Category Archives: J. Gresham Machen
I love this quote from J. Gresham Machen’s classic little book, What Is Faith? [(Eerdmans, 1925), pages 72-74], a book I cut my theological teeth on early in my Christian life. I’ll post this excerpt to serve as a little weekend meditation:
Many men … make shipwreck of their faith. They think of God only as one who can direct the course of nature for their benefit; they value Him only for the things that He can give.
We are subject to many pressing needs, and we are too much inclined to value God, not for His own sake, but only because He can satisfy those needs. There is the need of food and clothing, for ourselves and for our loved ones, and we value God because He can answer the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread.” There is the need of companionship; we shrink from loneliness; we would be surrounded by those who love us and those whom we can love. And we value God as one who can satisfy that need by giving us family and friends. There is the need of inspiring labor; we would be delivered from an aimless life; we desire opportunities for noble and unselfish service of our fellow-men. And we value God as one who by His ordering of our lives can set before us an open door.
These are lofty desires. But there is one desire that is loftier still. It is the desire for God Himself. That desire, too often, we forget. We value God solely for the things that He can do; we make of Him a mere means to an ulterior end. And God refuses to be treated so; such a religion always fails in the hour of need. If we have regarded religion merely as a means of getting things—even lofty and unselfish things—then when the things that have been gotten are destroyed, our faith will fail.
When loved ones are taken away, when disappointment comes and failure, when noble ambitions are set at naught, then we turn away from God; we have tried religion, we say, we have tried prayer, and it has failed. Of course it has failed! God is not content to be an instrument in our hand or a servant at our beck and call. He is not content to minister to the worldly needs of those who care not a bit for Him. The text in the eighth chapter of Romans does not mean that religion provides a certain formula for obtaining worldly benefits—even the highest and most ennobling and most unselfish of worldly benefits.
“If God be for us, who can be against us?”—that does not mean that faith in God will bring us everything that we desire. What it does mean is that if we possess God, then we can meet with equanimity the loss of all besides.
Has it never dawned upon us that God is valuable for His own sake, that just as personal communion is the highest thing that we know on earth, so personal communion with God is the sublimest height of all?
If we value God for His own sake, then the loss of other things will draw us all the closer to Him; we shall then have recourse to Him in time of trouble as to the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. I do not mean that the Christian need expect always to be poor and sick and lonely and to seek his comfort only in a mystic experience with His God. This universe is God’s world; its blessings are showered upon His creatures even now; and in His own good time, when the period of its groaning and travailing is over, He will fashion it as a habitation of glory. But what I do mean is that if here and now we have the one inestimable gift of God’s presence and favor, then all the rest can wait till God’s good time.
Photos from yesterday’s Ring of Fire Eclipse are pretty incredible.
J. Gresham Machen once wrote of the force of seeing this total solar eclipse:
When I viewed the spectacle of the total eclipse of the sun at New Haven on the twenty-fourth of January 1925, I was confirmed in my theism. Such phenomena make us conscious of the wonderful mechanism of the universe, as we ought to be conscious of it every day; at such moments anything like materialism seems to be but a very pitiful and very unreasonable thing. I am no astronomer, but of one thing I was certain: when the strange, slow-moving shadow was gone, and the world was bathed again in the wholesome light of day, I knew that the sun, despite its vastness, was made for us personal beings and not we for the sun, and that it was made for us personal beings by the living God.
Among my many quirks and oddities is my taphophilia—a love of cemeteries. I find few places more life-focusing and life-giving than to walk among the land of the dead. And I’ve killed a good many healthy dinner party conversations with the assumption that others find as much enjoyment among the remains of the dead as I do.
In downtown Baltimore, just a couple miles north of Camden Yards, sits my favorite local necropolis, Green Mount Cemetery. Green Mount is the final resting place of John Gresham Machen (1887–1937). Machen is the author of some excellent books including What is Faith?, Christianity and Liberalism and The Christian View of Man. He served as the Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary between 1915 and 1929, and left Princeton to form Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
Machen died on January 1, 1937.
Some pics from my last trip to Green Mount:
Publishers frequently catch me by surprise. Sometimes (though thankfully not frequently) I’m surprised by my disappointment. But often publishers surprise me in a good way and that was the case very recently when a friend showed me his reprinted copy of Ned Stonehouse’s classic biography J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Willow Grove, PA: Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2004).
