Category Archives: Dogmatics/Systematic Theology

We Distinguish: Knowledge/Assent/Confidence

The Bible teaches that true faith in Jesus Christ is essential for salvation.  If you’re going to have eternal life, you must have this vital faith connection to Christ.  In Acts 16, Paul and Silas were in the prison in Philippi.  God sent a great earthquake and all the doors were opened and the chains fell away from the prisoners.  The jailer was about to end himself, but Paul stopped him.  The jailer then said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  And the simple answer from the apostles was:  “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved…”

Given that faith is essential for salvation, it follows that clarity about the definition of faith is also essential.  When it comes to the definition of saving faith, Reformed theology has historically distinguished between three different components: knowledge, assent, and confidence.  While these three can be distinguished, they must never be separated.  All true saving faith has all three of these components.

The first component of true saving faith is knowledge.  With the intellect, one has to know the basics of what is to be believed.  One has to comprehend the basics of what the Bible says about God, about ourselves, our sin, our Saviour, the gospel, and so on.  Knowledge of the essentials of God’s Word is crucially important.

True faith takes that knowledge and works with it.  Faith includes not only knowing the knowledge, having it up there in your head, but also accepting it as being true.  This is what we call assent.  Let me give you an example of what the difference is between knowledge and assent.  I find Islam fascinating.  It’s a false religion, but its intricacies are an amazing (and sad) testimony to human creativity.  I can read the Qur’an and I know what it says.  I may have a basic knowledge of the message of the Qur’an.  But that doesn’t make me a Muslim.  For one thing, I don’t accept it as being true.  Similarly, someone could read the Bible and intellectually know the basic teachings of the Christian faith.  Someone could even conceivably go to catechism and go to church each Sunday and have an intellectual interest in Christian doctrine.  But they don’t accept it as being true.  They may have the knowledge of a Christian, but without accepting it as true, that person isn’t a Christian.  He or she doesn’t have saving faith.

According to Richard Muller (Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms), these first two components of knowledge and assent belong to that human faculty known as the intellect.  This is our mind which comprehends and assesses data presented to us.  Together knowledge (notitia) and assent (assensus) make up “sure knowledge” (cognitio certa).  That term is found in Lord’s Day 7 of our Heidelberg Catechism:  “True faith is a sure knowledge…”  At first glance, it may appear that the Catechism only describes two components of faith:  sure knowledge and firm confidence.  However, historically the first component divides into knowledge and assent.  There’s a strong hint of that in the Catechism itself when it goes on to say that this knowledge involves accepting as true “all that God has revealed to us in his Word.”  “Accepting as true” is the essence of assent.

The third component in saving faith is confidence or trust (fiducia).   This element belongs to the human faculty known as the will.  The will is that part of a human being that desires.  Saving faith must see the person desiring for themselves what the gospel offers in Jesus Christ and then taking hold of him, trusting in him.

The Heidelberg Catechism, in Lord’s Day 7, describes this as a “firm confidence.”  A true faith has firm confidence that all the truths of the gospel are not just for other people, but also for me, personally.  When I hear a gospel minister say that “God has granted you forgiveness of sins out of mere grace for the sake of Christ’s merits,” I say to myself, “Yes, that’s true for me too!”  When I hear a gospel minister say that “God has granted you everlasting righteousness and salvation out of mere grace all because of Christ,” I say, “Amen.  That’s my God.  That’s my Saviour.  This good news is for me!”  So true saving faith must include personal appropriation of what the Bible teaches.  It’s not enough to know what the Bible says.  It’s also not enough to be able to say the Bible is true.  You have to go all the way and say that what God offers in the gospel is also for you personally and individually.  You must trust in it for yourself.   

According to historic Reformed theology then, saving faith consists of knowledge, assent, and confidence.  That approach comes straight from Scripture.  Think of Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  How can we be sure of what we hope for if we don’t know what the Bible teaches?  How can we be certain of what we don’t see, if we don’t know anything about what the Bible says and don’t agree that it’s true?

