Category Archives: Dogmatics/Systematic Theology

More than Forgiven, More than Innocent

One of the biblical themes that I never get tired of preaching and teaching is justification.  Every time I’m faced with teaching it, I know that I’m going to be personally encouraged again with the riches of the gospel.  I have no trouble at all getting pumped about justification.  It’s just so amazing what God gives to sinners like me.  This kind of theology always brings me to doxology.

Yet, sadly, I find that there are Christians for whom this just doesn’t float their boat.  It doesn’t impress them.  It doesn’t leave them in awe and wishing they could love God more than they already do.  There are various reasons for that.  In some cases, perhaps it’s because they’re not really Christians — after all, unregenerate hearts don’t get excited about the gospel.  In other cases, perhaps it’s because they haven’t been taught justification very well.  In the latter scenario, it’s more a matter of ignorance.  Believers are robbed of joy and God is robbed of glory because these believers have been somewhat short-changed in how they’ve been taught.

I want to put my finger today on one particular point where I’ve periodically found a lapse in how justification is taught in Reformed churches.  I’m doing this for the sake of joy.  I’m doing this to help brothers and sisters exult with me in the treasures we have in Christ.  I’m doing this so that we’ll all be more impressed with God and the gospel.

Justification is always described in courtroom terms.  There is a judge (God), and there are the accused (us).  We’re accused of sinning against God’s laws, never having kept any of them, and still being inclined to all evil.  We’re faced with an eternal death sentence from the Judge.  Into this picture steps Jesus Christ.  He is our advocate, our Mediator.  He intercedes for us with his work on our behalf.  There’s a verdict from the judge.  Now this is where things sometimes go off the track and we might miss something of how the rich the gospel truly is.    Some say that the judge’s verdict is “innocent.”  Because of what Christ has done, we are declared innocent, they say.

Part of the trouble may stem from the illustration.  We’re imagining a courtroom.  Our experience with courtrooms is limited to this earth.  Whether in person or on the screen, we know that generally judges issue two types of verdicts:  guilty or innocent.  You are either found guilty and punished or you are acquitted and go free.  Since we’re using this illustration of the courtroom, it’s natural to go with the positive outcome and describe it as a verdict of “innocent.”

We’re not entirely wrong in doing that.  In justification, God does forgive us all our sins because of Christ’s work on the cross.  You can say that he wipes our slates clean.  Our accounts are cleared of all our wrong-doing.  As a consequence, we are indeed innocent, acquitted.  That in itself is something quite amazing.

A non-Reformed writer once portrayed justification simply and only in these terms.  He compared it to a game of golf.  In golf, if you’re in a tournament or something like that, you can get these do-overs called “mulligans.”  This writer said that God wipes our score-card clean of all our mistakes, and now we get a mulligan.  We get to try again.  How is that good news?

There is a better way to understand all this, but it begins with going back to God’s demands.  God justly demands that all our sins be addressed through his infinite wrath.  Christ met that demand of God’s justice by being our substitute on the cross.  However, God also demands perfect obedience going forward.  He does not relax that just demand of a perfect life because we’re forgiven.  This is where a good gospel gets even better:  we have Christ’s perfect obedience throughout his life to meet that demand.  Romans 5:18-19 teaches us that Christ’s obedience is a key element of our righteousness before God.  That obedience is credited to us, it’s put on our accounts.  Therefore, in the sight of the Judge, it is as if we ourselves had always been and always will be perfect obedient.

Consequently, the verdict that’s issued is not merely “innocent” or “acquitted.”  It’s something far better:  righteous!  It’s a verdict that you won’t find in an earthly courtroom.  But in the heavenly courtroom, God declares sinners to be righteous — not only forgiven, but also seen in Christ as perfectly obedient.  Sinners are seen as Christ is seen.  This is to be seen in the very Greek word for justification:  dikaioo.   That word and its relatives all pertain to “righteousness,” which is, by definition, a far richer word than innocence.

