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by John M. Frame

            It has become increasingly common in Reformed circles, as it has long been in Lutheran circles, to say that the distinction between law and gospel is the key to sound theology, even to say that to differ with certain traditional formulations of this distinction is to deny the gospel itself.

            Sometimes this argument employs Scripture passages like Rom. 3:21-31, emphasizing that we are saved by God’s grace, through faith alone, apart from the works of the law. In my judgment, however, none of the parties to the debate questions that justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, by the imputed righteousness of Christ alone. But it is one thing to distinguish between faith and works, a different thing to distinguish law and gospel.

1. The Traditional Distinction

            The distinction between law and gospel is not a distinction between a false and a true way of salvation. Rather, it is a distinction between two messages, one that supposedly consists exclusively of commands, threats, and therefore terrors, the other that consists exclusively of promises and comforts. Although I believe that we are saved entirely by God’s grace and not by works, I do not believe that there are two entirely different messages of God in Scripture, one exclusively of command (“law”) and the other exclusively of promise (“gospel”). In Scripture itself, commands and promises are typically found together. With God’s promises come commands to repent of sin and believe the promise. The commands, typically, are not merely announcements of judgment, but God’s gracious opportunities to repent of sin and believe in him. As the Psalmist says, “be gracious to me through your law,” Psm. 119:29.

            The view that I oppose, which sharply separates the two messages, comes mainly out of Lutheran theology, though similar statements can be found in Calvin and in other Reformed writers. [1] The Epitome of the Lutheran Formula of Concord, at V, 5, recognizes that gospel is used in different senses in Scripture, and it cites Mark 1:15 and Acts 20:21 as passages in which gospel preaching “correctly” includes a command to repent of sin. But in section 6, it does something really strange. It says,

But when the Law and the Gospel are compared together, as well as Moses himself, the teacher of the Law, and Christ the teacher of the Gospel, we believe, teach, and confess that the Gospel is not a preaching of repentance, convicting of sins, but that it is properly nothing else than a certain most joyful message and preaching full of consolation, not convicting or terrifying, inasmuch as it comforts the conscience against the terrors of the Law, and bids it look at the merit of Christ alone…

I say this is strange, because the Formula gives no biblical support at all for this distinction, and what it says here about the “gospel” flatly contradicts what it  conceded earlier in section 5. What it describes as “correct” in section five contradicts what it calls “proper” in section 6. What section 6 does is to suggest something “improper” about what it admits to be the biblical description of the content of gospel, as in Mark 1:15 and Acts 14:15. [2] Mark 1:15 is correct, but not proper.

2. Law and Gospel in Scripture

I have been told that proper at this point in the Formula means, not “incorrect” or “wrong,” but simply “more common or usual.” I have, however, looked through the uses of the euaggel- terms in the NT, and I cannot find one instance in which the context excludes a demand for repentance (that is, a command of God, a law) as part of the gospel content. That is to say, I cannot find one instance of what the Formula calls the “proper” meaning of gospel, a message of pure comfort, without any suggestion of obligation. And there are important theological reasons why that use does not occur.

Essentially, the “gospel” in the NT is the good news that the kingdom of God has come in Jesus (Matt. 4:23, 9:35, Mark 1:14, Luke 4:43, Acts 20:24f). [3] “Kingdom” is (1) God’s sovereign power, (2) his sovereign authority, and (3) his coming into history to defeat Satan and bring about salvation with all its consequences. [4] God’s kingdom power includes all his mighty acts in history, especially including the Resurrection of Christ. 

God’s kingdom authority is the reiteration of his commandments. When the kingdom appears in power, it is time for people to repent. They must obey (hupakouo) the gospel (2 Thess. 1:8, compare apeitheo in 1 Pet. 4:17). The gospel itself requires a certain kind of conduct (Acts 14:15, Gal. 2:14, Phil. 1:27; cf. Rom 2:16). 

When God comes into history, he brings his power and authority to bear on his creatures. In kingdom power, he establishes peace. So NT writers frequently refer to the “gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15; cf. Acts 10:36, Rom. 10:15), sometimes referring to the “mystery” of God bringing Gentiles and Jews together in one body (Rom. 16:25, Eph. 6:19). 

It is this whole complex: God’s power to save, the reiteration of God’s commands, and his coming into history to execute his plan, that is the gospel. It is good news to know that God is bringing his good plans to fruition. 

Consider Isa. 52:7, one of the most important background passages for the New Testament concept of gospel: 

How beautiful upon the mountains

            Are the feet of him who brings good news,

            Who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,

            Who publishes salvation,

            Who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (ESV)

It is the reign of God that is good news, news that ensures peace and salvation.

Even the demand for repentance is good news, because in context it implies that God, though coming in power to claim his rights, is willing to forgive for Christ’s sake.

            So gospel includes law in an important sense: God’s kingdom authority, his demand to repent. Even on the view of those most committed to the law/gospel distinction, the gospel includes a command to believe. We tend to think of that command as in a different class from the commands of the decalogue. But that too is a command, after all. Generically it is law. And, like the decalogue, that law can be terrifying to someone who wants to trust only on his own resources, rather than resting on the mercy of another. And the demand of faith includes other requirements: the conduct becoming the gospel that I mentioned earlier. Faith itself works through love (Gal. 5:6) and is dead without good works (James 2:17).

      Having faith does not merit salvation for anyone, any more than any other human act merits salvation. Thus we speak of faith, not as the ground of salvation, but as the instrument. Faith saves, not because it merits salvation, but because it reaches out to receive God’s grace in Christ. Nevertheless, faith is an obligation, and in that respect the command to believe is like other divine commands. So it is impossible to say that command, or law, is excluded from the message of the gospel.