Why does all this matter?  There are at least two good reasons. 

First, if true faith is essential to salvation, you’d want to make sure you have it.  You would want to make sure that you haven’t left out any of those components.  After all, there are people who convince themselves that they’re Christians merely because they have some intellectual knowledge of what the Bible teaches.

Second, it’s crucial to notice what’s not included in saving faith.  One thing that’s definitely not present in the biblical definition of a true saving faith is good works.  Listen to Paul in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  In that passage “works of the law” are set against “faith.”  It’s impossible that Paul meant that faith includes works of the law.  Everywhere Scripture teaches about salvation in general and justification in particular, we find that the word “faith” is used in the sense of looking outward to Christ, not looking inward to trust in one’s good works. Biblical, Reformed theology recognizes how salvation is entirely by grace – undeserved from first to last.  That includes our faith.  While humans are called to faith, while humans are involved in faith (knowing, assenting, trusting), ultimately faith is something worked in us by the Holy Spirit.  Faith is therefore not our contribution to salvation.  Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Praise God for his gift of faith!


We Distinguish: Antecedent/Consequent Conditions

One of the distinctives of Reformed churches is that we hold to what the Bible says about covenant theology; what’s more, we emphasize it.  In the Bible, God makes covenants.  The covenant of grace is a special relationship between God and his people.  Christians live within the context of this covenant relationship.   

One of the thorniest issues in Reformed covenant theology involves conditions.  In particular, are there conditions attached to the covenant of grace?  There are some who answer in the negative.  In particular, Herman Hoeksema and some of his followers have even said that speaking of conditions in the covenant of grace effectively makes one an Arminian.  It’s a complicated issue with a long history in Reformed theology.  An important distinction between types of conditions helps us, however, to untangle it.

Before we get to that distinction, there are two other important distinctions demanding our attention.  Many Reformed theologians have rightly stated that the covenant of grace is one-sided (monopleuric) in its origins, but two-sided (dipleuric) in its operation in created time and space.  The origins of the covenant of grace are solely with God, but its operation in history involves God and human beings.  When we speak from the first perspective, when we speak about God’s eternal decree, there must be no conditions.  That’s because God is sovereign and under no outside compulsion.  However, we have no access to God’s eternal decree.  Instead, we live within the context of the two-sided operation of the covenant of grace in history.  Here we have to reckon with what God says in his Word to us about our calling and responsibility.  This is the sphere in which our discussion proceeds.

A second important distinction has to do with two ways of relating to God within the covenant of grace.  Klaas Schilder, Geerhardus Vos, and others have pointed out how someone can relate to God merely in a legal sense.  Such a person is fully a member of the covenant of grace, has been genuinely addressed by God with his gospel promises, but has yet to embrace those promises through faith.  Once God’s gospel promises are embraced through faith, once a person takes hold of Christ and trusts in him, then he or she is also in a vital, living covenant relationship with God.  On the human side, this vital, living relationship is characterized first of all by true faith.  In what follows, for the sake of simplicity, we’re going to look at covenant conditions in the context of this vital way of relating to God.

So we’re talking about a real relationship with God as we experience it here and now.  A key thing to note from the Bible is that God interacts with people as responsible creatures.  Within the covenant relationship, God calls people to do certain things and not do others.  They are accountable for responding to God’s call.  As one example, consider God’s words to Jacob in Genesis 35.  God extended promises to Jacob, but also says, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply.”  He engaged Jacob as a responsible individual in this covenant relationship and calling him to action as such.

That brings us to the distinction I want to focus on:  between antecedent and consequent conditions.  An antecedent condition is one which comes before one relates to God in a vital living way.  Consequent conditions refer to those which come after one begins relating to God in a vital living way.    