Because God’s courtroom is so much more amazing than any earthly courtroom, what the Judge does after the verdict is even more amazing.  Since he sees the sinner as he sees his Son, he takes that sinner and brings him or her into his family. The Judge takes the sinner out of the courtroom and into the family room.  He says, “You are my child and I am your Father.”  That can happen because justification is more than being found innocent or acquitted.

That’s why I find justification so incredibly encouraging.  Not only am I innocent before God, I am positively righteous in his eyes.  This is something that cannot be undone.  I have everything I need to stand before him, both in this life and in the age to come. It all comes to me through my Saviour Jesus Christ, through his substitution.  I am God’s righteous child through a life I did not live and through a death I did not die.  Wow!  Can I love him just a little bit more?


True and False Catholicism

“Swimming the Tiber” is a popular way of saying that a Protestant has defected to Roman Catholicism (the Tiber River flows through Rome).  If you’re paying attention, periodically you hear of someone “swimming the Tiber.”  Especially if it’s someone who has been extensively trained in Reformed theology, you might be left wondering if the Reformation actually got it all wrong.  You may wonder if perhaps we have misunderstood Roman Catholic doctrine.  You might doubt whether the Reformation is something to be celebrated, or whether it should be deplored as having been unnecessary.  Should we celebrate the 500th birthday of the Reformation or mourn it?

When those sorts of doubts arise, it’s good to take a careful look at exactly what the Roman Catholic Church teaches.  It’s good to compare these teachings with the Word of God.  That’s what I’m going to do in this post.  I’ll take the modern standard of Roman Catholic doctrine as our guide.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in several languages in 1994 and is an excellent compendium of Roman Catholic teaching.  If you regularly have contact with Roman Catholics with an eye to evangelism, it would definitely be helpful to have this book in your library.  From our side, I’ll refer to the Reformed confessions alongside Scripture.  I do this because the Reformed confessions are faithful summaries of what Scripture teaches.   Good editions of the confessions have Scripture proof-texts accompanying and you can always look those up should you question whether a particular point is actually taught in the Bible.

The Most Important Issue

Let’s start with the most important issue.  In my experiences with educated Roman Catholics, this is where any discussion will lead you.  We tend to focus in on hot-button issues:  Mary, the Mass, purgatory, and the like.  However, when we get into some heavy discussion on these issues, appeals are made to authority.  The Reformed person appeals to Scripture.  But the Roman Catholic is not persuaded by appeals to Scripture.  In their minds, Scripture belongs with tradition and tradition stands on an equal footing with Scripture.  The two will never contradict each other.  Thus, in any discussion with Roman Catholics, things will always get bogged down over the question of authority.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) maintains that both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture come from the same source:  God.  There is one common source, but two distinct ways in which God’s revelation comes to the Church:

“Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit…Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.”

Those statements come from article 81.  Then we read the following in article 82:

“As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, ‘does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone.  Both Scripture and tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.’”

Tradition is more tightly defined in the eighty-third article as what has been handed down from the apostles via oral transmission.  The apostles, in turn, received the tradition from the Lord Jesus.  The Roman Catholic Church also distinguishes between the great Tradition, which is unchangeable, and “various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time.”  The latter “can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium [body of authoritative teachers].”  In short, the Roman Catholic view can be defined as Scripture plus tradition – but both are regarded as having a divine origin and so both are equally authoritative.

Oftentimes, the biblical or Reformed view is defined as “Sola Scriptura,” Latin for “by Scripture alone.”  Unfortunately, this often degenerates into what some have called “Solo Scriptura.”  “Solo Scriptura” is the caricature of the biblical view and it is maintained by many evangelicals.  It is the reason why one writer stated, without hyperbole:   “…Evangelicalism has created far more novel doctrines than Roman Catholicism.” [1]  With this view of Scripture, the Bible stands with me all by itself.  I will come with my private interpretation of the Bible and it is valid and authoritative for me.   This “Solo Scriptura” view is not biblical.