It is also true that law includes gospel. God gives his law as part of a covenant, and that covenant is a gift of God’s grace. The decalogue begins, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Only after proclaiming his saving grace does God then issue his commands to Israel. So the decalogue as a whole has the function of offering Israel a new way of life, conferred by grace (cf. Deut. 7:7-8, 9:4-6). Is the decalogue “law” or “gospel?” Surely it is both. Israel was terrified upon hearing it, to be sure (Ex. 20:18-21). But in fact it offers blessing (note verse 6) and promise (verse 12). Moses and the Prophets are sufficient to keep sinners from perishing in Hell (Matt. 16:31).

So the definitions that sharply separate law and gospel break down on careful analysis. In both law and gospel, then, God proclaims his saving work, and he demands that his people respond by obeying his commands. The terms “law” and “gospel” differ in emphasis, but they overlap and intersect. They present the whole Word of God from different perspectives. Indeed, we can say that our Bible as a whole is both law (because as a whole it speaks with divine authority and requires belief) and gospel (because as a whole it is good news to fallen creatures). Each concept is meaningless apart from the other. Each implies the other.

      The law often brings terror, to be sure. Israel was frightened by the Sinai display of God’s wrath against sin (Ex. 20:18-21). But it also brings delight to the redeemed heart (Psm. 1:2; compare 119:34-36, 47, 92, 93, 97, 130, 131, Rom. 7:22). Similarly, the gospel brings comfort and joy; but (as less often noted in the theological literature) it also brings condemnation. Paul says that his gospel preaching is, to those who perish, “a fragrance from death to death” and, to those who believe, “a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:15-16; compare 1 Cor. 1:18, 23, 27-29, 2 Cor. 4:3-4, Rom. 9:32). The gospel is good news to those who believe. But to those who are intent on saving themselves by their own righteousness, it is bad news. It is God’s condemnation upon them, a rock of offense.

3. Which Comes First?

            In discussions of law and gospel, one commonly hears that it is important, not only to preach both law and gospel, but also to preach the law first and the gospel second. We are told that people must be frightened by the law before they can be driven to seek salvation in Christ. Certainly there is a great need to preach God’s standards, man’s disobedience, and God’s wrath against sin, especially in an age such as ours where people think God will let them behave as they like. And very often people have been driven to their knees in repentance when the Spirit has convicted them of their transgressions of law.

            But as we have seen, it is really impossible truly to present law without gospel or gospel without law, though various relative emphases are possible. And among those relative emphases, the biblical pattern tends to put the gospel first. That is the pattern of the decalogue, as we have seen: God proclaims that he has redeemed his people (gospel), then asks them to behave as his covenant people (law). Since both gospel and law are aspects of God’s covenants, that pattern pervades Scripture.

            Jesus reflects that pattern in his own evangelism. In John 4, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that he can give her living water that will take away all thirst. Only after offering that gift does he proclaim the law to her, exposing her adultery. Some have cited Luke 18:18—30 as an example of the contrary order: Jesus expounds the commandments, and only afterward tells the rich ruler to follow him. But in this passage Jesus does not use the law alone to terrorize the man or to plunge him into despair. The man does go sadly away only after Jesus has called him to discipleship, which, though itself a command, is the gospel of this passage.

4. The “New Perspective” and Paul’s Gospel

Since the apostle Paul is most often in the forefront in discussions of the meaning of gospel, something should perhaps be said here about the “new perspective on Paul” in recent scholarship, based on writings of Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and others. In that perspective, the problem with Judaism, according to Paul, was not works righteousness, but its failure to accept God’s new covenant in Christ, which embraced Gentiles as well as Jews. On this perspective, Paul’s gospel is not an answer to the troubled conscience of someone who can’t meet God’s demands. Rather, it is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to bless all nations. The “works of the law” against which Paul contends are not man’s attempts to satisfy God’s moral law, but the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles such as circumcision, food laws, and cleansings.

Discussions of this new perspective are very complex, entering into details about the nature of Palestinian Judaism at the time of Paul, Paul’s own history, and the exegesis of crucial texts. I cannot enter this controversy in a short paper. I do agree with those who believe that Sanders and others have been too selective in their references to Palestinian Judaism, and I believe that the new perspective fails to deal adequately with a number of Pauline passages, such as Rom. 4:4-5, 11:6, Eph. 2:8-10, Phil. 3:9, which make plain that Paul rejects, not only legal barriers between Jew and Gentile, but also all attempts of people to save themselves by their works. Luther’s doctrines of sola gratia and sola fide are fully scriptural and fully Pauline. [5]

But the new perspective legitimately warns us against reducing Paul’s gospel to soteric justification by faith. Paul’s confrontation with the Jews was on several fronts. And his gospel deals with a number of different issues, as my earlier discussion also implies.

5. Legitimate Use of the Traditional Distinction

Now if people want to define gospel more narrowly for a specific theological purpose, I won’t object too strongly. Scripture does not give us a glossary of English usage. A number of technical theological terms don’t mean exactly what similar terms sometimes mean in the Bible. Regeneration and election are examples, as is covenant. [6] We can define our English terms pretty much as we like, as long as those definitions don’t create confusion in our readers. 

Over the years, we have come to think of gospel as correlative with faith and law as correlative with works. In this usage, law is what condemns and gospel is what saves. Although this distinction differs from the biblical uses of the terms, it does become useful in some contexts. For example, we all know a type of preaching that merely expounds moral obligations (as we usually think of them: don’t kill, don’t steal) and does not give its hearers the knowledge of Christ they need to have in order to be saved. That kind of preaching (especially when it is not balanced by other preaching emphases) we often describe as a preaching of mere law, legalism, or moralism. There is no good news in it. So, we are inclined to say, it is not preaching of the gospel. So in this general way we come to distinguish the preaching of law from the preaching of gospel. That is, I think, the main concern of the Formula: to remind us that we need to do both things. 

