Wednesday, August 24, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Justification (Part 2)

Justification: Christ Alone

The basis for our justification is the grace of God in Jesus Christ, not how much faith we have. The ground of our justification is in Christ, and thus it does not depend on us, and not on our works. The reason why we are justified by grace alone through faith alone is because justification is in Christ alone. The ground of salvation is outside of us (extra nos) and therefore when the Scriptures say that salvation is a free gift, it really is a free gift, since nothing we do will ever affect the salvation we receive by faith alone.

The focus on Christ alone is made in contrast to two errors. The first error is to focus on the will of men. This was the problem with the early 17th century Arminians, and the problem with many of the 15h and 16th century Renaissance humanists like Desiderius Erasmus (and with Rome too). In such systems, it is Christ and us who co-operate to save ourselves. God plays his part, even most of the work, but it is now up to the individual person to take the last step towards salvation. The second error is to supplement Jesus with the cult of the saints, especially Mary, which was prevalent and still is present in Roman Catholicism. Prayers to various saints and especially Mary are perceived to help supplement one's devotion towards God. In the case of Mary, outrageous claims have been made in Roman Catholicism about the simple girl from Nazareth, to elevate her to a person with almost god-like status. Prayers to the saints, and especially to Mary, are encouraged in Roman Catholicism, even with helping out in one's standing before God. But if justification is in Christ alone, then the saints and Mary (assuming they can hear our prayers, and that without being appalled by being treated as an object of prayer) cannot help at all. Christ is the only mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5) and there cannot be any other, neither "the saints" nor Mary.

Christ alone saves because He is the only righteous man. His righteousness can be split into His passive and His active righteousness, both of which are given or reckoned to us.

Christ's passive righteousness and satisfaction

Christ's passive righteousness refers to the righteousness of God that comes from His suffering. It is not "passive" in contrast to active, but rather "passive" as in full of passions. The sufferings of Christ begin from the time the Son become incarnate, took on a human body, and had to limit Himself to a human with all our limitations, and culminates at the Cross, where Christ suffered, bled and died on the Cross.

This passive righteousness of Christ, as focused on the Cross, is tied up with the notion of satisfaction, which is the doctrine that Jesus died to satisfy or quench or propitiate the wrath of God. God is angry against sin, and His wrath burns against sinners. It was because of the universal knowledge of God's wrath that ancient cultures around the world, distorting the original knowledge of God, had animal and even human sacrifices to propitiate the wrath of their gods. In Israel, God re-instituted the pure sacrificial system to teach Israel and us that, apart from the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb. 9:22).

Far from being an invention of backward savages, the bloody sacrificial system points to the truth that the shedding of blood as payments for sins is necessary to return to a right relationship with God. Jesus by dying on the Cross paid the price for our salvation so that we do not need to shed any more blood to be justified.

Christ's active righteousness and imputation

Christ's active righteousness consists in his obedience to the demands of the law of God. It is active because it consists in the actions of obedience. As Jesus perfectly obeys the law and obeys the will of the Father, He merits life, the only human to ever have done so (Rom. 5:16b, 17b). Jesus' perfect obedience shows that He is supremely worthy of eternal life, and this life He gives to us His people who believe in Him.

Jesus gives us His righteousness through imputing or reckoning it to us. Imputation is the doctrine that states that we are given Jesus' righteousness so that we are seen as if we are actually righteous even though we are not in nature and action. As Scriptures states, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor. 5:21). Our sins are imputed to Christ, while Christ's righteousness is imputed to us. Jesus was treated as if He were sinful even though He was not, and we who believe in Christ are treated as if we are righteous even though we are not.

This notion of double imputation, or the Great Exchange, is the crux of our salvation. The reason why we can be justified by grace alone through faith alone apart from works is because of what Christ has done on our behalf (pro nobis). We are justified because Jesus has given us His righteousness, not just paid our punishments but that we have actual righteousness credited to our account. When God the Father sees us, He sees the righteousness of Christ, not our ugly sins, because of what Jesus did for us.


The eternal and glorious God, without any compulsion, decided to save His people, and He does this through the life and work of our Savior Jesus Christ. We are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, then justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Jesus took our sins and appeased God's wrath, and imputed to us His righteousness, and thus make us right before God and pleasing to Him.

What is a Reformed Church: Justification (Part 1)

Why justification by faith?