The biblical view is that the Bible alone is the most clear and authoritative source of revelation – the only other source being “the creation, preservation and government of the universe” (Belgic Confession, article 2).  The Bible alone is where God reveals all we need to know for our salvation.  The Bible alone has been “breathed out by God” and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).  Scripture must therefore be acknowledged as the only ultimate and infallible norm for Christians.  However, Scripture must always be interpreted in an ecclesiastical context – after all, it is the Church which has been entrusted with the Scriptures.  We may not have an individualistic approach to the Bible.  The Bible always has to be understood not only in its own context, but also in the context of the true Church.  This is why astute Bible students (including ministers) place great value upon commentaries.  Good commentaries (like those of John Calvin) give Bible students an excellent sense of how the Scriptures have been understood by those who have gone before us.

At the same time, it is very clear in our Belgic Confession (article 7) that we cannot consider “any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with the divine Scriptures.”  According to the same article, we may not place custom or tradition on the same level as God’s Word either.  This is a direct jab against the teaching of the Roman Catholics.  The reason given is biblical:  “for all men are of themselves liars, and lighter than a breath” (cf. Psalm 62:9).  So, the biblical view of the authority of Scripture acknowledges several things:  the supreme and ultimate authority of the Bible, the importance of the Church in interpreting the Bible, and the sinfulness of man has an impact on his interpretation and understanding of the Bible.

This biblical view can be truly labelled as Catholic in the good sense of the word.  This was the view held during the first three centuries of the Church.  It was the view that found acceptance by the majority of the Church through most of the Middle Ages.  Finally, this was the view that re-emerged during the Great Reformation under men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.[2]  The Roman Catholic view as it stands today actually originates around the twelfth century.  As Keith Mathison puts it, “The historical novelty [of this view] is simply not in debate among patristic and medieval scholars.”[3]  In other words, the view expressed in CCC may be Roman, but it is certainly not Catholic.

The Doctrine of Man

We spent a lot of time on that question of authority because it is so critically important.  It lies at the root of most of the other doctrinal problems in the Roman Catholic Church.   We could touch on many other issues, but let’s stay where the fire is hottest.  Let’s briefly examine what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about man.  The Roman Catholic Church holds to a position called “Semi-Pelagianism.”  Pelagius, a fifth-century British monk, taught that man is not conceived and born in sin.  Man is born essentially good and he learns evil by imitation.  Augustine of Hippo opposed Pelagius and insisted on man’s corruption.  Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church adamantly maintains that Pelagius was wrong.  They maintain a doctrine called “Original Sin” and assert that “original sin is transmitted with human nature by propagation, not by imitation.” (CCC, art.419)

Though the Roman Catholic Church holds to original sin, it is defined in a special way:

“Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants.  It is a deprivation of the original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted; it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence.’  Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.”  (CCC, art.405)

Take note of the view of human nature here:  it “has not been totally corrupted,” it is wounded, inclined to sin.  This is a more pessimistic view than Pelagius, but more optimistic than the biblical view of man as dead in sins and trespasses (cf. Eph. 2:1).  For this reason, we rightly label this doctrine semi-Pelagianism.  Under this doctrine, man is given a significant role in his own salvation.  He is weakened, but once he is baptized, original sin disappears, though its effects may still be seen.  At the end of the day, man retains some good within him.  With a little push from God’s grace, man can help to save himself.

The true Catholic view is quite a bit different.  In article 15 of the Belgic Confession, the truth of Scripture is summarized like this:

“We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has spread throughout the whole human race.  It is a corruption of the entire nature of man and a hereditary evil which infects even infants in their mother’s womb…It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source.”