We should be reminded of course that there is also an opposite extreme: preaching “gospel” in such a way as to suggest that Christ makes no demands on one’s life. We call that “cheap grace” or “easy believism.” We might also call it preaching “gospel without law.” Taken to an extreme, it is antinomianism, the rejection of God’s law. The traditional law/gospel distinction is not itself antinomian, but those who hold it tend to be more sensitive to the dangers of legalism than to the dangers of antinomianism. 

Such considerations may lead us to distinguish in a rough-and-ready way between preaching of the law and preaching of the gospel. Of course, even in making that distinction, our intention ought to be to bring these together. None of these considerations requires us to posit a sharp distinction. And certainly, this rough-and-ready distinction should never be used to cast doubt on the integration of command and promise that pervades the Scriptures themselves. 

It should be evident that “legalist” preaching as described above is not true preaching of law, any more than it is true preaching of the gospel.  For as I indicated earlier, law itself in Scripture comes to us wrapped in grace.

6. Law/Gospel and the Christian Life

The Formula’s distinction between law and gospel has unfortunate consequences for the Christian life. The document does warrant preaching of the law to the regenerate, [7] but only as threat and terror, to drive them to Christ Epitome, VI, 4. There is nothing here about the law as the delight of the redeemed heart (Psm. 1:2; compare 119:34-36, 47, 92, 93, 97, 130, 131, Rom. 7:22). 

The Formula then goes on to say that believers do conform to the law under the influence of the Spirit, but only as follows: 

Fruits of the Spirit, however, are the works which the Spirit of God who dwells in believers works through the regenerate, and which are done by believers so far as they are regenerate [spontaneously and freely], as though they knew of no command, threat, or reward; for in this manner the children of God live in the Law and walk according to the Law of God, which [mode of living] St. Paul in his epistles calls the Law of Christ and the Law of the mind, Rom. 7, 25; 8, 7; Rom. 8, 2; Gal. 6, 2. (Epitome, VI, 5).

So the law may threaten us to drive us to Christ. But truly good works are never motivated by any command, threat or reward.

            In my view, this teaching is simply unbiblical. It suggests that when you do something in obedience to a divine command, threat, or promise of reward, it is to that extent tainted, unrighteous, something less than a truly good work. I agree that our best works are tainted by sin, but certainly not for this reason. When Scripture presents us with a command, obedience to that command is a righteous action. Indeed, our righteousness is measured by our obedience to God’s commands. When God threatens punishment, and we turn from wickedness to do what he asks, that is not a sin, but a righteous response. When God promises reward, it is a good thing for us to embrace that reward.

            The notion that we should conduct our lives completely apart from the admonitions of God’s word is a terrible notion. To ignore God’s revelation of his righteousness is, indeed, essentially sinful. To read Scripture, but refuse to allow its commands to influence one’s conduct, is the essence of sin.

            And what, then, does motivate good works, if not the commands, threats, and promises of reward in Scripture? The Formula doesn’t say. What it suggests is that the Spirit simply brings about obedience from within us. I believe the Spirit does exactly that. But the Formula seems to assume that the Spirit works that way without any decision on our part to act according to the commands of God. That I think is wrong. “Quietism” is the view that Christians should be entirely passive, waiting for the Spirit of God to act in them. This view of the Christian life is unbiblical. The Christian life is a battle, a race. It requires decision and effort. I am not saying that the Formula is quietist (Lutheranism rejected quietism after some controversy in its ranks), but as we read the position of the Formula, it does seem that quietism lies around the corner from it.

7. The Objective and the Subjective

Part of the motivation for this view of the Christian life, I believe, is the thought that one’s life should be based on something objective, rather than something subjective. On this view, our life is built on what Christ has done for us, objectively in history, not on anything arising from our own subjectivity or inwardness. So in this view, gospel is a recitation of what God has done for us, not a command to provoke our subjective response. 

This understanding focuses on justification: God regards us as objectively righteous for Christ’s sake, apart from anything in us. But it tends to neglect regeneration and sanctification: that God does work real subjective changes in the justified.

I have no quarrel with this understanding of justification. But in Scripture, though justification is based on the work of Christ external to us, it is embraced by faith, which is subjective. And faith, in turn, is the result of the Spirit’s subjective work of regeneration (John 3:3). [8] So nobody is objectively justified who has not been subjectively changed by God’s grace.

So the Westminster Confession of Faith 18.2, even in speaking of assurance of salvation, refers not only to the truth of God’s promises (objective), but also to the “inward evidence of those graces” and “the testimony of the Spirit of adoption,” which are in some measure subjective.

In fact, we cannot separate the objective and the subjective. Objective truths are subjectively apprehended. We cannot have objective knowledge, confidence, or assurance, unless we are subjectively enabled to perceive what God has objectively given us.  

8. The Two Kingdoms

            We should also note the “two kingdoms” view of Christ and culture, that draws on the sharp distinction between law and gospel. [9] In general, that view states that there are two kingdoms of God, one, as Luther put it, the kingdom of God’s left hand, the other the kingdom of his right hand. The former is secular, the latter sacred. In the former, God rules by law, in the latter, by his word and Spirit.