The story of mankind is that of creation, ruin and then salvation. Jesus in history sets up the New Covenant so as to save sinners from their sins and the consequences of their sins. But what is sin? Sin is any want of, or transgression of, the law of God (Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 14). In other words, sins can be sins of omission, not doing what is right and ought to be done, or sins of commission, doing what is wrong. Sin is an objective reality, independent of ethnicity, culture, language, or religion. Everyone sins because we are all sinners, born with the original guilt of Adam and committing sins each and every day.

The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23a). Wrong must be punished, treason against the King of the Universe must be avenged. Good works cannot erase the punishments for sins, in the same way that volunteering for charity events will not prevent a murderer from being convicted of murder and paying the penalty for that. To say that we can do good works to "balance" our ledger is to show a failure to understand how detestable sins is to God. God is so holy that what we think of as a small sin is so detestable to him, like what we might feel when we think of Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust he engineered and presided over.

All Christians believe in the sinfulness of mankind, and the need to trust Jesus Christ in order to be saved. But the Reformed faith emphasizes how terrible sin is before God. According to the Scriptures, and the Reformed teaching, humanity is totally depraved. Our basic slant is sin, and we cannot help but sin. As Scripture states, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil" (Jer. 13:23), and "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God" (Rom. 3:10b-11). Total depravity means that every aspect of our being is tainted with sin, not that we are as sinful as we can be. Obviously, there is always room for further wickedness, as the more modern examples of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler have shown us.

We are condemned because of our sins. All our "good works" are like soiled garments (Is. 64:6; "menstrual cloths") before God, as whatever does not proceed out of faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). As the Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes on this topic,

Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God. (WCF 16.7)

When we think that we can do good in order to be right with God, we show that we do not understand the holiness of God. The only "good work" that God accepts is perfect and perpetual obedience, or 100%, which only Jesus has. In God's marking scheme, anything less than 100%, even 99%, is a failing mark. Therefore, while God does promise eternal life for doing good and only good (Rom. 2:1-11), the fact of the matter is that no one does good according to God's standards.

That is why the doctrine of justification is so important. In justification, we are proclaimed righteous because of faith in Christ (Rom. 3:22), not because of our works, because we do not have the perfect obedience required. Historically, the doctrine of justification is important because of the Medieval idea of salvation by faith and good works. But if our "good works" is so imperfect and tainted with sin, then "good works" cannot play any role in getting us right before God.

Regeneration by the Holy Spirit

Before we go to justification, we need to back up a bit to speak of the Holy Spirit. If we are totally depraved, that means that even our wills are tainted with sin. As Romans 3:11 states, no one seeks for God. How is it that anyone can turn to God in the first place? Roman Catholicism "solves this" by having baptism remove the guilt of original sin. Many Evangelicals "solve" this by making the human will at least in part exempt from the corruption of sin. But the Scriptures do not solve the problem of sin and the need to turn to Christ this way. Rather, it is written, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day." (Jn. 6:44). Jesus' solution is that He draws people to Him. God in the person of the Holy Spirit draws people to faith in Christ (Jn. 3:1-8), granting them faith as a gift (Eph. 2:8). The Holy Spirit regenerates, or brings about spiritual life, in a person, who then turns to Christ in faith.

Justification: Faith Alone

If good works cannot be a part of making us right before God, then it does not play any part in our justification period. Justification is by faith alone (sola fide), apart from works (Eph. 2:8). But what is faith? "Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel" (Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 86). In other words, faith is trust. Faith is not a work that one does, but an acknowledgment that one cannot do anything and has to thus rely on another, Jesus Christ; We receive and rest upon Him alone. Faith is the naked hand through which one grasp the salvation offered by Christ in the Gospel, the hand of a beggar absolutely unable to offer anything in return for this gift from God to us.

Justification: Grace Alone

Technically, we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, not by faith alone. This is because our faith is not the reason we are saved, but the way we take hold of salvation. What saves us is God's grace; it is God who justifies (Rom. 8:33). God does not see our faith and save us, but rather He sees Christ and save us. This is actually a very good thing, for imagine if God is to judge us according to how much faith we have? That would make faith into a work, and those who have more faith will be saved while those with little faith might not be saved. But Jesus through one of his parables speak of the power of such small faith even as the faith of a mustard seed that can move mountains (Mt. 17:20). The reason why Jesus can say this is because what saves is God's grace, not how much faith we have. Faith after all states that we are powerless to save ourselves, so what does "strong powerlessness" and "weak powerlessness" on the issue of faith even mean?