The direction of the Belgic Confession seems clear enough.  However, in the seventeenth century, the followers of Jacob Arminius tried to weaken the interpretation of the Belgic Confession.  The Synod of Dort in 1618-19 answered with its Canons that make very clear that man is pervasively depraved.  The Canons of Dort, following Scripture, state without reservation that all men are not merely wounded, but “dead in sin, and slaves of sin.  And without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they neither will nor can return to God, reform their depraved nature, or prepare themselves for its reformation.” (CoD, 3/4.3).  This view is the truly Catholic one, for it encapsulates the doctrine of the apostles (cf. Col. 2:13) that has been maintained by true believers around the world (including Augustine, Calvin and others) for centuries.   This view alone gives all the glory for man’s salvation to God.

Worship

The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the place of Mary, the saints, the Mass and other sacraments, and the use of images are especially objectionable to Bible-believing Christians.  All of these teachings can be lumped together under the general heading of worship.  It has often been noted that worship was one of the central issues in the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century.  It only makes sense, then, that we ask what the Roman Catholic Church believes about worship.

We can do this by looking at how the Catechism of the Catholic Church deals with the first and second commandments.  The RCC traditionally puts the first and second commandments together and calls them the first commandment.  Yet, the Catechism does divide the explanation.  What we call the first commandment is explained as forbidding the honor of other gods as well as a prohibition against superstition and irreligion.  What we call the second commandment is first explained as prohibiting the “representation of God by the hand of man.” (art. 2129).  However, the doors are quickly opened with the following articles:

2130  Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word:  so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim.

2131  Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons – of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints.  By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new ‘economy’ of images.”

What is striking about the Roman Catholic understanding of the second commandment is that there is no recognition that this commandment originally pertained to the worship of God through graven images.  This is exactly where the Roman Catholic Church goes wrong in its understanding of worship.  In art. 2132 of CCC, it is stated plainly:

“Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate.  The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.”

In other words, the Roman Catholic Church worships God through these images.  Roman Catholics will say the same about their “veneration” of Mary and the other saints:  we are worshipping God through them and thus the “veneration” is no idolatry.   This is nothing less than a violation of the second commandment.

This was recognized during the Reformation.  The Heidelberg Catechism states that we may not have images “in order to worship them or to serve God through them” (QA 97).  Further, this Reformed Catechism also asserts that the second commandment gives us a basic principle for our worship:  we are not “to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.” (QA 96)  The same principle is found with the Belgic Confession in article 7, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length,” and then also in article 32, “Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”  This is the application of Sola Scriptura to our worship.

The Roman Catholic Church follows a different route when it comes to worship:  we may add to or take away from the worship of God as we please.  Thus, the RCC has an elaborate ritual for baptism that obscures the simplicity of the sacrament as found in Scripture:  sprinkling or immersion with plain water.  Following their unscriptural worship principle, the RCC adds images and countless other innovations.  The whole procedure and doctrine of the mass, though it often uses the words of Scripture, not only twists those very words, but also adds or takes away from the teaching of our Lord Jesus.

Other Examples

Numerous books have been written documenting the differences between the teaching of the Papacy and the teaching of Scripture.  This article could quickly turn into one of those books!  Before we finish off, here are two more examples of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church contrasted with the teaching of Scripture as summarized in our Confessions:

Regarding justification, Rome teaches:

“Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.  Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith.” (art. 1992)

But the Bible teaches:

“Therefore we rightly say with Paul that we are justified by faith apart from observing the law (Rom. 3:28).  Meanwhile, strictly speaking, we do not mean that faith as such justifies us, for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ our righteousness;  He imputes to us all his merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.”  (Belgic Confession, art.22)

Note the difference between an infused justification (“conferred in Baptism”) and an imputed justification that is by faith alone.

Regarding the extent of Christ’s atonement, Rome teaches:

“The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception:  ‘There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer.”  (art.605)

But Scripture teaches us:

“For this was the most free counsel of God the Father, that the life-giving and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect…This means:  God willed that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which He confirmed the new covenant) should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and tongue all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and were given to Him by the Father.”  (Canons of Dort, chapter 2.8)

Here the difference is between a universal atonement, and an efficacious atonement restricted to God’s elect.  Only the latter is the teaching of Jesus, the only head of the church (e.g. John 10:15).