The problem is that the two-kingdom doctrine claims a duality, not only between law and gospel as such, but also in God’s standards, his norms. There are secular values and religious values, secular norms and religious norms. Secular society is responsible only to natural laws, the morality found in nature. So, Gene Veith says, “morality is not a matter of religion.” [10] The church is subject primarily to the gospel, but in a secondary sense (as we have seen above) subject to both law and gospel, the whole content of the word of God. Therefore, although the Christian can participate in the general culture, he should not seek to Christianize it, to turn it into a Christian culture. There is no such thing as a Christian culture; there is only secular culture, and a Christian church. Nor, of course, should he try to bring secular standards into the church: secular music, for instance. [11]

It is true that we should not try to force unregenerate people to become Christians through civil power. The church does not have the power of the sword. Nevertheless, there are not two sets of divine norms for civil society, only one. And those norms are in the Bible. Morality is most emphatically a matter of religion. The unregenerate have some knowledge of God’s law through natural revelation (Rom. 1:32), but believers see that law more clearly through the spectacles of Scripture. The biblical view of civil government does not require us to force unbelievers to behave as Christians in every way, but it does call upon us to restrain their (and our!) sin in certain areas. We should be active in society to promote those godly standards. [12]

Concluding Observation

The sharp distinction between law and gospel is becoming popular in Reformed, as well as Lutheran circles. It is the view of Westminster Seminary California, Modern Reformation magazine, and the White Horse Inn radio broadcast. The leaders of these organizations are very insistent that theirs is the only biblical view of the matter. One has recently claimed that people who hold a different view repudiate the Reformation and even deny the gospel itself. On that view, we must use the term gospel only in what the Formula calls the “proper” sense, not in the biblical sense. I believe that we should stand with the Scriptures against this tradition.

 


[1] Lutheran theologians, however, frequently complain that Reformed theology “confuses” law and gospel, which is in the Lutheran view a grave error. The main difference is that for the Reformed law is not merely an accuser, but also a message of divine comfort, a delight of the redeemed heart (Psm. 1:2). Also, the Reformed generally do not give the law/gospel distinction as much prominence within their systematic theological formulations. And, historically, they have been more open to the broader biblical language which the Lutheran Formula of Concord calls “correct” but not “proper” (see below).

[2] The passage cited by the formula, Acts 20:21, does not use the euaggello root, the usual term for “gospel” and “gospel preaching,” but the term diamarturomai. But Acts 20:21 is nevertheless significant, since it gives a general description of what Paul did in his preaching to “both Jews and Greeks.” That preaching was certainly gospel preaching. Paul resolved in his preaching to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” Luke 24:47 is also significant, for it includes both repentance and forgiveness of sins as the content Jesus gives his disciples to preach (kerusso) to all nations.

[3] N. T. Wright believes that this use of gospel has a double root: “On the one hand, the gospel Paul preached was the fulfilment of the message of Isaiah 40 and 52, the message of comfort for Israel and of hope for the whole world, because YHWH, the god of Israel, was returning to Zion to judge and redeem. On the other hand, in the context into which Paul was speaking, “gospel” would mean the celebration of the accession, or birth, of a king or emperor. Though no doubt petty kingdoms might use the word for themselves, in Paul’s world the main ‘gospel’ was the news of, or the celebration of, Caesar,” “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” available at http://www.ctinquiry.org/publications/wright.htm. Of course both of these uses focus on the rule of God as Lord, and both involve what is traditionally called law.

[4] This a triad of the sort expounded in my Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publications, 1987), Doctrine of God (forthcoming from the same publisher in 2002) and elsewhere.

[5] Although I am critical of the general stance of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and their publication Modern Reformation on this issue, I would strongly recommend Kim Riddlebarger’s essay, “Reformed Confessionalism and the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul,” available at the Alliance web site, www.alliancenet.org, as an excellent introduction to this discussion. I fully endorse the conclusions of that article.

[6] The phrases “covenant of works” and “covenant of grace” found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.2-4 are not found anywhere in Scripture. Covenant in Scripture refers to particular historical relationships between God and his people, mediated by Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. “Covenant of grace” generalizes the common features of these historical covenants, seeing them as successive manifestations of God’s redemptive Lordship. “Covenant of works” finds in God’s relation to our first parents features identical to his later covenants with, of course, significant differences.

[7] Theological literature speaks of three “uses of the law” : (1) to restrain sin in society, (2) to terrorize people in order to drive them to Christ, and (3) as a guide to believers. In Lutheranism (not in Reformed circles) there has been controversy over the third use, though the Formula affirms it. But in Lutheranism, it is often said that “the law always accuses.” So the third use is essentially the second use directed at believers, driving us to Christ again and again and away from our residual unbelief. Reformed writers do not deny our continual need for Christ and the importance of hearing again and again that we are saved only by his grace. But in Reformed theology, the law also plays a more direct role, giving us specific guidance in God’s delightful paths.

[8] So, again, saving faith works through love (Gal. 5:6) and is dead without works (James 2:14-26).

[9] See, for example, Gene Veith, “Christianity and Culture: God’s Double Sovereignty,” from The Whirlpool (Jan.-Feb., 1997), available at http://www.alliancenet.org.

[10] Ibid.

[11] There are, of course, reasons to criticize the use of secular music in the church other than the two-kingdoms concept. But if that concept is rejected, then the distinction between sacred and secular is relativized somewhat, and one must evaluate “secular” music piece-by-piece, rather than as a general category.

[12] In terms of the categories of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (NY: Harper, 1951), we should be “transformationalists,” not “dualists.”

