Tag Archives: theological distinctions

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.


An Index of Calvin’s Distinctions in the Institutes

I recently finished reading straight through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  I plan to write an essay on that experience in the near future.  For now, one of the things that struck me was how Calvin worked with various theological and philosophical distinctions.  I catalogued as many as I could discern and you can find them in this document.  There are many of them!  Many Calvin works with in a positive way, but there are also a few he rejects as “wily,” “loathsome,” or “worthless.”  It’s said that distinguishing well is a hallmark of a good theologian — Calvin certainly ranks up there with the best.


We Distinguish…(Part 6) — Moral/Ceremonial/Civil

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In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

The Internet can be one of the most frustrating places to witness someone trying to discredit the Christian faith. It’s so frustrating because it’s almost impossible to have a civil and reasonable exchange. One of the most common tactics has to do with our Christian opposition to same-sex “marriage.” Somewhere online a Christian will mention the Bible texts that condemn homosexual lusts and behaviour. Not long afterwards, the unbeliever comes along and asks the Christian whether he eats shellfish or wears a garment made of two kinds of material. Because, after all, the Bible speaks against these things too! So obviously the Christian is inconsistent – he says he believes what the Bible says, but he only picks and chooses what he’s going to obey. Gotcha!

The unbeliever doesn’t understand the Bible. He may know a few Bible texts, but he probably doesn’t understand how they work together. Many non-Christians think that all biblical commands should be equally applicable. If you’re going to forbid homosexuality, you must also forbid eating bacon. The Bible speaks against both and that settles it.

What the unbeliever doesn’t understand, and what every believer must understand, is a basic distinction between three different types of laws in the Bible. The moral law is God’s permanent will for humanity and it’s summarized in the Ten Commandments. The ceremonial law was God’s will for Old Testament Israel and it partly involved various forms of worship, including the sacrificial system which pointed ahead to Christ. It also included the laws of clean and unclean and more. Under the New Testament, all the ceremonial law has been set aside – fulfilled in Christ, it is not binding on Christians. The civil law was God’s will for the Old Testament nation of Israel. It was largely the application of the moral law to Israel’s particular civil context. While there may be and often are lessons to be learned from the civil law, it too is no longer binding upon Christians as it was upon the Jews in the Old Testament.

So to go back to our example above, the unbeliever equates laws concerning shellfish and garments with what God says about homosexuality. From a Christian perspective, what he is doing is confusing the ceremonial law with the moral law. Christians regard the laws about clean and unclean as part of the ceremonial law – in fact, in Mark 7:19 we read that Jesus explicitly set these laws aside. The Seventh Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” has not been set aside – it is part of God’s moral law. This commandment not only forbids the breaking of one’s marriage vows, but all unchastity, indeed, all forms of sin which undermine God’s good original plan for men and women. Homosexual lusts and behaviours therefore fall under the moral law. No one should be surprised that both the Old and New Testament condemn these things equally (see, for example, Leviticus 19:22, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Cor.6:9-10, Jude 7). This is part of God’s permanent and abiding moral law.

In previous installments of this series, we’ve looked at other distinctions involving the law: specifically, law/gospel (see here) and active/passive obedience (see here). When we speak about the law in those contexts (under the rubric of justification), we’re always speaking about the moral law. So, the law/gospel distinction reminds us that we cannot earn our salvation through our obedience to the moral law. The distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience reminds us that he has earned righteousness for us through his obedience to the moral law. Things would become very messy theologically, even dangerously messy, if we were to substitute one of the other categories. Therefore, this distinction is important not only for our discussions with unbelievers, but also for properly understanding how key parts of our salvation fit together.

This distinction between moral/ceremonial/civil law is clearly made in the Westminster Confession, chapter 19. It can also be found, albeit not quite as obviously, in article 25 of the Belgic Confession: “We believe that the ceremonies and symbols of the law have ceased with the coming of Christ, and that all shadows have been fulfilled, so that the use of them ought to be abolished among Christians.” Ceremonies are clearly identified here, but civil laws of the Old Testament appear under the less technical terms, “symbols” and “shadows.” Article 25 has always been understood to teach and affirm this distinction. It is a distinction with a long historical pedigree. The Reformation did not discover it, rather it was first articulated in the early church, and then later reaffirmed by theologians in the Middle Ages. Reformed theologians simply restated what had already been correctly formulated – this distinction provides a good example where there was no need for reform. This part of the Christian tradition is solidly biblical.