On these and so many other points, the Roman Catholic Church has departed from the teaching of Scripture.  We may say without hesitation that the RCC represents the spirit of Antichrist.  In fact, the Westminster Confession is not off the mark when it implies that the Roman Catholic Church is a synagogue of Satan (25.5).  And certainly we may agree that the Pope is not in any sense the head of the church of Jesus Christ, “but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God.” (25.6).

Through the Apostles’ Creed, we continue to confess that we believe a Catholic Church.  Through the course of our brief examination, we have seen that there is a true Catholicism and a false Catholicism.  There is a church chosen to everlasting life which experiences the unity of true faith – a true faith built upon submission to God’s Word alone.  This is the true Catholic Church.  There is also a church that “assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.” (BC art.29).  This is the false Catholic Church – the Roman Catholic Church.  We are the true Catholics and we should not be ashamed to say so.  Moreover, we should also be eager to bring the true gospel to those enslaved to the many soul-endangering errors of Rome.

[1]  The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Keith Mathison, Moscow: Canon Press, 2001, p.280.

[2] Ibid..

[3] Ibid., p.211.


Really Part of the Family

Do you remember the first time you met someone who’d been adopted?  I do.  We were living in the Canadian Arctic and there was this family in the church we were attending.  Like my Dad, the father in the family was an RCMP officer.  They lived in our neighbourhood and we spent a lot of time together.  They had a son and he was a little bit younger than me — he had been adopted.  Had I not been told, I never would have guessed.  They treated him exactly like one of their own.  I was fascinated by this concept of a mother and father taking a child that, biologically speaking was unrelated, and adopting him for their own.

Flash forward some years later and now I have a niece who was born in China.  She spent the first couple years of her life in an orphanage, abandoned by her birth parents.  My sister and brother-in-law adopted her.  She’s now really part of their family.  My sister and brother-in-law are the only mother and father that she’s ever known and will know.  Her older brothers love her dearly.  It’s a beautiful thing.  Even though I haven’t yet met her, I feel like she’s just as much a beloved part of our clan as anyone else.

Adoption amongst human beings can be impressively beautiful, but even more beautiful is divine adoption.  Even more amazing is how a holy God who was once our judge and our enemy becomes our Father through Jesus Christ.  Adoption brings us into this close family relationship with the King of the cosmos.  That is astounding if you pause to reflect on it.  And we should reflect on it often.  Reflecting on it leads us to praise and wonder.  Reflecting on it leads us to marvel at grace and this leads us to love the one who first so greatly loved us.

I can think of no better concise definition than that given by the Westminster Shorter Catechism in QA 34:

What is adoption?

Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God.

Adoption is an essential part of the Christian’s experience of salvation.  If you are saved by God’s grace, you’re adopted into his family.  The two can’t be separated.  All those who have been declared righteous by God (justified) are also adopted.  Everyone who has been justified is brought from the court room to the family room.  More, just as with justification, the only basis for our adoption is the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

What is the instrument through which we receive this benefit?  Faith.  Galatians 3:26, “…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”  While we are promised adoption in the covenant of grace, we only receive what is promised by placing our trust in Jesus Christ.  You cannot be adopted into God’s family apart from faith in Jesus Christ.

Once you are adopted into God’s family through Christ, your adoption is irreversible.  God writes your adoption certificate with indelible ink on indestructible paper.  When God is your Father, he is your Father forever.  Nothing and no one can ever take that away.  Your place is secure.  You don’t wake up each morning and have to wonder whether you’re still in the family.  Once adopted, you are securely in that loving relationship.

From God’s side, this glorious truth of adoption results in several outcomes.  Chief among them is the new way God relates to us.  He is our Father, not our Judge.  As a Father, he dearly loves us as his children — “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).  What “kind of love” is this?  It’s a love where we have the care of a Father.  He pities us, he protects us, and he provides for us.  Moreover, if we should stray from him, like any good earthly father, our heavenly Father disciplines us for our good (Heb. 12:6-10).  As our Father in Christ, he also invites us to free and open access to his throne of grace.  Our Father is a great and awesome King, but yet his children are welcome to approach him boldly — no need to dread!  Romans 8:15 encourages us, “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!'”  Finally, from God’s side, he promises that we will receive his rich inheritance.  We are the heirs of the Father’s kingdom, to the new creation.  It’s all promised to his children and his children will receive it with joy!