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by Pastor John Samson

 

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” – Luke 23: 39

I have often contemplated the potential scene in my mind as one by one, the proponents of all religions were given the opportunity of talking to the thief on the cross, and what they would say to him. This was a man who was a criminal, a notorious sinner, and definitely one whose so called “bad deeds’ would outweigh the good ones. Being nailed to a cross negates any further opportunity for good works to be done. But it would be an interesting conversation, wouldn’t it, to hear what each religionist might say to him? In every case (apart from perhaps universalism which teaches that all people will be saved regardless of their works) each religion would require the man to somehow come down from the cross to do something.

What would a spokeman for Islam say? How about a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness? What would a Buddhist say? or a New Age guru? How about a Roman Catholic? If each could speak to this man, what religious advice would or could they give to him for the purpose of being saved (however they even define what that means)? Some might say that all he could do would be to hope for mercy, but Christ, the biblical Christ gave him far more than just hope. In contrast to what all man made religious systems could give the man, Christ gave him full assurance of salvation – and not just eventual salvation after countless years in the fires of purgatory, but bliss and paradise that very day!

Certain religions would require baptism, others would require the man go through religious instruction and devotion of some sort, while others would ask him to do more good works before his death hoping that they might outweigh the bad ones. But here’s my point, the man could never find salvation in those religious systems because he was stuck, pinned, nailed to a cross. His chance to help elderly people cross roads, or to give to charity or to live a life of service was gone. Nailed to a cross, works and service were no longer possible. His was a totally hopeless case.. except that crucified next to him was Someone who was able to save him by what He was doing, rather than what the man might do. Only the real biblical Jesus with the real biblical Gospel could announce to a criminal that before the day was over, he would be with Him in Paradise!

This thief’s salvation portrays the Gospel so clearly. Someone embracing anything other than the biblical gospel can only scratch their heads in wonder at the precious words given to this man, for in their system, such words would be impossible to say.

As far as I know, this man was the only person in the Bible that Jesus gave instantaneous assurance of salvation to. Jesus’ words, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise” removes all doubt.

Can we know what was going on in the heart of this man? Well, we do not have a perfect understanding, but putting the pieces of the biblical text together, we can get quite a good picture. What is clear from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark is that this man had been amongst the many who had mocked Christ. Yet seemingly, out of nowhere, he turns to the other thief and says, “Don’t you fear God?” Obviously, this thief was now fearing God for him to be asking this question of the other one.

He also knew he was getting exactly what he deserved – “we indeed suffer justly” he said.

He also recognized the innocence of Christ when he said, “he has done nothing wrong.”

When he turned to Jesus and requested, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom” though knowing death was inevitable for all three of those crucified, he believed Jesus would triumph over death, and therefore, would be resurrected.

In affirming the fact that Jesus would come into His kingdom, he affirmed the Lordship or even the Deity of Christ. How much he knew of this we do not know, but obviously, he knew that Christ was indeed King.

So, he had an awareness of divine judgment, he knew the availability of forgiveness, he believed Christ was the true King and that in Christ there is hope even for him, he knew of the coming Kingdom and wanted to be a part of it.

As God opens our hearts and mind to the one true biblical Gospel, we will also find in Christ the full assurance of salvation. As we turn away from any attempt at self justification, knowing that it is by grace that we are saved, through faith and all of this is the gift of God, not as a result of works (Eph. 2:8,9), we too will enjoy the sweet saving mercy of God.

What a testimony to the Gospel this thief is. His testimony is exactly the same as mine. God saves sinners through the perfect work of the perfect Savior, plus nothing! Hallelujah!

 

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This is a very great burden to some earnest people. They go from convention to convention, from one speaker to another, notebook in hand, so eager to get the blessing (as they term it) and often thinking more of the rapture of the gift than of the person of the Giver.  And because they hear others having experiences that they know not, they carry heavy burdens of disappointment and self-reproach.

Equally well might a child in kindergarten fret because he is not entered in the higher classes of the school.  But why should he worry about his future progress?  His one business is to acquire the lessons set him by his teacher.  When those are learned it will be for the teacher to teach his pupil more and to advance him to positions where quicker progress may be made.  Lord Jesus sets before us day by day, leaving Him to lead us into the fuller knowledge and love of God.

Thomas was one of the dull pupils in our Master’s school.  He could not see what was clear to all beside. But instead of chiding him and leaving him to grope in the dark, the Master paid him a special visit and made the glad fact of His resurrection so simple that the doubter was able to rejoice with the rest.  Don’t worry about your dullness; it will only mean that the dear Master will give you longer and more personal attention.  Mothers give more pains to the sickly, weak, and slow among the children.

 

This is the 2nd excerpt taken from F. B. Meyer’s book on The Secret of Guidance, under the section on Burdens, and What to Do With Them – EmmausTrekker

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Foreword:  This is the last installment on the series  from Modern Reformation, Nov./Dec. Vol. 5 No. 6 1996 issue. To see the complete list and full articles, go to ‘Categories’ from the sidebar and choose the section on The Life of A Justified Sinner. – EmmausTrekker

 

By Dr. Michael S. Horton

Everyone knows St. Augustine , that fourth-century giant, as the doctor of grace. To a large extent, the Reformation was simply a recovery of and improvement on Augustine’s system. Few quills have graced the subject of guilt and grace like the Bishop of Hippo’s. And yet, Augustine’s own conversion was not so much due to the guilt of his sins, as to their power. You see, Augustine had been a member of a heretical sect known for its immorality. The immediate point of contact for him was the indomitable tyranny of sin. Theologians have distinguished three aspects of sin: its guilt, its power, and its presence. The moment we place our confidence in Christ’s saving work, we are instantly justified, liberated from the condemnation which the guilt of our sins deserves. Further, because of the Holy Spirit’s regenerating work, we are not only given the faith to believe, resulting in our justification; we are also given the gift of repentance, resulting in a life of sanctification or growth in Christian maturity. And yet, we know the struggle of Romans 7 all too well. Though we are justified and are being sanctified, we are engaged in a war and will know no peace until we are finally delivered from the presence of sin altogether in the New Jerusalem.