I was immediately struck by the similarities it had to my original 1954 Eerdmans edition. Most obvious (and as you can see from the following photos) is the OPC’s attention to fashioning an updated, but similar, dust jacket to the original. That’s a nice touch. And I was surprised by the improvements, too. The text was retypeset and given a new subject index in the back. The most noteworthy upgrade is to see the bio published in a genuine cloth cover–a nice improvement over the Eerdmans faux cloth/paper cover that’s frayed on the bottom from shelfware. So let’s hear it for the new-ish OPC edition of Stonehouse–a classic work with a retro feel and nice upgrades well suited to carry the legacy of Machen for another 50 years.
If you tune into the volume of books, articles, and cross-country speaking tours you may get the idea that the church just opened her eyes to see that she lives within a culture and needs to do something to understand and engage that culture. Some may say the church is still sleeping through the present culture, unaware of what’s happening around her in the arts, literature, worldview shifts, etc.
Which is why I find myself consistently amazed when I read evidence of how long, how deeply, and how carefully the Reformed tradition has sought to wed theological precision to cultural engagement for the sake of saving the lost.
Take Baltimorian J. Gresham Machen for example (1881-1937). On September 20, 1912, Machen opened the fall semester at Princeton Theological Seminary with an address titled, “Christianity and Culture.”
Listen carefully to Machen as he balances the primacy of the gospel, reformed theology, and cultural engagement. He said:
“… Are then Christianity and culture in a conflict that is to be settled only by the destruction of one or the other of the contending forces? A third solution, fortunately, is possible—namely, consecration. Instead of destroying the arts and sciences or being indifferent to them, let us cultivate them with all the enthusiasm of the veriest humanist, but at the same time consecrate them to the service of our God. Instead of stifling the pleasures afforded by the acquisition of knowledge or by the appreciation of what is beautiful, let us accept these pleasures as the gifts of a heavenly Father. Instead of obliterating the distinction between the kingdom and the world, or on the other hand withdrawing from the world into a sort of modernized intellectual monasticism, let us go forth joyfully, enthusiastically to make the world subject to God. …
There are two objections to our solution of the problem. If you bring culture and Christianity thus into close union—in the first place, will not Christianity destroy culture? Must not art and science be independent in order to flourish? We answer that it all depends upon the nature of their dependence. Subjection to any external authority or even to any human authority would be fatal to art and science. But subjection to God is entirely different. Dedication of human powers to God is found, as a matter of fact, not to destroy but to heighten them. God gave those powers. He understands them well enough not bunglingly to destroy his own gifts. In the second place, will not culture destroy Christianity? Is it not far easier to be an earnest Christian if you confine your attention to the Bible and do not risk being led astray by the thought of the world? We answer that of course it is easier. Shut yourself up in an intellectual monastery, do not disturb yourself with the thoughts of unregenerate men, and of course you will find it easier to be a Christian, just as it is easier to be a good soldier in comfortable winter quarters than it is on the field of battle. You save your own soul—but the Lord’s enemies remain in possession of the field. …
I do not mean that the removal of intellectual objections will make a man a Christian. No conversion was ever wrought simply by argument. A change of heart is also necessary. And that can be wrought only by the immediate exercise of the power of God. But because intellectual labor is insufficient, it does not follow, as is so often assumed, that it is unnecessary. God may, it is true, overcome all intellectual obstacles by an immediate exercise of his regenerative power. Sometimes he does. But he does so very seldom. Usually he exerts his power in connection with certain conditions of the human mind. Usually he does not bring into the kingdom, entirely without preparation, those whose mind and fancy are completely dominated by ideas which make the acceptance of the gospel logically impossible. …
Modern culture is a tremendous force. It affects all classes of society. It affects the ignorant as well as the learned. What is to be done about it? In the first place, the church may simply withdraw from the conflict. She may simply allow the mighty stream of modern thought to flow by unheeded and do her work merely in the back-eddies of the current. There are still some men in the world who have been unaffected by modern culture. They may still be won for Christ without intellectual labor. And they must be won. It is useful, it is necessary work. If the church is satisfied with that alone, let her give up the scientific education of her ministry. …
The church is puzzled by the world’s indifference. She is trying to overcome it by adapting her message to the fashions of the day. But if, instead, before the conflict, she would descend into the secret place of meditation, if by the clear light of the gospel she would seek an answer not merely to the questions of the hour but, first of all, to the eternal problems of the spiritual world, then perhaps, by God’s grace, through his good Spirit, in his good time, she might issue forth once more with power, and an age of doubt might be followed by the dawn of an era of faith.”