There is one thing to which God calls all covenant members before they can enjoy a vital relationship with him.  In other words, there is one antecedent condition.  It is to believe God’s gospel promises.  The antecedent condition is faith in Christ.  Every covenant member is called to personally receive all the benefits of Christ through trusting in him.  When someone does place their trust in Christ, God declares them righteous.  They are justified and thus can relate to God as children with their heavenly Father.

Once in this vital covenant relationship, covenant members are called to continue trusting in their Saviour, and also to bear the fruits of our union with him.  We are called to sanctification as a consequence of our justification.  The consequent conditions are to continuing faith and what older authors called “evangelical obedience.”  “Evangelical obedience” is obedience to God motivated by the gospel, obedience rendered in response to what gospel has done for us.

Now how do I respond to the charge that such a view of covenant conditions is Arminian?  The Arminians taught that God’s decree of election was based on foreseen faith, an act of man’s free will cooperating with God’s prevenient grace.  This is not that.  I affirm that election is based solely on God’s sovereign good pleasure.  Moreover, I already stated that from God’s eternal perspective, we can’t speak about conditions.  However, in the Bible the theology of the covenant of grace is advanced in terms of our lived experience of it in time and space.  God treats people as responsible creatures.  He brings certain individuals into the covenant of grace and then calls them to a vital relationship with him through faith in Christ.  He subsequently calls them to pursue holiness within that relationship.  There’s nothing Arminian about that.

Further, we also have to think about this in relation to Christ, the Mediator of the covenant of grace.  We need to personally appropriate him and his saving work for there to be a living relationship between us and God.  That happens through faith.  Faith is a gift of God, according to Ephesians 2:8.  Faith comes because the Holy Spirit works regeneration in a sinful heart.  And yet in the Bible we still read of the call for individuals to repent and believe (e.g., Acts 2:38, 16:31).  Does that call mean we deny that faith is a gift of God?  Absolutely not.  We hold to both:  faith is a divine gift and it is a personal responsibility.  People are responsible for not believing.  But ultimately the fulfillment of the antecedent condition is something God works in us.  It isn’t a meritorious action we perform.  

The same can be said for the consequent condition.  In the Bible God calls believers to pursue holiness.  We are responsible for doing that.  Yet the work of sanctification is ultimately Christ in us with his Holy Spirit (Phil.1:6, 2:13, 1 Pet. 2:5).  We depend on his grace to do this. 

In each instance, then, God graciously provides what is needed to fulfill both the antecedent and consequent conditions; yet human responsibility remains.  Can I completely and logically reconcile these two truths?  No, and I don’t feel compelled to.  God teaches both in the Bible and I can just accept that he understands how these things logically connect to one another.  My calling is simply to believe what’s been revealed.

Why does this matter?  A proper understanding of this distinction is a safeguard against two serious problems.  One is automatism – the idea that covenant membership is an automatic one-way ticket to heaven involving no personal responsibility to believe the gospel.  You cannot be in a living, vital relationship with God apart from believing in Jesus Christ.  The other problem is fatalism – the idea that, because God is sovereign, there is nothing I need to do or can do in my relationship with him.  But Scripture is clear:  God is sovereign and you are responsible.  You are responsible to believe in Christ, but then also to repent and live a godly life in response to the free gift of salvation.                   

We’ve been swimming in the deep end and, if you’ve made it this far without drowning, I commend you.  Covenant theology isn’t easy to get right.  It’s easy to construe covenant theology in a way that sounds Arminian – where eternal life ultimately depends on the individual’s choice.  It’s also easy to do it in a way that’s deterministic – where God’s decree and sovereignty eclipses all human activity.  But I believe that if we aim to follow what Scripture teaches, and if we pay attention to sound Reformed theologizing from the past, we can both understand and enjoy the wonders of God’s covenant of grace in our lives.