Know The Enemy
The unholy trinity most often identified in Scripture is well-known to most of us: the world, the flesh, and the devil.

First, the world. Now, be careful with this one, because it is not the world per se that’s the problem, but the world as it has come to be shaped by the warped hands and minds of sinful human beings. As God created it, the world was a good place–“very good,” God said. The Creator placed Adam in the garden as the worldly custodian, to insure that all creation served and praised its glorious Maker. But we know the story: Adam and Eve failed God in this task and the entire creation was placed under a curse to bondage and decay. The second law of thermodynamics was one physical aspect of this curse. And yet, God did not leave it this way. In the very day on which God pronounced judgment, He also promised redemption (Gen. 3:15). From Eden , history unfolds in successive stages of redemptive acts pointing to the ultimate act of redemption in Christ’s self-sacrifice.

But we very often forget that the world itself was included in this promise of redemption. It wasn’t just for Christians that the “new creation” or the “new age” dawned. In Romans chapter eight, St. Paul informs us, “The whole creation is on tiptoe” waiting to see our redemption. “The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God’s purpose it has been so limited–yet it has been given hope.” That’s right, even creation itself has been given the promise of redemption. “And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God!” ( Rom. 8:20-21, Phillips).

Therefore, the world has now become the theater of war. Just as Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait made that state the theater of conflict, so too Satan has invaded this world through the disobedience of our first parents. The world is our enemy, therefore, not in the sense that we are hostile to its culture, its music, its science, its art, its civic and social life–for we were created to participate in these activities. Rather, it is the world as dominated by alien forces hostile to the reign of Christ which presents some of our most urgent challenges.

This is why the Apostle warned, “Do not be conformed to this world’s pattern of thinking, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind” (Rom. 12:2). Hence, we “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Every method, belief, outlook, agenda, must become a POW of Jesus Christ. Our beliefs and attitudes must pass His inspection. Some years ago, the National Council of Churches, often railed against by evangelicals as liberal, made the remark that, “The world sets the church’s agenda.” But today, it is often evangelicals themselves who are taking in uncritically the popular trends and fashionable thoughts which make it difficult sometimes to discern where Christianity ends and pop culture begins.

If the conflict with the world is a war without, the conflict with the flesh is the war within. St. Paul makes it the subject of his seventh chapter of Romans. “We know,” he says, “that the Law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” At this point, Paul, the missionary to the Gentiles, does not experience the “victorious Christian life” so many Christians are promised these days. He feels like a POW in the battle with sin. One minute, in Romans six, we find him fighting and overthrowing attacking forces in hand-to-hand combat. The next, in Romans seven, he is a prisoner. This is the nature of the Christian life. This is the course of sanctification. What many Christians today regard as a “carnal Christian” is really either an unbeliever or, like the rest of us–a struggling saint. “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out . . . When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!” (vv. 21-24).

The difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is not, as is often suggested, that the former lives a “victorious life,” or that he “lives above all known sin.” Rather, it is that the Christian is at war within, while the non-Christian is not even aware of any conflict. The Christian houses two hostile forces. He is at once “justified and sinful,” pro-God and anti-God. And this war with oneself will never be resolved until we reach the Promised Land. As Alexander Whyte, the Presbyterian pastor of the previous century informed his congregation, “You will never leave Romans seven while I am your minister!”

The third enemy, archenemy, in this war, is the devil himself. Unlike the mystery religions surrounding the Jewish and early Christian cultures, biblical faith located evil in personal beings rather than impersonal forces. A revived collection of mystery religions, the New Age movement seeks to discover and manage these evil forces, but Christians know where evil comes from. It is the result of personal, active, willful rebellion by creatures brought into being as good creations by a good God.

In Revelation twelve, we read about a “war in heaven.” After our Lord ascends, war breaks out and Michael defeats Satan. The dragon is therefore expelled from heaven and is no longer given access to the court where his prosecution against Christians can be heard. And yet, “Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.” Thus, the theater of war moves from heaven to earth itself. Here, Satan prowls like a “roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” He deceives unbelievers with false teaching; he entices Christians with false promises, and though he knows his time is short, his hatred for Christ and His redeemed hosts drives him to assault. Though he cannot win the war, he is happy to win battles, making common cause with the world and the flesh.

Know The Weapons
“Put on the full armor of God,” Paul’s command in Ephesians chapter six, is well-known to many of us. First up is the “belt of truth.” Before anything else, we have to know what we believe and why we believe it if we are to withstand the world, the flesh, and the devil. Another metaphor might be that of roots reaching deep into the soil of Scripture. We must read Scripture not only for devotional purposes, but to understand in a profounder way the meaning of our faith. We ought to read great Christian classics instead of light and fluffy popular books. There is a war for our mind and truth is the place to start. As a belt, it holds our pants up in battle.

Second, the “breastplate of righteousness” is listed. According to the Cambridge Biblical Commentary, “Most likely, this refers not to the believer’s moral character, but describes God’s rescue operation in Christ, bringing the assurance that the Christian is right with God.” In other words, our protection in battle is the confidence that we are justified–that is, already declared righteous. Whenever Satan comes to tempt us, we hold up the cross. Whenever the flesh threatens to bring us back under the dominion of Adam, we remind ourselves of our union with the second Adam, Jesus Christ. Whenever the world tells us about self-esteem or self-confidence, or takes a short-cut around dealing with the real problem of guilt, we respond with this doctrine of justification.

