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Moral Law, Legalism, and the U.S. Presidential Race

July 28, 2016 6 comments

An interesting point brought out in Tom Chantry’s Ten Commandments series, which I recently finished: when people reject the moral law of God – that which is summarized in the Ten Commandments – they actually end up being legalists.  Anarchy doesn’t work; people naturally want some type of system and order in their lives – so if that system of order is not God’s moral law, something else must take its place.  An obvious example cited by Chantry:  why is it that the fundamentalism movement of the early 20th century went astray, putting emphasis on so many trivial and unimportant “rules” that became the dominant focus?  Another interesting and somewhat humorous story he told, was of listening to a church conference speaker some years before (and Chantry was speaking in 2009), a man who was very anti-law.  Throughout the course of his conference messages, this speaker kept saying how we’re not under law, to disregard God’s moral law, and that instead we have “the counsels of the Holy Spirit.”  People listening began asking “well, what are the counsels of the Holy Spirit.”  In the very last message, the speaker finally answered that question, by declaring that “there are thousands of them (counsels of the Holy Spirit).”

This tendency will come out in different ways with different people: for some, classic fundamentalism.  With others I know, morality (“the law of Christ”) is primarily focused on the exhortations in the New Testament epistles, and quickly becomes an external emphasis on our acts and deeds of charity: being nice and kind to others, giving to the church, and providing food for those in need, especially within the church family.  Such things are indeed proper to do, as fitting under the general category of application of the 8th commandment — yet God’s moral law encompasses so much more and is not limited to merely what we find in the New Testament epistles, but to all of God’s word.

Online conversations about the 2016 Presidential campaign (debacle) provide yet another example of those who set up some type of legalism in place of God’s moral law. I have observed (and sadly I’m not alone) people claiming that how we vote in the U.S. presidential race is a moral issue. The claim put forth is that not voting for either of the two parties is a “wasted vote” and “a vote for Hillary,” and further that to waste that vote by not voting for either of these two, is a moral issue.  As Tom Chantry well described it in a blog post this spring:

Every four years, American Christians are told that we have a moral obligation to vote.  It appears that this year one nominee for President will be a professional bandit with the ego of President Obama, the fidelity of President Clinton, and the honesty of President Nixon.  His opponent will most likely be an unindicted traitor who has already gotten U.S. security and intelligence personnel killed by setting politics over duty.  Will someone please explain to me which commandment requires me to participate in this choice?

Indeed, a study through the Decalogue and the full extent of each of the greater issues addressed in each commandment, provides a helpful guide to understanding which issues really are moral — and which ones are not moral but merely part of a nation’s civil law.  A republic form of government that provides every citizen with “their vote,” with two main choices provided, such that every citizen “must” vote for one of these two, is NOT a moral issue that falls within the scope of any of the commandments of God.

This insistence upon such voting as a moral obligation, actually classifies as legalism for two reasons.  The first one has already been noted: the legalism of putting another law in the place of God’s moral law.

As noted by Chantry, and in the 1689 Baptist Confession study, legalism also occurs when someone takes his or her own application of a moral precept and sets that up as a standard that everyone else ought to follow.  Reference this recent post from Tim Challies, which relates the case of a Christian who came up with his own “rule” for spending time in reading God’s word, of “no Bible, no breakfast” – and others later came along, declaring that all believers ought to follow this same practice.  The same has occurred with this issue (voting for a U.S. presidential candidate):  those who object to other believers not voting for Trump, are the legalists: taking their idea of a “moral” issue (which is actually not part of God’s moral law, but merely civil U.S. law) and making an “application” that everyone else is expected to abide by.