There is far more that could be said about this distinction. I could elaborate on several points, but my goal here is to keep things as short and simple as possible. The Bible includes many commands from Genesis to Revelation. I simply want you to understand that not all these commands apply to us in the same way they applied to their first readers. Good students of the Bible recognize this and use the above distinction to properly understand the Word of God, defend it, and live according to it.


We Distinguish…(Part 5) — Active/Passive Obedience

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In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

On the first of January, 1937, a dying J. Gresham Machen mustered up the strength to send one last telegram to his friend John Murray: “I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” One of the founding fathers of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church made a point of stressing Christ’s active obedience in his last hours on this earth. It would be, however, a grave mistake to assume that this doctrine is uniquely Presbyterian. Not only is it found in the Three Forms of Unity, it’s also shared with confessional Lutherans (as I’ve demonstrated here).

We speak of a distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience. We need to carefully define the terms, because they have sometimes been misunderstood as opposites. In normal English conversation, “active” and “passive” usually are opposites. “Passive” is typically denotes inactivity. However, in the context of Reformed theology, the word “passive” is derived from the Latin passio and it refers to Christ’s suffering – something in which he was definitely not inactive. Passive obedience, therefore, refers to Christ’s obedience in suffering the wrath of God against our sins. Christ’s active obedience speaks of his obeying the law of God perfectly in our place throughout his life – an active, positive righteousness that is imputed or accounted to believers. In Christ’s passive obedience we have the payment demanded so that our sins can be fully forgiven. In his active obedience we have the perfect conformity to God’s law demanded of all human beings. These must be taken together, and when they are, they form the basis of our justification (our being declared right with God as Judge).

This distinction is valuable because it points up how good the good news really is. We are not just promised forgiveness in Christ. In our Saviour, we are promised and given perfect righteousness in the sight of God. As God looks at us in Jesus Christ, he sees people who have been perfectly and consistently obedient to his law. Because of Christ’s active obedience imputed to us, God sees us as flawlessly obeying him not just in the externals, but also 100% from and in the heart.

When it comes to biblical support, there’s really no debating the passive obedience of Christ. The Bible is clear that he suffered in obedience to God’s will so that we can be forgiven all our trespasses (e.g. Hebrews 2:10-18). But what about the active obedience of Christ?   According to Romans 2:13, “doers of the law will be justified.” Galatians 3:10 reminds us that if you do not do everything written in the law, you are under a curse. God demands perfect obedience to his moral law. Romans 5 is one of the clearest places speaking to the fulfillment of this demand in Christ. There Adam and Jesus are contrasted in their disobedience and obedience. Says the Holy Spirit in Rom. 5:19, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” The “one man’s obedience” there refers to Christ’s work on our behalf, including and especially his obedience to all of God’s law. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 reminds us, all our sins were imputed to Christ, and all his righteousness is imputed to us.

Since it’s found in Scripture, it’s no surprise to find it in the Three Forms of Unity. For example, it’s implied in chapter 2 of the Canons of Dort, in the Rejection of Errors #4. The Arminians taught that God had “revoked the demand of perfect obedience to the law.” The Synod of Dort said that this contradicted the Bible and was part of “a new and strange justification of man before God.” At the bare minimum, the Canons of Dort maintain that God still does demand perfect obedience to his law. However, the Canons do not explicitly say how this demand is to be met.

But that is not to say that the Synod of Dort ignored this issue. Far from it! In fact, the denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ was an issue amongst the Reformed churches of that period. As a result, the Synod of Dort edited article 22 of the Belgic Confession on this point to clarify that Christ’s active obedience is essential to Reformed orthodoxy. The revised article 22 reads (the underlined words were added by Dort): [God] “imputes to us all [Christ’s] merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.” This result brought the Dutch Reformed churches into line with the English and the French – they had also previously ruled that Christ’s active obedience was a non-negotiable point of Reformed doctrine. Later, in 1693, the Walcheren Articles appeared in the Netherlands and these were even more resolute on this question. Denying the imputation of the active obedience of Christ is not an option for Reformed confessors.

Unfortunately, in our day there have been some who have either denied or minimized this point of doctrine. I’m thinking especially of some figures associated with the Federal Vision movement. I’ve briefly addressed their teachings in a booklet (which you can find here). Suffice it to say that attempting to sideline this doctrine: 1) requires a dishonest handling of the Reformed confessions, 2) requires a reconfiguration of the biblical doctrine of justification, and 3) robs Reformed believers of comfort, joy, and strength in Christ.  This is not making a mountain out of a doctrinal molehill.

For those who would like to read more on this important topic, Dr. N. H. Gootjes has an excellent essay entitled “Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience.” It’s in chapter 4 of his book Teaching and Preaching the Word. I also have a copy available online here.