In the Reformed tradition, the emphasis on grace alone is important in light of the Arminian controversy from 1610 to 1618. The Arminians believe that God sees our faith and rewards our faith with eternal life. The Canons of Dordt, written in 1618-1619 in response to the Arminians, rejects this as error. As it states,

[This error is rejected:] Who teach that what is involved in the new covenant of grace which God the Father made with men through the intervening of Christ's death is not that we are justified before God and saved through faith, insofar as it accepts Christ's merit, but rather that God, having withdrawn his demand for perfect obedience to the law, counts faith itself, and the imperfect obedience of faith, as perfect obedience to the law, and graciously looks upon this as worthy of the reward of eternal life. (Canons of Dordt, 2, Rejection of Errors 4)

No, it is grace alone that saves us. And the basis for our justification and our salvation is Christ and Him alone.

[to be continued]

Saturday, August 20, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Covenant - Our Story (Part 3)

The Covenant at Creation: The Covenant of Works

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). All things in space and time came into being by God speaking the universe into being. God created all things including mankind, with the first couple Adam and Eve being created by God and placed into the Garden of Eden.

At the beginning after creation, the first human couple were pure and sinless. God then made a covenant with them, which is commonly called the Covenant of Works, Covenant of Nature or Covenant of Creation. It is called a Covenant of Creation because it was made at creation and a Covenant of Nature because it was made with mankind in nature and natural harmony. But it is most commonly known as the Covenant of Works because in it there is a works principle, which is to say the principle that works of obedience to God would merit eternal life.

In Genesis 2:16, God gave Adam the command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If he disobeyed and ate of the tree, he would certainly die. Conversely, if he obeyed the command, he would not die but will live, as the parallel with Christ shows (Rom. 5:12-19).

This works principle can be seen in passages such as Romans 2:1-11. God is a just God and here He reveals that doing good in obedience will most certainly be rewarded, and evil will be punished. The works principle is the basic principle of the Law, "Do this and Live" (Lev. 18:5, Rom. 10:5, Gal. 3:12). In the Covenant of Works, the works principle was at its peak. God has given His command, but will Adam obey the command and live? The subsequent narrative of the Fall (Gen. 3) showed us Adam's breaking of God's command and the subsequent judgments of God. Adam failed the test, and therefore all mankind now inherit Adam's guilt, and are sinful from birth. Death came to all men (Rom. 5:12), and thus all men die, spiritually now, and physically later.

The Covenant of Grace

God's plan however was to save His people, even from the foundation of the world. Therefore, the Gospel was proclaimed even in the midst of the pronouncement of judgment (Gen. 3:15). There will come a Savior, the Seed of the Women, who will crush the head of Satan and defeat him. This Covenant of Grace pushes forward through the Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic Covenant, each one building up towards the coming of the Servant-King, the Messiah. In the fullness of time, Jesus Christ came into the world, ministered in Israel, and died on the Cross for our sins. His death on the Cross satisfies the wrath of God (Rom. 3:25), and inaugurates the New Covenant (Heb. 8:13, 9:11-28). In this New Covenant, we now have a way back to God, not by works but by faith in Christ.

From the time of Christ's death on the Cross therefore, the promised Savior has arrived. Adam failed to be obedient and thus earned death. But for those in Christ, salvation is not about working to earn salvation but simply to truth in Christ, who earned our salvation for us by His life and death on the Cross. History began at the Garden of Eden, but it finds its zenith at Calgary. After millennia of waiting, the promised Messiah has finally arrived, and now we can turn to Him so that we can come back to God.

The end of the world

We are now situated in the time between Jesus' first coming and His second coming. Nearly 2000 years have passed by since our Savior first came to die for us. God has not told us when He will come back to bring an end to this world, when Christ comes again. But in that last day in the future, this world will come to its end. Nations and peoples will stand before God to give an account of their lives, and only those who have trusted in Christ will be saved on that day. In that great and terrible Day of the Lord, the earth will be burned by fire (2 Peter 3:12) and terrible judgments will consume the earth (the judgments in Revelations). There will come a new heavens and a new earth after that, where God and mankind can finally be together, in full fellowship, forever.