[Quote taken from D. G. Hart’s, J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings (P&R, 2004) 399-410.]
The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
by John Piper
N.T. Wright is a British New Testament scholar and the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England. He’s become known for his controversial teaching on justification and for his statements like: “The discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot – at least in terms of understanding Paul – and they have stayed there ever since.”
Enter pastor and scholar John Piper.
Piper’s highly anticipated new book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway: 2007) is framed around eight fundamental questions raised in the theology of Wright:
- The gospel is not about how to get saved? (ch. 5)
- Justification is not how you become a Christian? (ch. 6)
- Justification is not the gospel? (ch. 6)
- We are not justified by believing in justification? (ch. 5)
- The imputation of God’s own righteousness makes no sense at all? (ch. 8 )
- Future justification is on the basis of the complete life lived? (ch. 7)
- First-century Judaism had nothing of the alleged self-righteous and boastful legalism? (chs. 9, 10)
- God’s righteousness is the same as His covenant faithfulness? (ch. 11)
Obviously these are monumental questions, bearing heavy consequences for the Church.
As expected, Piper walks slowly through these questions raised in Wright’s theology and returns frequently to biblical exegesis for his responses. Piper remarks in the intro that he dialogued with Wright during the process of writing the volume, even receiving an 11,000-word response on the first draft to clarify and prevent distortions (p. 10).
But before jumping into the debate, Piper opens the book with very humble words. He is too close to glory to waste his time winning debates and scoring publicity points. It’s a beginning that we can all learn from (see p. 13). This humble introduction is followed by an entire chapter – “On Controversy” – to explain why true Christian unity is not to be found in avoiding disagreements. Taking his cue from Machen, the Church has risen to new heights when celebrating truth within the context of controversy (p. 29).
Where Wright is right
Piper is clear and quick to point out areas of agreement. These include mutual convictions of Scriptural authority, the resurrection of Christ, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, the opposition to homosexuality, and a big-picture understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant (pp. 15-16). And even in elements more closely related to the Gospel, Piper points out continuity. Piper writes, “There is nothing unclear about Wright’s commitment to penal substitution” (p. 48). And later, “Wright’s own words concerning penal substitution seem clear and strong” (p. 52).
Where Wright is wrong
The debate may appear to some as a trifle between one pastor/scholar and another pastor/scholar. But the implications run deep for all Christians. “This book took its origin from the countless conversations and e-mails with those who are losing their grip in this great gospel” (p. 10). Piper’s overriding argument is not that the gospel is being lost by outright dismissal, but in a gradual, incremental relaxing of the gospel due to a blurring of the biblical understanding of justification. So dangerous is this blurring, according to Piper, that at the end of the day, Wright may in fact be reinforcing Roman Catholic soteriology (p. 183)!
Piper is concerned that Wright’s biblical theology has become a grid that brings in too many extra-biblical resources to make interpretive decisions. Piper believes this approach, when it comes to understanding justification, “has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing” (p. 38).
Wright’s removal of justification from the gospel is also a big problem. Piper writes, “I find it perplexing that Wright is so eager not to let the message of justification be part of the gospel” (p. 82) and “Wright’s zeal to remove justification from the event of becoming a Christian” is “remarkable” (p. 95). Later, Piper highlights the missing element of Christ’s imputed righteousness in Wright’s theology.
Piper takes time clarifying the nature of legalism and the careful distinction of works and justification, a distinction not easily seen in Wright’s writings. In the end, Piper is forced to make the following clarification:
“If we make the mistake of thinking that our works of love (the fruit of God’s Spirit) secure or increase God’s commitment to be completely for us, now and in the last judgment, we compromise the very reason that these works of love exist, namely, to display the infinite worth of Christ and his work as our all-sufficient obedience and all-sufficient sacrifice.
Our mind-set toward our own good works must always be: these works depend on God being totally for us. That’s what the blood and righteousness of Christ have secured and guaranteed forever. Therefore, we must resist every tendency to think of our works as establishing or securing the fact that God is for us forever. It is always the other way around. Because he is for us, he sustains our faith. And through that faith-sustaining work, the Holy Spirit bears the fruit of love” (p. 186).