We Distinguish: Broader/Narrower

It was March of 2001 and I was a newly ordained missionary serving in Fort Babine, British Columbia.  My sending church, the Smithers Canadian Reformed Church, was about 100 km to the south.  For the first couple of years that I served as their missionary, the church was itself vacant.  So, especially in the early days, before we had worship services on the mission field, I preached in Smithers about once a month.  So I found myself preparing my first sermon on the summary of God’s Word in Lord’s Day 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism. 

Lord’s Day 3 says that “God created man good and in his image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness….”  In my sermon, I asked the question whether unregenerate human beings today still bear the image of God.  In other words, are even unbelievers today made in the image of God?  My answer was “No.”  I said, “Of himself, man no longer reflects God’s image.  He rather reflects the image of his new lord and master.”  I wasn’t totally wrong, but I wasn’t totally right either.

In the following years, as I continued my study of Reformed theology, I came to recognize that the answer I gave in that sermon was far too simplistic.  It didn’t tell the whole story.  It didn’t do justice to all the biblical data.  It neglected an important Reformed theological distinction that comes from the biblical data.

Genesis 1 tells us that God created humanity in his image.  Our Catechism defines this in the words of Ephesians 4:24, “in true righteousness and holiness.”  That could give the impression that “true righteousness and holiness” exhaust what it means to be created in God’s image.  However, one must remember that the Heidelberg Catechism was written for children.  It wasn’t written as a textbook for systematic theology.  Like primers do, our Catechism sometimes leaves us short of the full picture. 

To get a fuller picture, we need to account for the other places in Scripture which mention humanity’s creation in the image of God.  There are several that could be mentioned, but the one that most caught my attention was James 3:9, “With it [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” The term “likeness of God” is roughly synonymous with “image of God.”  James is appealing back to Genesis 1:26, 27 to argue that if you curse human beings you are cursing God.  This is not because human beings once bore God’s image, but because they still do right now.  All human beings are image-bearers. 

This parallels Genesis 9:6, another striking passage:  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”   There the exact language of Genesis 1 is used to argue that if you kill a human being, you are attacking God.  That’s what makes killing a human being so heinous.  That’s what gives every human life its enormous value and dignity.  It’s because all human beings are image-bearers.

So is the image of God in fallen humanity gone or still present?  To resolve this question, Reformed theologians concluded that Scripture must be speaking of the image of God in two distinct senses.  These two senses were eventually labelled “broader” and “narrower” (though other terms have been used).  Herman Bavinck explains:

…Reformed theologians continued to speak of the image of God in a broader and a narrower sense.  In Holy Scripture they read that man, on the one hand, is still called the image of God after the fall and should be respected as such (Gen. 5:1; 9:6; Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 11:7; James 3:9); and that, on the other hand, he had nevertheless lost the primary content of the image of God (i.e. knowledge, righteousness, and holiness) and only regains these qualities in Christ (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).  (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p.550)

So in the broad sense there are, to use the words of Zacharias Ursinus, “remains and sparks” left of the image of God.  According to Ursinus (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pp.31-32) these consist of:

  1. “The incorporeal, rational, and immortal substance of the soul, together with its powers…”
  2. “…many notions and conceptions of God, of nature, and of the distinction which exists between things proper and improper…”
  3. “…traces and remains of moral virtues, and some ability of regulating the external deportment of life.”
  4. “The enjoyment of many temporal blessings.”
  5. “A certain dominion over other creatures.”

Now, as stated by Calvin and others, even these “remains and sparks” have been drastically affected by the fall into sin.  Yet, while corrupted, it can still be said that “God’s image has not been totally annihilated and destroyed” (Institutes 1.15.4).  However, after the fall, the narrow sense of the image of God (or the moral/ethical sense) has been completely lost.  It only begins to be recovered in a vital relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now why does all this matter?  First, because this is foundational for a Christian understanding of human worth and dignity.  All human beings have worth and value because there is a sense in which they bear God’s image.  All human beings deserve to be treated with dignity because they’re image-bearers in the broad sense.  From the unborn to the elderly, one and all carry the likeness of their Creator – not in all respects, but those which they do are of enormous value. 