There are also outcomes on our side of this relationship.  We love and worship this God who has freely adopted us as his children.  We love to be in his presence in public worship.  We look forward to eternity in his blessed presence in heaven.  While we still live here, we call on God as our Father.  Our Saviour Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven” to impress on us the nature of our relationship with the Triune God.  This is going to be reflected in our prayers.  We regularly confess our sins to our Father, look to him for fatherly forgiveness through Jesus Christ.  In prayer we also express our dependence on our Father.  Without him, we have nothing and are nothing.  Finally, in this adoptive relationship, we aim to obey the will of our Father because we know this pleases him.  We want to please him — children who stand in awe of their earthly fathers and love them want to please them.  Similarly, God’s children through Christ aim to please him with their lives.  We do that by striving to imitate our Father.  I always wanted to be like my Dad.  Dad was a pilot, I wanted to be a pilot.  The same happens with the true adopted children of God.  They want to follow in their Father’s footsteps.

I love the Christian doctrine of adoption!  It gives such comfort and assurance to be reminded that we have this intimate relationship with the mighty God who created the universe and holds it in his hands.  Along with all other Christians, I am his beloved son, really part of his family.  What a position to be in!  Nothing can ever take that away from me.  It’s a gospel truth that’s locked up and secure in Jesus the only Saviour.


Passivity

Bad theology has bad consequences for living.  One particular area that some Reformed people struggle with is regeneration.   Some Reformed believers, especially in the Canadian Reformed and Free Reformed Churches of Australia, have been led to think of regeneration (or being born again) in only one way.  They have been led to believe that you need to be born again every day.  Regeneration is something that takes place over and over again in the life of a Christian.  Rather than an event that takes place once, they view it as an ongoing daily process.

I have addressed this confusion in an earlier blog post.  I pointed out that the confusion mostly arises from overlapping language in our confessions.  Nevertheless, Scripture and the Reformed confessions are clear that there is an initial regeneration of the Holy Spirit.  This is what Jesus was describing to Nicodemus in John 3.  This is what Peter was writing about in 1 Peter 1:  “since you have been born again…”  This is what the Canons of Dort are speaking about in chapter III/IV.  In these places, regeneration (being born again) is a one-time event where the Holy Spirit miraculously takes a heart of stone and turns it into a heart of flesh.

The problem comes when that initial regeneration is confused with sanctification.  Lord’s Day 33 speaks about the “true repentance or conversion of man” and describes it in terms of “the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.”  That is about sanctification, the process whereby a Christian grows in holiness.  You can see that it’s a process from the words:  dying and coming to life.  The important point is that Lord’s Day 33 is speaking about something distinct from John 3:3, 1 Peter 1:23, and Canons of Dort III/IV.

If these things are not kept distinct, one runs into serious theological fog on human responsibility and activity.  Let me explain.  When it comes to regeneration, there is a Subject and an object.  There is One who acts and one who is acted upon.  There is One who is active and one who is passive.  The Holy Spirit is the One responsible for bringing a dead sinner to spiritual life.  The dead sinner does exactly nothing.  He or she is completely passive in regeneration.  You don’t cause your new spiritual birth anymore than you caused your physical birth.  You were born, you didn’t birth yourself.  Similarly, in regeneration, the Holy Spirit does it all and we do nothing.  As dead sinners, that is all we can do.

