we become what God loves, “the righteousness of God.”  But just like the imputation of our sin didn’t change Jesus into a sinner in himself, so also the imputation of Christ’s righteousness doesn’t change us into perfectly righteous people in ourselves while we live on this earth.

Imputation is at the basis of our justification.  We are justified, declared righteous, because our sin was imputed to Christ and he bore it for us at the cross as our substitute.  We are declared righteous because all of his perfect obedience and righteousness is credited to us by God.  In his eyes, it is as if we had lived the perfect God-pleasing life ourselves.  The key words there are “as if.”  Just as it was as if Christ was a sinner (when he was not), so it is also as if we ourselves had fulfilled all the righteous requirements of God’s law (when we haven’t and don’t).

Consequently, each Christian is both righteous and a sinner.  Each Christian is righteous — this is our status before God.  We have been declared just in his eyes and are now his beloved children.  This status is precious and to be highly treasured.  Yet it is presently a status which comes to us via imputation.  As a result, the reality is that we continue to be sinners when it comes to our sanctification.  Even as that “new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17 — right before the “sweet swap”!), we sin against our Father, and if you sin, you are a sinner.  This is what righteous Paul acknowledges in 1 Timothy 1:15 when he says Christ “came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”  Notice the present tense there.  At that moment, Paul was a justified sinner, not a condemned sinner, but a sinner just the same.  So it is with all Christians.

Let me put as simply as I can: Christians are both saints and sinners.  We’re saints by virtue of the status declared in our justification (on the basis of imputation).  We’re sinners because of the struggle that still exists in our sanctification. The former encourages us, the latter humbles us.  Biblical, Reformed theology has always acknowledged this truth.

Ours is not an age renowned for thinking deeply about theology, or anything else for that matter.  This is surely part of the reason some Christians object to simul iustus et peccator.  While insisting that Christians are not “sinners” in any sense, they are (usually) inadvertently undermining imputation and the very basis of their justification.  Not only that, they are also contradicting the clear testimony of Scripture regarding the real struggle with sin that Christians experience in this age (Romans 7:21-25 & Galatians 5:17).  Do some research and you will discover that the origins of the denial of simul iustus et peccator in Protestantism are not with those orthodox in their theology.  For example, it was the Pelagian and rabidly anti-Reformed revivalist Charles Finney who opined that this formula was an error which had “slain more souls, I fear, than all the universalism that ever cursed the world.”  Finney viciously repudiated biblical imputation and justification, and so had a reason to hold this opinion.

A few years ago, after encountering the denial of this teaching in our Reformed churches, I wrote a series of articles for Clarion entitled “Are Christians Sinners or Not?”  In that series, I looked at the biblical basis for simul iustus et peccator, how it’s expressed in our Reformed confessions, the importance of maintaining it, and the historical and theological background to denials of it.  You can find that series of articles here.


Four Essential Pictures

I’m currently reading Tim Challies’ book Visual Theology.  This book presents many theological basics not only with text, but also with infographics.  This kind of approach aims to help those who learn best with visual helps.  I’m appreciating the book in many respects and will probably write a review in the near future.

As good books do, this one got me to thinking, particularly about the place of pictures in Reformed theology.  While we don’t believe it’s lawful to make images of God, this doesn’t rule out diagrams or other visual helps.  In fact, embedded in our theology are several essential pictures.  Even apart from an actual picture, these doctrines come across to us via some particular image we’re to hold in our minds.  Let’s look at four important doctrines and the associated pictures.

Covenant

In Scripture, the covenant of grace is portrayed in terms of a relationship.  When you think “covenant of grace,” you should immediately picture a relationship.  In Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 1 (and elsewhere), God speaks in terms of a marriage relationship with his people.  In the New Testament, this is taken over into the relationship of Christ (the groom) and his church (the bride).  While there may be contractual elements in the covenant of grace, the essence of it is a relationship.

Regeneration

The Bible gives several pictures of regeneration and one of those is a heart transplant.   When you think “regeneration,” you can picture someone receiving a new heart.  The Holy Spirit uses this picture in Ezekiel 11:19, “…I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh…”  This one picture does not exhaust everything the Bible says about regeneration, but it is one helpful conceptual peg on which to hang the doctrine in your mind’s eye.

Justification

Whenever you think about justification, you need to think “courtroom.”  The courtroom image is essential to this doctrine.  One of the key ways that people often get justification wrong is by saying that it is God making us right with himself.  However, justification is, in its very nature, a judicial matter.  It involves a judge making a declaration, issuing a verdict.  This is why Romans 1-3 describes man’s condition before God as a judge.  For example, Romans 2:2, “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.”  Starting at the end of Romans 3, the Spirit explains how a negative judgment can be averted through Jesus Christ.  After all that, we get Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Condemnation is what we would receive from the Judge if we did not have Christ.  In its essence, therefore, justification involves the picture of a courtroom.