Third, there are the “ready feet.” Once armed with truth and the knowledge of our justification in Christ, we are now ready to zealously act. This is of great importance. St. Paul refers in Romans to his legalistic friends as those who “have tremendous zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.” This zealous ignorance was especially disastrous, he says, because what they failed to understand was essential to the gospel: “For not knowing about the righteousness of God which is by faith, they set out to establish their own righteousness.” Zeal must be led and directed by the truth and justification which have already been discussed. That being said, many of us are so content with the belt and the breastplate that we forget our shoes. Zeal without knowledge is misguided energy, but knowledge without zeal is a profound waste of good news.

Fourth, we have the “helmet of salvation.” What is important to note in all of this is that every weapon with which we have been provided is outside of us. In other words, whether it’s truth, or salvation, the weapons with which we fight the world, the flesh, and the devil are not inner resources. So much of the emphasis I see these days on “spiritual warfare” calls believers into themselves through spiritual exercises like “spiritual breathing” or other forms of subjective, mystical navel-gazing. But this is just what Satan’s strategy has been. In every pagan folk culture, mysticism dominates. Techniques are provided for dealing with the forces within. Sin becomes a matter not of personal rebellion as much as demonic conflict (such as Jimmy Swaggart’s insistence that he was fine now after Oral Roberts cast the demons off of the evangelist’s back), and the war becomes a “good force” vs. “bad force” nonsense. This is folk religion rather than Christian warfare and it certainly has nothing to do with Ephesians six.

One should also notice that the helmet of salvation is given at the beginning of the war, not the end. Salvation is never a carrot God dangles in front of us to keep us going, but is a declaration already made at the beginning of it all. What commander would send his forces into battle without a helmet, merely promising them one as a reward for their success? God gives us the “helmet of salvation” right from the start, not if we win, but so that we will win.

Know The Captain
Each of these weapons mentioned in Ephesians six is first listed in the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah 11. Of the Messiah it is promised, “Truth will be the sash around His waste.” “Righteousness will be His armor . . . His own arm worked salvation. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, He put on garments of vengeance and wrapped Himself in zeal as a cloak.” Further, He is even the shield and the helmet: “He is my shield behind whom I take refuge” (Ps. 144:1-2); “He will wear the helmet of salvation upon His head” (Is. 59:17). And He is the sword, known to John’s Gospel as “the Word of God.”

In all of our battles with the enemy, we reach for nothing that Christ has not already won for us. Even when we win a personal battle, it is because Christ has already fought and successfully won over His trials and temptations. In Christ, the war is already won, so the battles are real but the outcome is already known.

I hear someone saying, “Wait a second, even when you guys do talk about sanctification and the pursuit of godliness, you end up talking more about justification and ‘alien righteousness’ than practical steps of holiness.” That’s correct, and any method that does not do that is not Pauline, evangelical, or Reformational in any sense. Let me give an example of how genuinely practical this approach is even for godliness. In Shakespeare’s “MacBeth,” the witches’ prophecy that “no man born of a woman will conquer you” inspires MacBeth to fight even the dreaded MacDuff. In the heat of battle, MacBeth taunts his enemy with the prophecy and confidently wields his sword because of it. But then MacDuff informs the usurper that he was not, technically speaking, born of a woman, having been torn from his mother in her death. Just as soon as the news reaches MacBeth’s ears, the strength leaves him and he is immediately taken in battle.

Many Christians live defeated lives, not because they are failing to follow certain steps or are not living up to the “victorious Christian life” (whatever that is), but because they do not have the confidence that no one, not even Satan, can “lay any charge to God’s elect” (Rom. 8:32). In the heat of battle, the strength we have to keep on going is knowing that our Commander has already determined the outcome of the war by His victory. His ascension into heaven and the devil’s expulsion from the same guarantees that our skirmishes, serious as they certainly are, will nonetheless not bring us ultimate defeat. Knowing that already makes all the difference.

Conclusion
Having said all of that, I wonder if we really want to be rid of our sins. In Romans six, Paul cheers us on: “Do not let sin reign, therefore, in your mortal body.” In Romans seven, he is more sober, reflecting on his own personal struggle to “practice what he preached” in the previous chapter. In the eighth chapter, he goes on to encourage us that even though we lose battles here and there, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (v. 1).

As believers, we live between those three poles–energetic zeal, struggle/failure, gospel. But I wonder if we take the first two poles as seriously as we really ought. Knowing that our salvation is sealed in the courts of eternity, do we eventually ignore the challenges of Romans six because of the failures of seven and the unconditional “no condemnation” in eight? I guess what I’m saying is: What do we have to lose? If we’re afraid of losing a battle, of being disappointed with a failure out on the field, we need only remember that our success or failure on the battlefield does not determine the outcome of the war. We can fight with confidence.

John Owen once said of Christ, “When He comes to war, he finds no quiet landing place. He can set His foot on no ground but that which He must fight for.” We will not grow without a fight, without sharing in His sufferings. Unlike justification, our sanctification is a lifelong struggle–so much for “let go and let God.” Small victories are prized; battles lost are soon forgotten, extracting lessons for the next. None of our enemies–the world, the flesh, or the devil, will simply move aside and put up a white flag. And yet, in our fighting we fail to hide our unrestrained anticipation prefigured in the arrival of Israel in the Promised Land: “Then the land had rest from war.”


Dr. Michael Horton is the chairman of the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California . Dr. Horton is a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power Religion, In the Face of God, and We Believe.