Second, this distinction gives us some direction when it comes to considering the universal love of God.  Like many Reformed folks, I struggled for some years with understanding the love of God for humanity in general.  Can we say that God loves humanity as a whole?  Wolfgang Musculus, a Reformed theologian from the 1500s, said “Yes.”  He said that on account of humanity continuing to bear the image of God in the broader sense.  God loves humanity in general because there he still sees his image.  Similarly, John Calvin wrote this remarkable passage:

All of us, therefore, have in ourselves something deserving of God’s hatred.  With regard to our corrupt nature and the wicked life that follows it, all of us surely displease God, are guilty in his sight, and are born to the damnation of hell.  But because the Lord wills not to lose what is his in us, out of his own kindness he still finds something to love.  (Institutes 2.16.3) 

God finds something to love in us by virtue of what remains of his image in us.  God’s love is thus on account of God’s creation.  It all goes back to him.

Come 2006 I was serving my first congregation as a pastor.  I had the opportunity to revise my 2001 sermon on Lord’s Day 3.  I corrected my earlier theological blunders.  As I look at it now, it’s still a flawed sermon in some ways, but at least I was now on the right track concerning the Reformed doctrine of the image of God.  Through this experience God taught me that a preacher has to always keep studying theology.  We can never stop learning – none of us.  Even though we’re created in the image of God (broader), even though we’re being restored to the image of God (narrower) in Christ, we’re still finite creatures whose knowledge and understanding is incomplete.


We Distinguish: Essentially/Personally

Theological distinctions matter.  We need them for sound theology.  That theology then goes on to inform how we think and live as Christians.  Today I want to look at a key theological distinction that can have a significant impact on how we pray.

The name “Father” appears in relation to God numerous times in Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments.   For many Reformed church members, basic Trinitarian theology has been drummed into us from childhood.  We’re taught that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Thus conditioned, whenever we see the word “Father” in reference to God, we all too quickly conclude that this is speaking about the first person of the Trinity.  This is true with the Old Testament, but also with some key passages in the New Testament.

One of those passages is the Lord’s Prayer.  In the Lord’s Prayer, Christ teaches us to begin our prayers by saying, “Our Father in heaven…”  Many conclude that our Lord Jesus is teaching us to address the first person of the Trinity, even to the exclusion of the Son and the Holy Spirit.  After all, it seems obvious:  he uses the word “Father,” and we’ve been conditioned to see God the Father. 

A child or someone immature in the faith can be forgiven for reaching such a conclusion.  But for older and more mature disciples of Christ, familiar with a broader range of teaching in Scripture, this ought not to be.  The reason is that, in the Old Testament context, “Father” is often used to describe God in his unity (Yahweh); it’s used to describe the one true God.  It’s not being used in reference to God the Father as distinct from the Son or the Holy Spirit.  The classic example of this is in Isaiah 9:6 where the child to be born is called, among other things, “Everlasting Father.”  This is a prophecy about Christ’s incarnation.  The second person of the Trinity is denominated “Everlasting Father” by virtue of his divinity.  He can be called that because he is God.

There’s every reason to think that Christ was using the term “Father” in the same way in the Lord’s Prayer.  He was teaching us to pray to God, the one true God, as our Father.  That makes the most sense in that context where our Lord Jesus was speaking to Jews familiar with the Old Testament.  You could think also of Malachi 2:10, “Have we not all one Father?  Has not one God created us?” 

To put it in theological terms, we have to distinguish between the uses of the word “Father” in Scripture.  Sometimes it is used personally.  In passages like John 17:2-3, the reference is clearly to the first person of the Trinity, God the Father as distinct from God the Son.  At other times, “Father” is used essentially.  In passages like Isaiah 9:6, the reference is to the Triune God together in his essence.  To determine which is which in any given place requires careful consideration of context.  Specifically, if the context includes references to the other persons of the Trinity, then it is likely the term “Father” is being used personally.  For example, Matthew 28:19 mentions baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There “Father” clearly means the first person of the Trinity.