Adoption

Adoption is a beautiful word that pictures family.  Having been purchased by Christ, having been justified by him, we are now included in God’s family as his dearly loved children.  God is no longer our Judge, but our Father and we relate to him as such.  Nowhere is this stated more explicitly than Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'”  We’ve gone from the courtroom (justification) to the family room (adoption), and that’s a wonderful place to be!

To summarize:

Covenant —> Relationship

Regeneration —> Heart transplant

Justification —> Courtroom

Adoption —> Family

Reformed theology has more pictures, but those four are crucial to understand.  When you get those, you grasp several basics of the Christian faith.


Seven Terms You Need to Know

It was my first time visiting Australia.  As I sat around the dinner table with an Aussie family, the father and his sons began discussing a cricket game from the day previous.  I listened intently, but it was as though they were speaking a foreign language.  I was quite sure that it was still English, but the words were unfamiliar — and the thick Aussie accent didn’t help!  However, I’m quite sure that if these Aussie blokes were to head to Canada and sit around a dinner table with some fellows talking hockey, they would experience the same.

Last summer, my brother-in-law came to visit us from Canada and went vacationing with us around Tasmania.  We spent our evenings watching 20-20 cricket on television.  We were determined to learn this game.  With the help of some context (and occasional help from Google) by the end of our vacation we had it mostly figured out.

The Christian faith presents us with similar challenges.  Like cricket or hockey, Christianity has its own unique vocabulary that needs to be learned.  As newcomers or covenant children are discipled in the faith, there are certain terms that they need to grasp in order both to be established as a disciple and to grow as a disciple.  Today let me briefly introduce to you seven essential Christian terms.  Every disciple of Jesus needs to know these:

ELECTION — Before the creation of the universe, God the Father chose (elected) a certain number of definite individuals to salvation in Jesus Christ, purely on the basis of his grace and good pleasure.  A key Bible passage is Ephesians 1:1-14.

EFFECTUAL CALLING — This is a work of God the Holy Spirit.  It’s a process where the Holy Spirit convinces sinners of their plight and brings them to spiritual life so that they can and do believe in Jesus Christ for salvation.  A key Bible passage is John 6:44-45.

REGENERATION — Also known as the new birth — without it there is no salvation.  This is the moment when the Holy Spirit miraculously changes a heart of stone into a heart of flesh.  Regeneration is the transfer from death to life.  A key Bible passage is John 3:1-9.

JUSTIFICATION — God’s declaration as a judge that a sinner is right with him (righteous) only on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done for that sinner in his life, death, and resurrection.  This can only be received through resting and trusting in Jesus Christ.  A key Bible passage is Romans 3:21-31.

ADOPTION —  All those who are justified are received into God’s family as one of his adopted children.  He is our Father and we are his beloved children with the privilege of a promised inheritance in the future.  That inheritance is life forever in the new heavens and new earth.  A key Bible passage is Romans 8:12-17.

SANCTIFICATION — This is the process by which Christians grow in looking like Jesus Christ.  It is a life-long process of growing in hating, fighting, and overcoming the evil and rebellion in our lives.  A key Bible passage is Romans 12:1-2.

GLORIFICATION — The Christian’s hope for glory which comes either with death or the return of Jesus Christ (whichever happens first).  We shall some day be perfect and sinless, sharing in the glory of our Saviour.  A key Bible passage is 1 John 3:1-3.

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Taken together all of the above make up what is known as the Order of Salvation.  In Reformed theology, you’ll often see these things referred to with the Latin expression Ordo Salutis.  These are the logical steps which make up the rescue of a Christian from sin and deserved condemnation.  With each of these, there is far more that could and should be said, but the above provides just a basic orientation.


Do We Have Free Will?

There is an assumption amongst some Reformed people that free will is a completely unbiblical concept.  This may be owing to the fact that often we only hear about free will in the context of Arminianism.  The Arminians, we’re told, believed in free will and so denied God his full credit for our salvation.  On the flip side, the popular belief with some is that Reformed theology denies there is any free will.  In the popular mind, free will is therefore a bad thing.  This is a far too simplistic approach to the matter.  If we dig a little deeper and think a little more, we’ll soon discover that there is a place for free will in Reformed theology.

We need to begin with a definition and an important distinction.

I’m using the term free will in the sense of humans being able freely to make choices in life.  When I say “freely,” I mean “without outside compulsion.”  These free choices always entail full moral responsibility for the one who makes them.  If these choices were not free, you could not be fully responsible for them.

The important distinction is a four-fold one about human nature.  In Reformed theology, we distinguish between human nature in four states.  In each of these four states, there is something we need to say about our ability to sin.