 

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Book Review: The Truth About Man, by Paul Washer


At the beginning of his classic Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin heads his very first paragraph thus: “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God”. This observation is strikingly true, and if one would take the time to discuss the gospel in depth with the definite majority of American citizens living today, he would doubtless find that the one great obstacle preventing them from prizing and embracing the gospel of God’s grace is a faulty view of self. The gospel is not for people who are basically pretty good, but just need to believe in themselves, build up their self-esteem, and pick themselves up by their bootstraps. If there is one problem that consistently hinders my attempts at gospel-witnessing, it is that. Oh, for a tool that would give the true picture of man in his sin and helplessness, and so pave the way for a true picture of God in his holy justice and limitless grace! Paul David Washer’s biblical study, The Truth About Man, is just that tool, and I enthusiastically recommend it.

The Truth About Man, many of you may already know, is a sequel to another excellent biblical study, The One True God; the two of them are laid out in much the same way, not so much as doctrinal treatises but as guides driving the students to encounter and interact with God’s own testimony from the scriptures. But more than this, the two of them are complementary, each causing the truth of the other to shine forth with a more brilliant and stunning clarity. Without the biblical knowledge of the immense holiness and majesty of God, we cannot know the loathsome horror of our reprehensible rebellion; and without the knowledge of our immense sinfulness, we cannot appreciate the depths of God’s grace and the perfection of his justice in his response to sin, whether shown in Christ our substitute or upon Christ-less sinners in hell.

That is not to say, however, that The Truth About Man may only be used effectively with Washer’s other study. Anyone may benefit from The Truth About Man, from the seasoned and well-rooted Christian who wants to be overwhelmed once again by the staggering greatness of God’s grace to the average person who knows nothing of the content of the gospel, and needs to be made a sinner before he can be forgiven. This isn’t a book to be handed out on the street corner to anyone who passes along – it demands too much from the reader, its profitableness will be lost upon someone not willing to study, to think, to wrestle with the hard truths of the bible. It is designed that way intentionally, which in my estimation is a good thing. But for anyone who is genuinely willing to search for the truth, even if it means hard work and humility, the reward will be great. And that includes believers who long for a better glimpse of the gospel, as well as unbelievers who are willing to consider at length just what Christianity proclaims.

What scope of material exactly is covered in the book? Well, it is basically about man in his state of sinfulness – the “non posse non peccare” (“not able not to sin”) of Augustine. Beginning with God’s creation of man and his blessed estate in the Garden, it moves quickly to the devastating first sin, and the vast and universal consequences of that first sin for all humankind. The rest of the study lays out fallen man’s estate very biblically and accurately, ending with his final, certain destiny in hell. The topic of man in his redeemed or glorified state is beyond the scope of the book.

Reviewed by Nathan Pitchford

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Foreword:  This is an excerpt from a devotional sermon entitled “The God of Bethel” taken from  Rev. Murdoch Campbell’s book – Everlasting Love – original posted in The Highway website. The full article can be read through this link.

EmmausTrekker

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We can, dear friends, expect nothing from a godless world or from the multitudes who make a dead religious profession but that they should remain in this state of spiritual slumber and death. But the people of God have, in a day of His power, been delivered out of this condition. They are a people whom God has awakened out of their spiritual unconcern. They heard His voice:

Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead and Christ shall give thee light.” (Ephesians 5:14 KJV)

And you hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” (Ephesians 2:1 KJV)

But the danger is that they may sleep again. Needless to say, the true people of God can never return to that state of total spiritual death out of which God has called them. They can never fall out of a state of grace, or lose their souls. In the day of their regeneration Christ gives them eternal life. But while they have grace in their souls, that grace may not always be in exercise. Spiritual slumber may overtake their eyes. The Psalmist prayed against this danger:

Lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.” (Psalm 13:3 KJV)

Are there not influences abroad in our day which induce this state? Many have, for example, gone to sleep on the lap of their material comforts. They “wax fat” in the enjoyment of temporal favors while they “kick” against their spiritual duties and neglect the Throne of Grace. There are also ensnaring distractions peculiar to this age which too often eat up our time and deaden our souls. Some of these have invaded our very homes.

…We ought to remind ourselves that prayer…is good and necessary in its own place; but the Lord also commands us to watch as well as to pray.

 

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(by Arthur Pink, “Unworthiness” 1940)

GRACE is favor shown to the undeserving and ill-deserving.

When Divine grace bestows salvation upon the ill-deserving, it makes them conscious of the infinite favor that has been shown them. Fallen man is naturally proud, self-complacent, and self-righteous.

But wherever the miracle of regenerating grace is wrought–all this is reversed. Its subject is stripped of his peacock feathers, made poor in spirit, and humbled into the dust before God. He is made painfully aware of the loathsome plague of his heart, given a sight of his vileness in the light of God’s holiness, and brought to realize that he is a spiritual pauper, dependent upon Divine charity. He now readily acknowledges that he is a Hell-deserving sinner.

“I am not worthy of the least of all Your mercies and unfailing love, which You have shown to me, Your servant” (Genesis 32:10). This is the confession made by all who are the recipients of the saving grace of God. Whenever a miracle of saving grace is wrought in the heart–pride is subdued, self is effaced, and a sense of ill-desert takes possession of the heart.

One of the elements of great faith–is deep humility. “For I am the least of the Apostles, that am not worthy to be called an Apostle” (1 Cor. 15:9). “I am less than the least of all saints” (Eph. 3:8). What complete self-abasement! The most eminent Christians–are always the most lowly ones; those most honored in Christ’s service–are deeply conscious of their unprofitableness.

 

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