The Central Square of Reformedville

Earlier today I tweeted this: “God comes to us in three books — nature, law, and gospel. Read plainly, we read God above us, God against us, and God with us.”

I have been asked for additional explanation, and so here it is. The responses ranged from huh? what? to “you sound like Michael Horton.” But this thought is actually a reworking of something I read from Matthew Henry, and shows how, once again, I am sitting on the edge of the fountain in the central square of Reformedville, just swinging my legs.

First, the Scripture: “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (Col. 2:13-14).

There are differences between Lutherans and the Reformed on the three uses of the law (usus legis), but the differences are not over whether there are three uses.

There is a use of the law that convicts us of our need for Christ. If the basic message of the gospel is preached by evangelists whose message is “repent and believe,” this creates the obvious question — “repent of what?” That question cannot be answered without a standard, and the standard in Scripture is the law of God. This use of the law is essential in evangelism — more rich young rulers need to go away sad.

That’ll Preach

In the comments below this post, Jeremy Sexton explains an objective, outside-the-individual way of understanding the qualitative difference between a persevering covenant member and a non-persevering covenant member. I appreciate Jeremy’s contribution. In line with my previous comments, I don’t have any difficulty seeing this as a position that an orthodox Christian could take. The fact that someone holds to this position would present, to my view, no barrier to fellowship whatever.

At the same time, I have four major difficulties with this explanation, in descending order of importance. Here they are:

One of the central methodological moves we made in the FV controversy was this. We understood the controversy as a question of whether we would be allowed to speak to God’s people as the Scripture speaks, without being constantly constrained by a priori theological considerations. I believed that such a stand was appropriate then, and I believe it now. But this criterion does not just apply to the language of apostasy. It also applies to the language of true heart conversion. It applies to everything Scripture addresses, and Scripture constantly speaks of the problem of false hearts saying true things.

The Scripture routinely speaks of the difference between true saints and sons of Belial as being a difference that is internal to them. I cheerfully grant that the biblical way of speaking of “the heart” may differ in some respects from the modern English-speaking way of talking about it — but our modern heart is a lot closer to the ancient Hebraic heart than either of them might be to the secret decrees of God.

Messing With the Verb

I recently wrote about how catholicity begins at home, which you can read here if you missed it. Jim Jordan was kind enough to comment in the thread below that, but because the conveyor belt of time won’t slow down, his comments were kind of buried. I wanted to bump them up to the top again, and then quickly respond to just a few things. I appreciate Jim’s interaction on this.

“Well, I for one welcome your interaction with the Driscolls and Pipers of our age. As for ‘evangelical,’ you define it as absolute necessity of a new birth ‘down in your heart.’ I’m happy to sign on to that as well. That is, those who persevere in the faith (good soil believers) participate in the new birth of humanity in the resurrection of Jesus, which means they are individually born again also and do not commit suicide along the way. The ‘down’ heart stuff, being a metaphor, is fine with me also, though from an exegetical standpoint, I’ve never gotten clear precisely how what the Bible means by ‘heart’ fits with what most Christians think it means today. I’m happiest knowing that the Heart of my life is not inside of me, but is Jesus, who will never let me down.”

So let me note three quick things in response.

A Romans 11 Olive Branch

I would like to thank Shane Lems for his post at The Aquila Report for his post on the FV as it relates to union with Christ. The reason for this is that he quotes from the Joint Federal Vision statement, which is very rarely done. I really appreciate it — that is what the statement was for.

The upshot of his article is that FV views union with Christ as something a Christian can lose, while the Reformed confessions view it as a permanent reality. “The Federal Vision movement says it is losable while Reformed theology says it is an eternal union.”

To illustrate the latter point, he cites the Larger Catechism.

“The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband, which is done in their effectual calling” (WLC 66).

No Speekee

In the comments on this post over at his blog, Scott Clark threatened to cut off comments if people persisted in asking why he wouldn’t meet with me.

“Why is it curious that I should refuse to meet personally with the leading proponent of the corruption of the gospel?”

Well, it is curious because in the post just above these comments, Clark had made quite a point about how the Arminians would not meet with the men investigating their views. It is curious because all these Reformed bodies denounced “a thing” called Federal Vision, the characteristics of which thing I also denounce, and they did this without ever once meeting with me — despite my cheerful willingness to meet with any or all of them.

“This is not a personal matter. This is a matter of truth.”

That is correct. It is not a personal matter. It is a matter of truth. And Scott Clark persists in perpetuating palpable falsehoods, and will not allow the legitimacy of any venue where those falsehoods might be demonstrated to be such.

“His views are well known. I can read English.”

The blunt answer, which cannot really be softened, is “no, he cannot read English.” Let me take one example that Clark likes to use. He says that FV teaches that baptism puts everyone in a state of grace, which is then maintained by the believer through his own covenantal faithfulness. Is that not a fair summary of what Clark says I teach? Well, here is some English for Clark to read. I think that such a doctrine is bad juju. I believe that it would be what theologians of another era might call a lie from the pit of Hell. I hope that one day I might be privileged to soak this doctrine in lighter fluid and set a match to it. If I ever found this doctrine on a sheet of paper in my office somewhere, I would run it through the shredder. Prior to my weekly dump run, I search my house for any traces of this doctrine so that I might throw it in the back of my pick up truck in order to take it out to the landfill along with all the bottles, empty ice cream cartons, grapefruit rinds, and coffee grounds. So the next time you read Scott Clark saying that I teach some form of this, you should probably say to yourself, “Hmmm. No speekee.”

A Few Heideljinks

A friend wrote, drawing my attention to this and, with regard to the one statement of mine that the OPC report took issue with, asking me if I meant it. I would prefer to divide that into two questions — first, what did I mean by it, and second, did I mean it?