 

 

 

Conflating Preparationism With the Second Use of the Law

July 18, 2016 4 comments

I recently came across an online discussion that revealed some people’s misunderstandings about the law and another term, preparationism.  For consideration was the following quote from Spurgeon.  (The full quote is available in this sermon, from January of 1886.  The conversation included only the bolded parts of the full quote — but the excerpt still makes Spurgeon’s point well enough):

I do not believe that any man can preach the gospel who does not preach the law. The book of Leviticus and all the other typical books are valuable as gospel-teaching to us, because there is always in them most clearly the law of God. The law is the needle, and you cannot draw the silken thread of the gospel through a man’s heart, unless you first send the needle of the law through the center thereof, to make way for it. If men do not understand the law, they will not feel that they are sinners; and if they are not consciously sinners, they will never value the sin offering. If the Ten Commandments are never read in their hearing, they will not know wherein they are guilty, and how shall they make confession? If they are not assured that the law is holy, and just, and good, and that God has never demanded of any man more than He has a right to demand, how shall they feel the filthiness of sin, or see the need of flying to Christ for cleansing? There is no healing a man till the law has wounded him, no making him alive till the law has slain him.

Clearly, Spurgeon is here referencing the “second use” of the law (the pedagogical use): to point out to sinners what God’s holy standard is, to show that they are sinners and that they cannot keep God’s law on their own and they need a savior.  Yet the people in this conversation instead concluded (incorrectly) that this is an example of preparationism — which they defined as, that a certain “work” of preparation needs to be done in a person’s heart, or else the Holy Spirit is not able to bring conviction of sin to that person.

Such reasoning shows two problems: first, an incorrect definition of what preparationism is; and second, attributing that error (preparationism) to Charles Spurgeon.  As explained in this lesson in the 1689 Baptist Confession exposition series, as well as in this previous post about one of Spurgeon’s sermons, preparationism is the idea that a sinner must show a certain amount of repentance, a certain level of sorrow for his sin such as some of the “great saints” experienced, before he can come to Christ — an error that amounts to “justification by repentance” rather than “justification by faith.”

Quoting Spurgeon again on the error of preparationism:

In our day the evil has taken another, and that a most extraordinary shape. Men have aimed at being self-righteous after quite an amazing fashion; they think they must feel worse, and have a deeper conviction of sin before they may trust in Christ. Many hundreds do I meet with who say they dare not come to Christ, and trust Him with their souls, because they do not feel their need of Him enough; they have not sufficient contrition for their sins; they have not repented as fully as they have rebelled! Brothers and Sisters, it is the same evil, from the same old germ of self-righteousness, but it has taken another and I think a more crafty shape. Satan has wormed himself into many hearts under the garb of an angel of light, and he has whispered to the sinner, “Repentance is a necessary virtue. Stop until you have repented, and when you have sufficiently mortified yourself on account of sin, then you will be fit to come to Christ, and qualified to trust and rely on Him

The post about Spurgeon, linked above, includes additional quotes from Spurgeon in which he “named names” of specific Puritan authors who taught preparationism.  So it is established that Spurgeon did not teach preparationism; the original Spurgeon quote above is instead in reference to the second use of the moral law, that which is clearly taught in the New Testament – the law as our teacher, to teach us the knowledge of sin.

For some reason, many evangelicals today, especially of the New Calvinist group, dislike any mention of “law,” as though the gospel is all and only about grace; to suggest anything about “the law” gets a response of “legalism!” and rhetoric about how we’re saved by grace and “not under law.”  Much of this attitude, directed at those in the Reformed Covenant Theology camp, comes from failing to distinguish and to understand the difference between the second and third use of the law; an article from a couple years back well notes this problem as seen in actual posts from the Gospel Coalition blog (Tullian Tchividjian’s misunderstanding).

As seen with the above example conversation, some within New Calvinism are taking their anti-law idea even further, going to the extreme of rejecting not merely the third use of the law, but even the second use of the law – and equating it with the unrelated error of preparationism. To reject both the second use and the third use is to take a position outside of the Christian Protestant tradition.  For all evangelical groups – Reformed/Calvinist, Reformed/Lutheran, and even classic, revised and progressive dispensational Calvinists – have affirmed at least the second use of the law.  To reject the second use, and misunderstand what Spurgeon was saying as legalistic error, is to join company with the early Protestant-era antinomians and their leader John Agricola, a position described in this article about the 16th century antinomian controversy:

This Lutheran confessional consensus concerning mandata dei as guides for sanctified living nearly crumbled in the mid sixteenth century amid the Antinomian Controversy. Antinomianism, or a rejection of any use of the Law for Christians, found a prominent spokesperson in John Agricola. While serving as an instructor in Eisleben during the 1520s, Agricola taught that the mercy of God revealed in the Gospel alone suffices to cause a person to repent of his sins. In addition to rejecting the second use of the Law, he also discarded the third. Agricola, who had trouble accepting that Melancthon, rather than he, received an appointment to the new theology post at Wittenberg in 1526, criticized the distinction that Melanththon made on these points between Law and Gospel. “Agricola took an extremely antinomian position, virtually rejecting out of hand the whole Old Testament, as well as injunctions of the Law in the lives of the regenerate.” Confusion compounded the controversy when Melancthon’s followers noted that their teacher had, at times, ascribed a Law function to the “Gospel,” using that term in its broader sense to include both the Law and the narrow definition of the Gospel. “But Melancthon’s followers did not make this distinction. They insisted that the Gospel in its narrow, proper sense worked contrition and rebuked sin.” Luther and Agricola argued back and forth in print during the late 1530s. After Luther’s death, Agricola took major part in drafting the Augsburg Interim (1548), which forged a compromise between Rome and the Lutheran theologians by equivocating on the distinction between Law and Gospel.

 

John Calvin and the Early Church Fathers

July 13, 2016 2 comments

I’m reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, now in book 2 (text available online here), the section on the issue of supposed “free will” and the true nature of the will.  The following observation from Calvin reminded me of a topic I have addressed before, such as in this post about Steve Lawson’s book concerning the history of the “doctrines of grace”  and this later post on historical theology:

Moreover, although the Greek Fathers, above others, and especially Chrysostom, have exceeded due bounds in extolling the powers of the human will, yet all ancient theologians, with the exception of Augustine, are so confused, vacillating, and contradictory on this subject, that no certainty can be obtained from their writings.

Throughout this chapter Calvin considers, at some length, what previous scholars believed concerning the human will, even addressing their sub-categories of different parts of what makes up the human will and mind.  After observing that the Greek (pagan) philosophers all held a high view of the human will and human reason, Calvin noted that the Greek early church fathers in particular held a high regard for Greek philosophy.  This agrees with what was brought out in an early church history (Reformed Theological Seminary iTunes University) lectures series, as summarized in this previous post:

Another factor was their background as Greek philosophers, pagan Greeks who only converted to Christianity as adults, and who highly valued Greek philosophy as what helped to bring people to Christianity.  They all had interest in knowledge, the “gnosis,” and at least some of the Greeks were influenced by gnostic and platonic ideas.

Yet, as another response to those who would project the extreme Pelagian view onto the early Church pre-Augustine, to those who bring forth Calvin’s quote about how they were all confused on the subject, later in this chapter Calvin does point out the positive contributions and overall understanding of the early church writers:

The language of the ancient writers on the subject of Free Will is, with the exception of that of Augustine, almost unintelligible. Still they set little or no value on human virtue, and ascribe the praise of all goodness to the Holy Spirit.

 

At one time they teach, that man having been deprived of the power of free will must flee to grace alone; at another, they equip or seem to equip him in armour of his own. It is not difficult, however, to show, that notwithstanding of the ambiguous manner in which those writers express themselves, they hold human virtue in little or no account, and ascribe the whole merit of all that is good to the Holy Spirit.

 

This much, however, I dare affirm, that though they sometimes go too far in extolling free will, the main object which they had in view was to teach man entirely to renounce all self-confidence, and place his strength in God alone.

For this topic, I still consider Luther’s “The Bondage of the Will” as the main “go-to” book, one with great detail concerning the natural human will as not free (Erasmus’ view) but in bondage.  Calvin’s Institutes is another lengthy study of its own, regarding many doctrinal points, and this section contributes good information to the topic, including summary of the views of unbelieving philosophers as well as Christian teaching up to Calvin’s time.