Regeneration always has an effect upon the object.  The dead sinner comes to life.  The unbeliever becomes a believer.  He or she takes hold of Jesus Christ through faith, also worked in the heart by the Holy Spirit.  Having taken hold of Christ by faith, there is justification.  A believer is declared righteous by God.  The person so declared no longer relates to God as their Judge, but as their Father.  They are in his family as beloved children and nothing and no one can change that.  Your justification and adoption are not renewed every day in some type of process.  If God has once declared you righteous and his child, then you are forever righteous and his child.  Through Christ, we are secure.

This is the context where we consider the process of sanctification.  If we look at it in terms of Lord’s Day 32, it’s clear that sanctification is first of all Christ’s work in us.  He renews us by his Holy Spirit.  However, even there, we are involved.  We are the ones who “show ourselves thankful to God for his benefits.”  This becomes clearer in Lord’s Day 33.  The dying of the old nature is something that we do:  “It is to grieve with heartfelt sorrow” — who does the grieving?  “…And more and more to hate it and flee from it” — who does the hating and fleeing?  Obviously, this is referring to the activity of a Christian.  The coming to life of the new nature is also something that we do:  “It is a heartfelt joy in Christ” — who has this joy?  “…And a love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works” — who does the loving, delighting, and living?  This is speaking about how a Christian is active in their sanctification.  There’s zero passivity here.

Are you beginning to see the problem if we merge together initial regeneration and sanctification?  In the first, human beings are completely passive.  In the second, human beings are involved and active on a daily basis.  God is still at work, but we work with him, in his power and by his grace.  When these things get muddled what happens more often than not is that people believe themselves to be passive in terms of their sanctification.  This leads to fatalism.  People say to themselves, “When God wants to change me, he’ll do it.  I have to wait for him to do it.  My holiness is not up to me.  I’ll just sit back and wait for him to do his thing.”  This is the type of thinking that people can fall into when they hear that being born again is something that has to happen every day.  If being born again is the same thing as what’s described in Lord’s Day 33, and if being born again is something that is done to you apart from your involvement, then your sanctification must necessarily be something in which you are completely passive.  That is really bad theological reasoning!  It gives people excuses to continue in sinful habits and patterns of life.

We need to be clear about this, because it does have an impact on how we live.  Theology has consequences.  This is the reality:  if you have taken hold of Jesus Christ by true faith, you can be sure that you have been born again (to use the words of 1 Peter 1:23).  Having been born again, the Holy Spirit lives in you and he empowers you each day to pursue holiness.  Since the Holy Spirit has given you a heart of flesh, your will, which was dead, has been made alive.  Moved and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, your will is “able to produce the fruit of good works” (Canons III/IV, art. 11).  By God’s grace, we have gone from utter passivity to fervent activity.  True, it comes in fits and starts, it’s still stained with sin and plagued with inconsistency, but yet there is no denying that something has changed with a Christian.  In Christ, we are a new creation.  Thus, when it comes to our sanctification, we also must put to death all notions of passivity.


Heretic!

inquisition

I was labelled a heretic.  In fact, I’m sure that it’s happened more than once.  No, it wasn’t Roman Catholics or Muslims saying this, although they would/should certainly classify me as such.  It was other Reformed believers.  The particular occasion was this blog post where I shared Richard Sibbes’ answer to the question of whether saints in heaven are aware of our trials and miseries.  Some didn’t agree with that and I was therefore labelled a “heretic.”

There are at least two related issues involved here.

First, there is a popular notion amongst some Reformed believers that every theological error is a heresy.  This notion equates error with heresy, as if they are complete synonyms (words meaning the same thing).

Second, there is another popular notion (found with some) that all theological errors are essentially of the same weight.  Every theological error then becomes a matter of heaven or hell.  In such thinking, to administer the Lord’s Supper differently is virtually in the same category as denying the Trinity.  It might not ever be said that crassly, but when you look at what’s said and done, it often seems to come down to that.

The word “heresy” is not found in the Bible, although the concept is.  To really understand what’s involved, however, we need to turn to church history.  Popular misuse of the terms “heresy/heretic” trace back to a lack of understanding of how these terms have been used in church history.