Piper devotes many pages to the Law-Court theme in justification, where great disparity between Piper and Wright becomes obvious. The book gives the reader a great overview of the most important features of the biblical gospel. A series of six related and helpful appendices conclude the book (pp. 189-225).
I’m thankful for the care taken by Piper to stay close to the issues that directly impact the clarity of the gospel message.
The overriding concern for Piper is not that Wright has evil intentions or is viciously dangerous. The problem is that Wright’s message confuses the gospel and breeds confusion where the Church needs to be strongest.
“I am not optimistic that the biblical doctrine of justification will flourish where N. T. Wright’s portrayal holds sway. I do not see his vision as a compelling retelling of what Saint Paul really said. And I think, as it stands now, it will bring great confusion to the church at a point where she desperately needs clarity. I don’t think this confusion is the necessary dust that must settle when great new discoveries have been made. Instead, if I read the situation correctly, the confusion is owing to the ambiguities in Wright’s own expressions, and to the fact that, unlike his treatment of some subjects, his paradigm for justification does not fit well with the ordinary reading of many texts and leaves many ordinary folk not with the rewarding ‘ah-ha’ experience of illumination, but with a paralyzing sense of perplexity” (p. 24).
Later Piper writes, “This book exists because of my own concern that, specifically in the matter of justification by faith, Wright’s approach has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing.” (p. 38). Even the most straightforward passages on imputation (like 2 Corinthians 5:21) are “shrouded in Wright’s misleading comments” (p. 178).
And most notably, the gospel in its application to sinners becomes vague.
“But there is a misleading ambiguity in Wright’s statement that we are saved not by believing in justification by faith but by believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The ambiguity is that it leaves undefined what we believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for. It is not saving faith to believe in Jesus merely for prosperity or health or a better marriage. In Wright’s passion to liberate the gospel from mere individualism and to make it historical and global, he leaves it vague for individual sinners” (pp. 85-86).
Piper is rightly concerned that this vagueness will spread into the pulpit. “Following N.T. Wright in his understanding of justification will result in a kind of preaching that will at best be confusing to the church” (p. 165).
A fitting summary of Piper’s entire case is found early in the book.
“My conviction concerning N.T. Wright is not that he is under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but that his portrayal of the gospel – and of the doctrine of justification in particular – is so disfigured that is becomes difficult to recognize as biblically faithful. It may be that in his own mind and heart Wright has a clear and firm grasp on the gospel of Christ and the biblical meaning of justification. But in my judgment, what he has written will lead to a kind of preaching that will not announce clearly what makes the lordship of Christ good news for guilty sinners or show those who are overwhelmed with sin how they may stand righteous in the presence of God” (p. 15).
It’s right for the Church to jealously guard the clear and biblical understanding of how sinners are brought into a right relationship with God. And it’s at this critical place, over the battle for our understanding of justification as the personal application of Christ’s work to a sinner’s soul, where Wright’s theology simply falls apart. This is an error the Church cannot afford to entertain.
Whether Piper has clearly and fairly represented Wright at every detail is a conclusion I’ll leave for those more connected to the discussion. What is certain is that The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright is a book thoroughly centered on clear exegesis of Scripture on the topic of justification. You don’t need a background in the Wright/Piper debate to gain a better appreciation of – and a firmer hold on – the biblical message of the gospel.
Title: The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
Author: John Piper
Reading level: 3.0/5.0 > moderately difficult at times
Dust jacket: no
Paper: white and clean
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type
Price USD: $11.99 from Monergism
ISBN: 9781581349641, 1581349645
“We must understand that Christianity is not a mood. It is not an emotion. It is not a feeling. It is not an amorphous set of beliefs. It is established by the truth of God’s Word, by the saving reality of God’s deeds in Jesus Christ, around certain definite doctrines without which it is not possible to exercise the kind of faith that saves.”
The free magazine also features the testimony of Marxist-turned-Christian, Michael A.G. Haykin on pages 18-19. Good stuff.
Last night 60 Minutes aired a segment on popular pastor and author Joel Osteen. Michael Horton, Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, appeared briefly. Horton has spoken out with concern over Osteen’s message. Here’s one concern that strikes me:
“There is no condemnation in Osteen’s message for failing to fulfill God’s righteous law. On the other hand, there is no justification. Instead of either message, there is an upbeat moralism that is somewhere in the middle: ‘Do your best, follow the instructions I give you, and God will make your life successful.’ …
Instead of accepting God’s just verdict on our own righteousness and fleeing to Christ for justification, Osteen counsels readers simply to reject guilt and condemnation. Yet it is hard to do that successfully when God’s favor and blessing on my life depend entirely on how well I can put his commands to work. ‘If you will simply obey his commands, He will change things in your favor.’ That’s all: ‘…simply obey his commands.’