This is a well-accepted distinction in Reformed theology.  According to Richard Muller (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics), you’ll find it used by John Calvin, Zacharias Ursinus, Amandus Polanus, Herman Witsius, and a host of Puritans.  It’s important for us to be aware of it today too, especially since it can inform how we pray.  The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t teach us to pray to God the Father, but to God as Father.  The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t teach us to pray only to the person of God the Father to the exclusion of the Son and Holy Spirit.  Our Saviour’s intent was never to tell us we can’t pray to him or to the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, elsewhere in Scripture we do hear believers praying to Christ (e.g. Acts 7:59).  When you understand this distinction, it frees you to do likewise.


When It’s Done It’s Done

Franco Maggiotto (1937-2006)

Franco Maggiotto was one of the most memorable men I’ve ever met.  At one point in his life, he’d been a Roman Catholic priest in Italy.  The papal hierarchy saw potential in Franco and he became involved with the Vatican.  One day, Father Franco was saying mass at a basilica.  In the process, he happened to read to the congregation from Hebrews 10:11-12:

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…

When Franco read this, the Holy Spirit suddenly opened his eyes to the reality of the gospel.  He told the congregation, “I’m fired!  You should go home now.  It’s all done.  I’m fired.  Jesus has done it all!” 

That was a message Franco loved to preach from that day forward.  He became a Reformed pastor, an exceptionally unusual figure in Italy.  In 2003, Franco visited with us in Fort Babine, the tiny British Columbia village where I was serving as a missionary.  As even Protestant pastors do in Italy, Franco was dressed in clerical garb, a black suit with a white tab collar.  For the nominal Roman Catholics in our village, it appeared a Roman Catholic priest had come for a rare visit.  That created some excitement and interest.  We successfully invited some 20 villagers to come and listen to “Father” Franco. 

With his charming Italian accent, Franco passionately preached the completed work of Jesus Christ on the cross.  He used the illustration of a man who takes his friends to a restaurant.  Being a good friend, he pays for the meals of everyone.  Would it then be right for the owner of the restaurant to demand that each diner pay for the meal all over again?  Or even to ask the generous friend to pay again?  No, he said, it’s been paid once and for all.  The bill is no longer outstanding.  So it is with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the payment for our sins.  It was a fantastic gospel presentation for a largely Roman Catholic crowd.

Sadly, even some Protestants don’t seem to get this.  There are some who teach that justification is a life-long process, something which has to be renewed daily.  In this thinking, God’s declaration of righteousness (justification) is something which expires at the end of each day.  Each day again the individual has to go to God as Judge and again plead for the verdict of “righteous” in Christ.

That’s an unbiblical way to think about justification.  This is clear from several verses in Romans.  Take Romans 5:1, for example:  “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Here justification is described as a completed action which has addressed all our sins, past, present and future.  The consequence is abiding peace with God through our Saviour.

Thus, a little further in the letter, Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).  If you are in Christ Jesus, if you are united to him and therefore accounted righteous (justified), there is no condemnation.  The verdict has been rendered and it’s in your favour — permanently.  If the Judge has spoken once, the matter is finished.  There are no appeals and there’s no reopening of your case.

Christians can now relate every day to God as their Father.  Through our justification once accomplished, we’re in a relationship of fellowship with God and nothing can change that.  This isn’t to say that there’s no longer any place for repentance, confession, and seeking forgiveness from God.  But it is to say that these things now take place in the context of a living relationship where God is our Father and we’re his justified children through Christ.

Why would you want it to be otherwise?  Why would you want to have the insecurity and discomfort of a tenuous relationship with God, one which always depends on daily renewal of your justification?  Franco Maggiotto had it right.  When it comes to the work of our salvation, when it’s done it’s done.  That’s why we say the gospel is good news.