First, there is our original condition as created by God.  Adam and Eve were created upright (Gen. 1:31).  They were also endowed with free will — they were able freely to make choices.  They would be morally responsible for whatever choices they made (Gen. 2:16-17).  In their original condition, in true righteousness and holiness, Reformed theologians say that they were created able not to sin.  Before the fall, Adam and Eve could choose not to sin.  But if they did choose to sin, they would be held fully responsible for it.

Second, there is the human condition after the fall into sin.  After Adam and Eve misused their free will, corruption has spread to the entire human race (Gen. 6:5).  We are all fallen.  In our fallen, unregenerated condition, we are not able not to sin.  Unregenerated human beings still have a free will, but they can only use it in a sinful way (Jer. 13:23).  As free will is exercised in that fallen human nature, there continues to be full moral responsibility (Acts 3:14-15).

Third, there is the human condition after regeneration.  When the Holy Spirit causes someone to be born again, he creates a massive change which includes our will and our ability with regard to sinful choices.  We are now new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  In our regenerated state, we are again restored to being able not to sin.  This is what the Heidelberg Catechism is getting at in QA 8, “Q. But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?  A. Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”  Note well:  if we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, then we are able again to begin doing good.  We are free to make good and God-pleasing choices.

Fourth, there is the glorified human state.  After we die, or when Christ returns, we will be perfected (1 John 3:2).  We will not only be sinless, but incapable of sinning.  In our glorified condition, we are even better off than Adam and Eve, for we will not be able to sin.  Our wills will still be free, but we will use our freedom to consistently glorify God.

To summarize:

  • Original state:  able not to sin
  • Fallen state:  not able not to sin
  • Regenerated state:  able to sin or not to sin
  • Glorified state:  not able to sin

Taking all that together, we can speak about free will in this way:  human beings are free to do what is according to their nature.  There is free will, but it is always in the context of one of those four human conditions.  For us as we live on this earth now, it is always in the context of the two middle conditions.  If you are not born again by the Holy Spirit, you are free to do what is in accordance with your sinful human nature.  Your free choices, for which you are responsible, are always reflective of your spiritual state as a fallen human being.  If you have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, you are free to do what is in accordance with your restored human nature.  You can and do still sin (though you shouldn’t), but you can also say “no” to sin in growing measures (Gal. 5:16 and Titus 2:11-12).

So, where did the Arminians go wrong then?  They didn’t go wrong in speaking about free will as such.  Reformed theology does too — see the Westminster Confession 3.1 or chapter 9 of the Second Helvetic Confession.  The Arminians went wrong in how they view humanity in the fallen state.  They argued that, because of God’s prevenient grace (a grace which comes before salvation), all fallen human beings are able to use their free will to have faith in Jesus Christ.  In other words, they credited all fallen people with the ability to do what Reformed theology claims is only possible for the regenerated.  So, in the Arminian view, non-Christians are free to do what Christians are free to do:  believe in the Saviour.  That’s the problem.  That view runs up against Ephesians 2:1 (and other passages) which maintain that unregenerated people are dead in sin.  If you’re dead in sin, you don’t move towards God — you can’t.

Another question people will sometimes raise:  if there’s human free will, then what about God’s sovereignty?  How can we speak about human beings as free moral agents when the Bible teaches that God is in control of everything?  The short answer is that the Bible teaches both human responsibility and divine sovereignty, without directly laying out how these two fit together.  I think the best expression of this is found in Westminster Confession 3.1:

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

What this means is that God is completely in control of the universe, yet creatures still have a will, and these two truths are not in conflict with one another.

Last of all, what about article 14 of the Belgic Confession?  It says:

Therefore we reject all teaching contrary to this concerning the free will of man, since man is a slave to sin (John 8:34) and a man can receive only what is given him from heaven (John 3:27).

The Belgic Confession does not deny that human beings can and do make choices for which they are morally responsible.  The Confession’s argument is here directed against Roman Catholicism which, like Arminianism later on, runs into trouble on the question of the ability of fallen human beings to choose what is right and pleasing to God.  Rome said that fallen man is not dead in sin, but merely injured and in need of some help.  In spite of the injury, fallen man can use his free will to choose what is good.  So, again, the problem is not free will as such, but how it’s understood.

It’s important to understand these things properly because moral responsibility is at stake.  If human beings have no free will, then we cannot be held accountable for the wrong choices we make.  If human beings have no free will, then you can point your finger at God and say, “It’s his fault.  I’m just a robot and he’s at the controls.”  As it is, the Bible is clear that we are fully responsible for our sinful choices.  And, further, as Christians we need not be fatalistic about our sanctification either (“Nothing will ever change!”).  No, our wills have been transformed so that we are free to follow God.  If you have a choice between sinning and not sinning, by God’s grace you can make the choice to not sin.  The Holy Spirit has given you that ability.  Through him, your will is already free and someday it will be fully free!