Everything depends on us, but it’s easy. … Osteen seems to think that we are basically good people and God has a very easy way for us to save ourselves — not from his judgment, but from our lack of success in life — with his help. ‘God is keeping a record of every good deed you’ve ever done,’ he says — as if this is good news. ‘In your time of need, because of your generosity, God will move heaven and earth to make sure you are taken care of.’
It may be ‘Law Lite,’ but make no mistake about it: behind a smiling Boomer Evangelicalism that eschews any talk of God’s wrath, there is a determination to assimilate the gospel to law, an announcement of victory to a call to be victorious, indicatives to imperatives, good news to good advice. The bad news may not be as bad as it used to be, but the good news is just a softer version of the bad news: Do more. But this time, it’s easy! And if you fail, don’t worry. God just wants you to do your best. He’ll take care of the rest.
So who needs Christ? At least, who needs Christ as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn 1:29)? The sting of the law may be taken out of the message, but that only means that the gospel has become a less demanding, more encouraging law whose exhortations are only meant to make us happy, not to measure us against God’s holiness.
So while many supporters offer testimonials to his kinder, gentler version of Christianity than the legalistic scolding of their youth, the only real difference is that God’s rules or principles are easier and it’s all about happiness here and now, not being reconciled to a holy God who saves us from ourselves. In its therapeutic milieu, sin is failing to live up to our potential, not falling short of God’s glory. We need to believe in ourselves and the wages of such ‘sins’ is missing out on our best life now. But it’s still a constant stream of exhortation, demands, and burdens: follow my steps and I guarantee your life will be blessed.”
- Michael S. Horton article, Joel Osteen and the Glory Story: A Case Study
Horton’s comments are reminiscent of J. Gresham Machen’s view that the theological liberalism of his own day was not a new path of freedom but a “sublimated form of legalism” [see Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans: 1923) pp. 143-156].
Instead of preaching that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” the popular trend says, “God blesses you with all physical blessing because you have asked enough and obeyed a certain way to unleash the blessing.”
Horton and Machen both recognize that while contemporary shifts in preaching may seem to liberate the believer, the opposite happens — God’s promised blessing becomes contingent on personal obedience. This is the very bondage to the Law Christ frees us from!
So why has God blessed your life? Why do you have life? A job? Money? Food? Clothes? Are your successes expected because God likes you more than others? Are you blessed because your obedience is superior? The proper answer is that all of God’s blessing comes to us in Christ. We don’t get what we deserve (His wrath), we get what we don’t deserve (grace, forgiveness and blessing from God through the death of Christ).
At the end of the day the prosperity gospel is a radical break from Scripture that tells us we have already received everything necessary from God in Christ.
The Gospel – the message that sinners are justified by faith alone in the perfect life and work of Christ alone – is the true path to eternal blessing and freedom. When this Gospel is clouded (or even forgotten), we no longer get a clear view of God or eternal reality by which we interpret our world, our job, our pain, our successfulness.
In the end, to presume God’s blessing is an award for obedience is bondage to age-old legalism, albeit with a kinder and gentler face.
RELATED POST: A short essay answering the question, What is legalism? (5/22/07)
RELATED POST: “Like pangs of death”: Letting go of legalism (3/19/07)
RELATED POST: Cross-centered obedience (08/16/07)
RELATED POST: Deeper into the Glories of Calvary (09/03/07)
RELATED POST: Sinclair Ferguson on supporting the imperatives to holiness (07/23/07)
RELATED: What constitutes ‘relevant preaching’? … “The Christian is in the midst of a sore battle. And as for the condition of the world at large — nothing but the coldest heartlessness could be satisfied with that. It is certainly true that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. Even in the Christian life there are things that we should like to see removed; there are fears within as well as fightings without; even within the Christian life there are sad evidences of sin. But according to the hope which Christ has given us, there will be final victory, and the struggle of this world will be followed by the glories of heaven. That hope runs all through the Christian life; Christianity is not engrossed by this transitory world, but measures all things by the thought of eternity.” Machen in Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans: 1923) pp. 147, 149.
