Category: theology

The Grace that leads to Virtue

We must be careful not to confuse the righteousness of faith with the righteousness of a Christian life. The former is a gift of grace through the imputed righteousness of Christ making us right before God, the latter is the fruit or results of one who has been born-again, justified and adopted as God’s child.  Paul writes to Titus, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” (Titus 2:11-12). While we must avoid the error of legalism, a system of belief that says one is justified (made right with God) by faith plus the merit of our own works which is an obedience-based acceptance, it is equally important that we avoid the error of antinomianism, a system of belief that says one doesn’t need to give any proof of a life of repentance and virtue as evidence of being justified, an obedience-free acceptance. The grace of God does not exclude the Christian from obedience to God’s moral commands. Instead, in the gospel, our new motive is to eagerly desire to live righteously so that obedience becomes the natural expression of our grateful hearts, an acceptance-based obedience. Only in the gospel can we actually give complete loyalty and obedience to Christ and live a life of faith expressing itself through love.

I have recently discovered a theologian who beautifully communicates this careful balance in his classic work, True Christianity. He was often referred to as “the second Luther” by his contemporaries and yet another well-known theologian called him, “the prophet of interior protestantism.” Johann Arndt (1555-1621) was the first Luther scholar to see that “justification by faith alone” does not preclude doing good works but actually unleashes good works in the Christian. He has said,

“Many think that theology is a mere science, or rhetoric, whereas it is a living experience and practice. Everyone now endeavors to be eminent and distinguished in the world, but no one is willing to learn to be devoted. Everyone now seeks out men of great learning, from whom one may learn the arts, languages, and wisdom, but no one is willing to learn, from our only teacher, Jesus Christ, meekness and sincere humility, although his holy, living example is the proper rule and directive for our life…Everyone wishes very much to be a servant of Christ, but no one wishes to be his follower… He who loves Christ will also love the example of his holy life, his humility, meekness, patience, suffering, shame, and contempt, even if the flesh suffers pain…True Christianity consists, not in words or in external show, but in living faith, from which arise righteous fruits, and all manner of Christian virtues, as from Christ himself.”

Arndt is regularly careful to avoid the errors of legalism and antinomianism. Here is an example:

“You must take care that you do not connect your works and the virtues that you have begun, or the gifts of the new life, with your justification before God, for none of man’s works, merit, gifts, or virtue, however lovely these may be, count for anything. Our justification depends on the exalted, perfect merit of Jesus Christ, received by faith…Take great care, therefore, not to confound the righteousness of faith with the righteousness of a Christian life, but make a clear distinction (between them), for here is the whole foundation of our Christian religion.”

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The Other Ditch

The Road from Wressle to Foggathorpe, south ea...

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The Gospel says that you are deeply loved, completely forgiven, fully pleasing, totally accepted and significant in God‘s eyes through the merit of Jesus Christ.  Nothing you ever do will cause Him to love you any more or any less.  He loves you strictly by His grace given to you through Jesus. Encountering God‘s free and sovereign grace is supposed to lead us to  an overwhelming sense of gratitude and a complete willingness to give everything to God who has given us everything in His Son.

Of course, free love and grace have led some to licentiousness (license to sin) assuming unearned acceptance gives a new freedom to do anything they want. Paul anticipated this question after explaining that we are justified (made right with God) not by our works but by grace through faith:

“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:1-2).” He taught Titus, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:11-12).” After 11 chapters of explaining the gratuitous nature of salvation and mercy He explains to the Romans, “Therefore I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship.” Similarly after 3 chapters of describing the work of Christ to call us into God’s family, Paul exhorts the Ephesians, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called (Ephesians 4:1).”

Recently I have been attempting to teach my daughter how to drive a car. I’ve found that one of the more important principles of driving is actually avoiding the ditches and staying on the road. But sometimes, because of our backgrounds, when we encounter the gospel and feel its freedom from rule-keeping, we can ride down the gospel road as if there is only one ditch. The ditch that we are most often aware of is the Legalism Ditch.

Legalism is a system of belief that says one is justified (made right with God) by faith plus the merit of our own works. Legalism is a works-based, conditional acceptance by God which, if fulfilled,  places God in the position as the debtor, the one who owes. Legalism is mechanical because it will only do the absolute minimum of what is absolutely required. This leads to a joylessness in life where we perform burdensome duties as a down payment for heaven. But legalism will never get anyone into heaven because it is impossible to be good enough. It is Obedience-based Acceptance.

The other ditch of which we are often not aware is the Antinomianism Ditch.

Antinomianism is system of belief that says one does not need to give any proof of a life of repentance and virtue as evidence of being justified (made right with God). Antinomianism is a perversion of Paul’s teaching on grace and actually mocks the holiness of God and the spiritual law that He gives us as a guide to holy living.  Antinomianism teaches that grace means that I am freed from morality and freed from adhering to any moral law leading many back into bondage to sin. Antinomianism rejects the very notion or expectation of obedience as legalistic.  It is Obedience-free Acceptance.

But the Gospel Road teaches something different than Legalism and something other than Antinomianism. The Gospel is an Acceptance-based Obedience. This means that if I know that I’m loved apart from how I perform, I will give my all. Now because we are justified by Christ, we are free to fulfill the Law by Loving God, and Loving Others, though we won’t do this perfectly. In the gospel, our new motive is to want eagerly to live righteously so that obedience becomes a natural expression of our grateful hearts.