I can answer what I meant by it generally right now, but I am on the road right now and away from my books. When I get home I will post some context from the essay quoted to establish what I meant by it at the time.

But here is a general statement. At the moment of the effectual call (normally something that happens because of the preaching of the Word — as the OPC rightly notes), God’s gift of faith to an individual is what enables us to call him a worthy receiver. Without evangelical faith, there are no worthy receivers. If that worthy receiver had previously been baptized, the teaching of the Confession is that the grace represented by the baptism came to be exhibited and conferred at the moment of true conversion.

Second, Clark quotes this, and it was a bit rich, coming from him.

[The Arminians] “rejected the judgments of the Synod and refused to answer the points in question in an equitable fashion. No admonitions of the Synod, nor resolutions of the honorable deputies of the States General, nor even the illustrious members of the States General themselves could make progress with them.”

I forget how many times and how many ways I have offered to meet with Scott Clark. But let me reiterate. I will fly down there at my own expense, I will debate with him publicly, I will meet with him privately, and I will even buy a special membership card that will allow me to comment on his blog. If we are drawing historical parallels, the only one being coy here, and refusing to engage in a theological exchange is Clark. So here is the offer put another way. Why doesn’t Scott Clark do for me what he says here what the divines at Dort did for the Arminians, and see what happens?

All Over the Map

One of the things that modern Reformed Christians have trouble doing is arguing and maintaining tight distinctives without breaking fellowship. This inability is projected back onto the period of the Reformation, on the assumption that from Poland to Wales all the Reformed marched under the five banners of the five solas, all five banners snapping smartly in the breeze. The problem is that it is just not true.

But as soon as this is brought out, it is assumed that the writer of such sentiments (in this case, me) must be some sort of a latitudinarian, wanting to melt down all our reformational distinctives into gray lead compromise. But this is not true either. It is possible to have decided convictions (believing them to be important) and also to have a catholic spirit.

Take one example. I am currently reading A Puritan Theology by Beeke and Jones — a wonderful book — and they make it plain that for the Puritans, the covenant of works had “very much of Grace and Favour” (p. 28). “In other words, perseverance in the garden would have been a supernatural grace given to Adam” (p. 29). I am with them in this — I am not a “monocovenantalist,” and yet believe that both covenants had this something in common. I believe in a covenant of creation and a covenant of grace — and I believe that the grace of God suffused both in different ways, like it suffuses everything. This puts me at variance with all kinds of modern folks, from the radical divide held by the men at Escondido to the monocovenantalism of some of the oatmeal stout Federal Vision men. But that should be all right, and saying we should be able to talk about it without descending into chaos is not to say that the subject is unimportant. Why do we so often measure importance with decibels?

How Scott Clark is Unconfessional

Scott Clark takes on “legal preaching” and the “good fellows” of Moscow here. As I read through his post, I am struck by how unconfessional his basic approach is. He dissects legal preachers and preaching, and he does so while by-passing the confessions entirely.

He objects to the following sorts of errors. The legal preacher “majors in” the law, and he does so “to the neglect of” the gospel. But how can a man know whether he has fallen into this error? Clark began his post by insisting that the law must be preached in its first and third uses. So in order to be confessional, a man must preach law more than 0% of the time, but less than . . . what? What are the margins? Clark says that it is not enough to “every so often” mention “grace and faith.” Okay, so what is the threshold past which I am not doing it “every so often”?

Since the confessions don’t tell us how many yards of law to use, or how many pounds of grace must be included, this means that we cannot judge on the basis of touchy-feely emphases. And so this drives Clark to insist that such an error must be found in a corrupt intent of the preacher’s heart, or as Clark put it, “he isn’t really enamored with the gospel.”

Now the fact that I agree with all three uses of the law, and I agree with them in the standard and ordinary way, without fooling about with definitions or anything, and can still be tagged as a “legal preacher” is interesting. This can only be done if Clark peers into my heart, and finds out that I am “not enamored” with the gospel. The most striking thing about this approach is how unconfessional an approach it is. Pietists can discern the thoughts and intents of somebody else’s heart at 50 yards, but confessionalists?

In the old fashioned world I live in, the way you would demonstrate someone to be unconfessional would be by pointing out that the confession says “x,” and the unconfessional guy says “no, no, not x.”

Say, for example, a preacher refuses to say from the pulpit that the civil magistrate has a responsibility to ensure that “the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed” (WCF 23.3). He refuses to say anything like that because he disagrees with all that stuff, and because he teaches at Westminster West. That really would be unconfessional, and it would be fair to say that it was unconfessional because that is how confessions work — with words, affirmed or denied.

But let us pretend that Clark affirmed that he did actually believe the Confession at this point. And then suppose I called him unconfessional anyway because I didn’t think he meant it deep down in his heart. Now what? Well, somebody should point out that my heart-reading is probably about as accurate as one of those bad-lip-reading videos, and that my reading of hearts like this is about as unconfessional a way of proceeding as you can imagine.

Having said this, let me return to the general problem that Clark identifies. I can agree with him here — I know what that kind of suffocating preaching sounds like. The third use of the law places applications, like nails that hold the board up. A bumbling use of the law creates a heavy blanket over the congregation that is entirely exhausting. All exhortation makes Jack a dull boy.

But I can only agree here because I think “high confessionalism” is not all of life, and when attempted, it ends, as I have argued above, with a functional rejection of the confessions at the very place where confessions were designed to operate.

I entirely agree that it is our job to preach Christ, and not our petty moralistic lists.

“And it is undoubtedly a chief defect in the sermons even of evangelical pulpits, that there is not enough of Christ in them . . . Flavel was right: ‘The excellency of a sermon lies in the plainest discoveries and liveliest applications of Jesus Christ’” (Fish, Power in the Pulpit, p. 6).