Part 19: What is Faith? Pt. 1 (3.2)
What is faith? Maybe because it sounds elementary, this is not a question we ask much anymore. But church history reminds us of the dangers of an improperly defined (or undefined) answer to this question. Often this question has been wrongly answered by the fruit of faith – like peace, patience, joy, love, etc. — without first coming to understand the object of that faith. The nature of saving faith can never be assumed.
Jonathan Gresham Machen in his classic book, What is Faith? (1925), addressed this problem in his own day.
“Many men, as has already been observed, are telling us that we should not seek to know Him (God) at all; theology, we are told, is the death of religion. We do not know God, then – such deems to be the logical implication of this view – but simply feel Him. In its consistent form such a view is mysticism; religion is reduced to a state of the soul in which the mind and the will are in abeyance. Whatever may be thought of such a religion, I cannot see that it possesses any moral quality at all; pure feeling is non-moral, and so is religion that is not founded upon theology. What makes our love for a true friend, for example, such an ennobling thing is the recognition by our mind of the character of our friend. Human affection, so beautiful in its apparent simplicity, really depends upon a treasured host of observations of the actions of our friend. So it is also in the case of our relation to God. It is because we know certain things about Him, it is because we know that He is mighty and holy and loving, that our communion with Him obtains its peculiar quality. The devout man cannot be indifferent to doctrine, in the sense in which many modern preachers would have us be indifferent, any more than he can listen with equanimity [unmoved] to misrepresentations of an earthly friend. Our faith in God, despite all that is said, is indissolubly connected with what we think of Him” (74-75).
This emphasis on theology in understanding faith (and the impossibility of faith without theology) shows that Machen walked in the tracks left by John Calvin. For Machen and Calvin, What is Faith? is an important question worthy of consideration. Faith must center around an object, and only true faith will prove to be saving faith and bear the ripe fruit of godliness. [Faith and theology always pointed towards godly fruit (see Machen, pp. 183-218)].
This saving faith is an amazing work of a sovereign God in the heart of a spiritually dead sinner. However, as we understand the application of the Gospel to the sinner’s soul, Calvin is concerned that we not misunderstand faith as a subjective emotion bypassing the mind, but rather a faith flowing through the mind as the truth of Christ (theology) is pondered in serious thought and then clutched tightly by the affections. So what is faith?
What faith is NOT (3.2.1-5)
Like Machen, Calvin begins a chapter on faith with a restatement of the Gospel. So before we talk about faith, the object of faith (Christ in the Gospel) needs to be placed on the table. Saving faith is never separated from the Gospel; that God has stated His Law and expects perfect obedience, promises death to all who fail, that as sinners we are utterly unable to achieve perfect obedience to the Law, we have “no trace of good hope,” because we look forward only to eternal death and being cast away from the presence of a holy God. But God. By His grace there is one perfect Mediator, the savior Jesus Christ, sent by the Father in love. He will save sinners if “with a firm faith we embrace this mercy and rest in it with steadfast hope” (542-543). So as we pull a chair up to the table to learn about faith from Calvin, he first sets out the centerpiece of the Gospel. No conversation about faith can take place but in light of this theology.
Before Calvin defines what faith IS he wants to make clear what faith is NOT.
1. Saving faith is NOT a mere conviction that the Gospel is true. The centerpiece of the Gospel sits in the middle of the table. But looking at the Gospel message is not faith. This is a grave danger in Calvin’s mind. He writes “we must scrutinize and investigate the true character of faith with greater care and zeal because many are dangerously deluded today in this respect. Indeed, most people, when they hear this term, understand nothing deeper than a common assent to the gospel history” (543). It is dangerous, Calvin says, to be content with a faith that simply believes the “gospel history” is true.
Several chapters later Calvin returns to this concept in detail,
“Of course, most people believe that there is a God, and they consider that the gospel history and the remaining parts of the Scripture are true. Such a judgment is on a par with the judgment we ordinarily make concerning those things which are either narrated as having once taken place, or which we have seen as eyewitnesses. There are, also, those who go beyond this, holding the Word of God to be an indisputable oracle; they do not utterly neglect his precepts, and are somewhat moved by his threats and promises. To such persons an ascription of faith is made, but by misapplication, because they do not impugn the Word of God with open impiety, or refuse or despise it, but rather pretend a certain show of obedience” (554).