What is a Reformed Church: Covenant - Our Story (Part 2)

Before the world began: Covenant of Redemption

In the beginning, there was nothing but God. Then, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). In the beginning, there was (past tense) the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God (Jn. 1:1). God existed before anything existed. He is eternity. Everything else is created and has a beginning. God is eternal and uncreated.

But the story started in eternity, before time started. In eternity, the Triune God planned the entire course of all creation. In eternity, God in His Triune Being focused on the centerpiece of His plan: the salvation of sinners. In this plan, the three persons of the Godhead came together and planned the salvation of God's people, for this is what God desires.

Scripture is clear about this plan. In Psalms 2:7, God the Father spoke of the decree that has already been made even before human rebellion, and thus in eternity. In Psalms 110, God plotted with God ("the LORD said to my Lord") for the kingly rule of the second lord ("the Son"). In John 5:19-28, Jesus spoke about the granting of authority from the Father (Jn. 5:22, 27) to accomplish the work God the Father gave Him to do. This happened in eternity because the imparting of "life of Himself" (Jn. 5:26) from the Father to the Son is in eternity. In his High Priestly prayer, Jesus revealed to us this plan when He spoke about the giving of all authority to Him (Jn. 17:2) before the world began (Jn. 17:24).

In Zechariah 6:13, the "counsel of peace" is made between "the Branch" and the priest on his throne. This cryptic language is strange until we figure out "the Branch" refers to the Messiah, of which Josiah is a mere type pointing to the Messiah. But what makes it even strange is that we have another person, a priestly figure, who is occupying the same throne, the same space. But how can two people occupy the same space, unless they are actually one? Thus, the counsel of peace is the covenant between the Messiah (God the Son) and God the Father, who are and is one.

What is this plan? In Psalms 110:4, the Son is termed a priest forever "in the order of Melchizedek" which is the eternal priesthood without beginning or end (Heb. 7:3. 15-20). In this covenant, the plan of salvation was stated. In eternity past, this plan of salvation, this counsel of peace, this pact of salvation (pactum salutis) was made.

God the Father made an agreement, made a covenant, with God the Son through God the Holy Spirit. In this pre-temporal, pre-creation covenant, God the Father gave the Son rule and authority, giving Him an eternal priesthood, with the purpose of giving Him the preeminence, the name above all other names (Eph. 1:21; Col. 1:18, Phil. 2:9). God the Son as part of His priesthood agreed to come down to be the sacrifice at the Cross for the salvation of His people (Heb. 9:12), and then after ascension He now is seated as King at the right hand of God the Father, and as priest in the act of intercession for His people (Heb. 7:25). As reward for His part in fulfilling the covenant, God the Son is granted a people, the people whom He has died for, a people to be His Bride (Rev. 21:2). And through it all, all glory rebounds upon God the Father (1 Cor. 15:28) even as all glory goes to the Son with the preeminence, the name above all other names.

The Covenant of Redemption is the covenant before all covenants. It sets the stage for the unfolding plan of God to work in the flow of history, the jewel of God's plan amidst the whole of creation. Before time and history has even began, God has already set the tone of the entire story, so that all things and events will develop for His glory, and our benefit.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Covenant - Our Story (Part 1)

Narrative and History

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant (WCF 7:1)

Narratives have a beginning and an end. History likewise starts somewhere and has an end. The history of World War I normally begins at the flashpoint of the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, although historians will look further back for causes that led to the war. The end of World War I is at the signing of the Versailles Treaty that formally ended the war. Narratives, stories and histories — all these give us a sense of what is happening and why, and place people and events in the stories in context.

When we ask question about who we are and why we are here, these questions can only be properly understood from the viewpoint of our Creator God. And the Creator God is the Lord and Creator of all things, and thus He is Lord of history. History is His story, and we living in our times situated in this story. The small narratives of our lives, from our births to our deaths, intersect with the far grander scale of God's big story from the beginning of this universe to its end.

God is God, and as such He is infinite. How can we finite creatures understand an infinite God? The Scriptures of course is God's revelation to us, and through that authority, we can come to know Him. But how about God working in history? To just have the Scriptures without the stories in Scripture is to make Christianity about absolute principles only, and God is thus a remote deity of laws and rules. The narrative in Scripture however shows us the greater story of the world we live in, and help us to know our place in it. It shows us how God works, and how we are to relate to this God who has shown us who He is and what He has done.