In the centuries after the apostles, debates raged about certain doctrinal points.  In these debates, certain teachings were ultimately considered to be heretical.  By “heretical,” the Church understood that holding to such doctrines put one’s salvation in jeopardy.  In fact, there were certain teachings where, if one held them consistently and unrepentantly to death, one would not be saved.  The word “heresy” was reserved for these teachings that struck at the very heart of the Christian faith, attacking fundamental doctrines.

One of the most obvious examples is the doctrine of the Trinity.  Denying the doctrine of the Trinity (in various ways) is regarded as heretical.  The Athanasian Creed lays out the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and then says in article 28, “So he who desires to be saved should think thus of the Trinity.”  If in any way you deny that God is three persons in one being, you are a heretic.  Another example has to do with Christ and his two natures.  Says the Athanasian Creed, “It is necessary, however, to eternal salvation that he should also believe in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Now the right faith is that we should confess and believe that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is equally both God and man.”  If you deny that Christ is both true God and true man, you are a heretic.  When we say that, it should be a clear that we are making a statement about the seriousness of this error, namely that this is an error for which someone can be damned.  A heresy is a deadly error.  The biblical basis of making such strong statements is found in places like 1 John 2:22-23, “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.  No one who denies the Son has the Father.  Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.”

Another classic example of a heresy is Pelagianism.  Pelagius and his followers denied original sin and taught a synergistic view of salvation:  since humans are not dead in sin, they can cooperate with God in salvation.  The Council of Carthage in 417-418 condemned Pelagianism as a heresy and declared that those who held to it were anathema — anathema means “eternally condemned and outside of salvation.”  The Council could confidently assert that because of what Scripture itself says in passages like Galatians 1:8, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let me him be accursed.”  In Greek, Paul used the word anathema.  The Church has always regarded Pelagianism as another gospel, and therefore an accursed heresy.

Our Reformed confessions are rather careful in what they label as heresy.  Canons of Dort 3/4 article 10 reaffirms that Pelagianism is a heresy.  Belgic Confession article 9 mentions several “false Christians and heretics”:  Marcion, Mani, Praxeas, Sabellius, Paul of Samosata, and Arius.  These were in deadly error with regard to the Trinity.  Certain Anabaptists are also described as holding to heresy in Belgic Confession article 18.  Though they’re not mentioned by name, the Confession is referring to Menno Simons and Melchior Hoffmann.  They taught that Christ does not have a real human nature from Mary but that, in his incarnation, he took his human nature from heaven.  This is a heresy because it runs into serious trouble with the two natures of Christ, and specifically whether his human nature is a true human nature.  I have more about that in this article from a few years ago.

So with that in the background, let me mention two prevalent errors that are not heresies.  Theistic evolution is not a heresy.  It is a serious error which may lead to heresy, but as such, it is not a heresy.  I have never referred to it as such and I have cautioned others against describing it as such as well.  Women in ecclesiastical office is a serious error that conflicts with Scripture, and emerges from a way of interpreting the Scriptures which could lead to far more serious doctrinal trouble.  However, you should not say that it is a heresy because it does not fit with the way this term has been understood and used in church history and in our confessions.

Not every theological error is a heresy.  Certainly someone’s disagreement with you on a particular doctrinal point does not allow you to loosely throw the term “heretic” around.  The words “heresy, heretic, heretical” should be reserved for only the most serious doctrinal errors, the ones where the Church clearly confesses from the Scriptures that these views are salvation-jeopardizing.  By that, we also recognize that not all errors are of the same seriousness.  We definitely want to strive for doctrinal precision and accuracy, but we also have to realize that not all points of doctrine carry the same weight and therefore we can, even in confessional Reformed churches, have some room for disagreement.  So, if you happened to disagree with what I wrote in that blog post about the saints in heaven, I think you’re wrong, but I will never call you a heretic.  Will you afford me the same courtesy?

[For those who wish to dig deeper into this topic, I highly recommend Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1, especially chapter 9, “Fundamental Articles and Basic Principles of Theology.”]