Martin Luther clarified the gospel road in this way,

“Whoever he be that is assuredly persuaded that Christ is his righteousness, doesn’t only cheerfully and gladly work well in his vocation…but submits to all manner of burdens and dangers in his present life, because he knows that this is the will of God, and that this obedience pleases him… No one should think we reject the importance of good works or of obeying the law. When we receive the Christian righteousness, we consequently can live a good life, naturally, out of gratitude.”

Thoughts about Election and Calling

Throughout my years of ministry I have entertained not a few questions from Bible readers about the doctrines of predestination and election. Romans 8:28-30 is one of the several places in the Scriptures where these doctrines are mentioned, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (ESV)”

Predestination and Election are true, biblical and mysterious and refer to God’s ancient choice of His family whom He marked out before hand to eternal life. The Scriptures tell us that:

  • God elects according to his eternal purpose which means that He’s a God who plans and does what He wants.
  • God elects according to the counsel of His will like a Sovereign King who has every right to develop his own military strategy influenced by no one, receiving no advice or input outside of His Triunity.
  • God Elects for His own glory which means that He’s the One who gets all the credit and congratulation and through those whom He elects to salvation everyone will see How Great He really is.

On an experiential level, Christians can rest in the fact that the God of Creation has set His affection on them before the world began. There is no deeper love and affirmation, no greater freedom and courage, than resting in the fact that God loved you before your days on the earth even began, before you had the opportunity to do anything good or bad.

I can comprehend this in small degree as a father who recalls loving my first born child before she was born, even before we saw an ultrasound image of her inside of her mother’ womb. No parent waits to see what the child looks like or how she will behave to decide whether they would choose to love or not. Predestination and election are then God’s Plan of Love; His method to apply His grace.

So those whom God elects, He also calls as calling is the effect of election. Calling not like an invitation to a birthday party where you can choose to say yes or no. It is more like a Royal Command by which we must say “Yes.” Though it never feels authoritarian it is authoritative. In His calling, God’s Spirit convinces of our sin and misery. And yes, we have to be convinced that we’re miserable. There are many happy pagans around who frankly just don’t realize that they are miserable in their sin. God then imparts spiritual light to our minds in the knowledge of Christ, renews our wills, which have not been free but are in bondage and His Spirit irresistibly persuades us to embrace Jesus who is freely offered to us in the gospel.

Before the foundation of the world, by His Grace He made a covenant of Redemption with the Son and Spirit. The Father was the architect of the plan who set His decree which included the elect on whom He had set His affection. The Son, the builder, would take the plans and do the work of redemption then by His Grace would send the Holy Spirit, the real estate agent, to call the elect by chasing them down in time and space to seal the deal. Apart from such a plan of grace and love, Heaven would be empty and Hell would be bursting at the seams because men and women are not righteous and do not seek God without the gift of the seed of God in a regenerated heart and the gift of faith. People on their own are therefore unable to make the most righteous decision man could ever make: to choose to follow the Righteous One.

Though still these doctrines are hard to understand and maybe even harder to accept. We raise questions like:

  • “Why not them?” – by which we charge God with unfairness because He doesn’t choose some others or demand that He choose everyone.
  • “Why not me?” – by which we somehow wrongly feel that we are worthy in ourselves of being among the elect. But really the only question we are allowed to ask is…
  • “Why me?” – by which we rightly look at ourselves and see not only an undeserving sinner who is not entitled to heaven but an ill-deserving sinner who has fairly earned hell. In this we marvel at God’s grace and mercy.

Ultimately the first question “Why not them?” is often compassionately motivated as we don’t want to see anyone enter into an eternity apart from God. But taking that question too far puts us in a position far above our pay grade. We can take it too far and by the implcation, “God, I would do a better job at being God than you are doing.” In the movie Rudy, which is based on a true story of a young man whose lifelong dream was to play football at Notre Dame but lacked the size, speed and ability. As he wrestled with the lack of fulfillment of his dream he confided in Father Cavanaugh who shared these immortal words,

“Son, in 35 years of religious study, I have only come up with two hard incontrovertible facts: there is a God, and I’m not Him.”

The words are so simple they are profound. When it comes to life and difficult doctrines we just simply need to trust God with His Godness.

Once Saved Always Saved?

Perseverance is the key virtue in the Christian Life because without it, one has no guarantee of a future inheritance with God in heaven. The Scriptures give us guarantees like, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Php 1:6) and at the same time they give us strong exhortations like, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Php. 2:12-13). In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus teaches us that only one of the categories of hearers bears fruit and perseveres. All the others are eventually swallowed up and destroyed by malignant influences which militate against Christian perseverance. There are also many warnings in the New Testament about falling away (Cf. Hebrews 6:1-12, etc.). Does a person have a carte blanche (blank check) once he professes faith in Christ? Can he do anything he wants while maintaining blessed assurance in a secure salvation? In his book, The Christian Life, Sinclair Ferguson puts this in perspective,

“Perseverance and faith, therefore, or perseverance and the Christian’s duty to battle on in the fight of faith are never separated and polarized in the Bible. It is never a case of ‘either/or’ always one of ‘both/and.’ In fact we persevere through faith and never apart from it. The picture is one of a dynamic, living trust in a God who actively holds on to us so that we may persevere. There is no blanket guarantee of perseverance. There is no mere doctrine of ‘the security’ of the believer, as though God’s keeping of us took place irrespective of the lives we live. Indeed there is not such thing in the New Testament as a believer whose perseverance is so guaranteed that he can afford to ignore the warning notes which are sounded so frequently.”

While we remain in the fight of faith to persevere the Christian can take great comfort and courage from his Good Shepherd who says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:27-30)