Covenant - Structure of the story

Inherent in Reformed doctrine is the view that the notion of "covenant" is the thing that holds the story of God's working in history together; God works and relates to the world through the making of covenants. "Covenant" can be described as an agreement made by one or more parties that describe how the parties are to relate to each other. As God's story, all covenants are unilaterally imposed, which is to say that God alone makes up the rules of how the relationships between Him and others work. But each covenant can be either unilateral or bilateral in the conditions each side has to fulfill to continue the relationship. Through a succession of covenants, God's story and the history of the workings of the universe unfolds.

The true story of the world

In this world, many people have a view of history, the "secularist" view, that omits God out of the picture. The history of the cosmos for them starts with the Big Bang, followed by billions of years of star and solar system development, then about 4.5 billion years of changes on the earth. Humans evolve from primordial apes within the last million years, human civilization started a few thousand years back, complete with religions, arts and sciences. The universe will continue to develop and atrophy a few billion years more, and the ultimate end of history will either be the heat death of the universe, or a big crunch destroying the universe (and perhaps starting a new one). In this view of history, each human individual lives a life that has no true meaning, only creating meaning for him or herself. Joining a cause (social, political, philosophical, religious) in this scenario has as much to do with, or even more than, creating meaning in life as it is about the exact details of the cause. Or one can focus on getting wealth and on personal pleasure and enjoyment in this life as one's meaning in life. One's personal story in the secularist view is subjective, and for the most part function independently of the story of our universe.

Over and against this view of the world's history is God's view of history, which God asserts to be the only true account of history. In God's view of history, it begins with God in eternity, then God creates the universe, and then mankind. The first couple Adam and Eve however disobeyed God, causing disruption to happen to the world, following which they were removed from God's presence. Until the time of Christ, humanity were living in darkness and sin, until Christ came and the Gospel is being proclaimed to the nations. As people repent, they are saved from their sins and wickedness as the Gospel goes forth. This time between Jesus' first and second coming is our time. When Christ comes again in the future, there will be judgment of the wicked, and the burning up of the current universe leading to the renewal of the universe into the new heavens and the new earth, where righteousness and peace will once against rule the earth from the throne of Almighty God.

As it can be seen, the secularist view of history and God's view of history is in conflict with each other. Both cannot be true. Granted, there are lots of places where overlap is possible, but on the major events, the two contradict each other. Which account is true? The Scriptures, being our ultimate authority, say that the biblical story is the true one. How are we then to understand why the secularist story is false?

The question is which one is true ultimately stems from which authority do we believe in. On the Christian side, we have God and the Bible. On the secularist side, we have what is known as empiricism, that is the study of the world through scientific experiments. Science of course has been a great tool to understand the world and to improve our lives. But is it competent to understand the history of the world and is future?

To this question, we must say no. In order for science experiments to proceed, two of the three conditions must be known: the initial conditions, the final conditions, and the process or law that affects the thing being studied. When it comes to history, we have the final conditions, we guess the initial conditions, and we assume the processes are either uniform or that there are no changes along the way to the system being studied. Only the final conditions are known, while the other two can be guessed but cannot be proven as fact. When it comes to the future, we have the initial conditions, and we assume a close system for our experiments, which on a cosmic scale might not be true. Basically, when it comes to history and the future, science has insufficient evidence to prove anything definitively. What we have at best are theories based upon good guesswork.

Even that is insufficient however, for we note that science, due to its method, must assume the workings of God to be absent. That is good for dealing with normal processes in the world, but not if God has actually intervened in history. If God is excluded on a matter of principle, then of course any act of God cannot be comprehended by science.

The problems with the secularist narrative of the world should be plain by now. First, it is incapable of proving anything definitely, and the assumptions it makes to produce its narrative might be, and some of them are, false. For example, if God actually caused a worldwide flood in the time of Noah, then the assumption that the current rate of erosion and deposition of soil cannot be extrapolated into the past to derive an age of ancient geological structures. Second, it assumes a closed system where God does not work, but God does work in miracles, and therefore science by definition cannot know if miracles have or have not happened.

The Christian view of history thus stands on the authority of the all-knowing God, and Reformed Christian believe in God's authority more than the fallible interpretations and sometimes unwarranted conclusions of those who abuse science to create secular meta narratives of the world. In the end, the question is: Who do you trust? Do you trust in the words of God, the One who claims to give eye-witness account of history, or do you trust in the guesswork of men? The Reformed church, while not denigrating science, keeps science to its proper sphere and believes in God's view of history above the world's view of history.