Sinners’ hearts are deceptive and this craftiness is revealed by sinners who are content with a “common assent to the gospel history.” It is one thing for the Cross to be true, still yet another altogether to say the Cross was intended to fulfill MY Law requirements, and give ME the perfect righteousness of Christ. He died for ME! A sinner may continue under the condemnation of the Law even though he believes in the historical accuracy of the Cross. It is possible to believe in truth and only shudder under greater condemnation (Jam. 2:19).
2. Saving faith is NOT a mere faith in God. God dwells in an unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16) and we need One (Christ) to come and reveal the Father to us. That Paul called sinners to believe in Christ is proof enough that saving faith in God is to be found by saving faith in Jesus Christ (Luke 10:22; John 8:12, 14:6; Acts 20:21, 26:17-18; 1 Cor. 2:2; 2 Cor. 4:6). We know God through the One He has sent (John 17:3) because Christ “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). Peter writes, “He (Christ) was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pet. 1:20-21). Calvin concludes, “we must be warned that the invisible Father is to be sought solely in this image” (544). Knowing Jesus Christ, the Word of God (God’s very self-disclosure), matters to faith. Vague faith in a deity will not suffice.
3. Saving faith is NOT ignorance cloaked in religious humility. Calvin goes straight after the Roman Catholic Scholastic community here. The Scholastics promoted an “implicit faith,” that sinners could remain ignorant of the details of theology but saved because they were submitted under the authority of Rome’s teachings. Thus faith becomes more about ignorance cloaked in empty humility rather than true faith in the Gospel. Faith in the specific truth of the gospel was not necessary. Calvin responded that, “this fiction not only buries but utterly destroys true faith” (545). At length Calvin wrote,
“Faith rests not on ignorance, but on knowledge. And this is, indeed, knowledge not only of God but of the divine will. We do not obtain salvation either because we are prepared to embrace as true whatever the church has prescribed, or because we turn over to it the task of enquiring and knowing. But we do so when we know that God is our merciful Father, because of reconciliation effected through Christ (2 Cor. 5:18-19), and that Christ has been given to us as righteousness, sanctification, and life. By this knowledge, I say, not by submission of our feeling, do we obtain entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. For when the apostle says, ‘With the heart a man believes unto righteousness, with the mouth makes confession unto salvation’ (Rom. 10:10), he indicates that it is not enough for a man implicitly to believe what he does not understand or even investigate. But he requires explicit recognition of the divine goodness upon which our righteousness rests. … But on this pretext it would be the height of absurdity to label ignorance tempered by humility ‘faith’!” (545).
Genuine and saving faith is an explicit (though imperfect) trust in Jesus Christ. That is, the Gospel must be clear so that sinners can see their sinfulness, see the beauty of the Savior and rest in His sufficient work by faith alone. Telling ignorant sinners to simply submit implicitly to the beliefs of the church without concern for individual clarity agitated Calvin (as is should agitate us). One of the most beautiful biblical pictures of this truth is the meeting between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40. The Gospel expects personal and explicit faith.
But is it not true in our day that belief in the Gospel applied to the soul is substituted for a ‘faith’ that rests content in ignorance and religious ‘humility’? Is not the “gospel” of our day peace and unity over clarity and doctrine? Likewise, we are never saved because we belong to the right church. We are not saved because we rest our ignorance under those who are educated and knowledgeable of the Gospel. We are not saved because we listen to excellent Gospel sermons. We are saved when God uses Scripture to reveal that we are wicked and sinful and our salvation can be found only in clinging to Christ as our righteousness. We must understand this. If Paul condemns those who are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth,” how condemned are sinners ignorant of the Gospel (2 Tim. 3:7)?
Never does church membership, affiliations or religious humility overcome ignorance of the Gospel message. Saving faith is explicit.
4. Saving faith is NOT perfect faith. Calvin understands that all faith is “implicit” to some degree. Francis Turretin writes, “as sanctification is imperfect, so faith has its degrees by which it increases and grows, both as to knowledge and as to trust” (IET, 9.15.1). Saving faith is not a perfect and fully explicit faith. Many things are yet hidden from our eyes and we are surrounded by “clouds of errors” (546). The disciples are a perfect example that even the redeemed child of God needs to walk humbly in a pursuit of further wisdom. God’s children believe and will always – in this life — struggle with unbelief. God assigns to each of His children a level of faith but none have perfect faith (Rom. 12:3).
Next time Calvin explains what saving faith IS.
This post is one in a series titled Humble Calvinism, a study through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. For more information see the Humble Calvinism series index.