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Apostasy and Assurance

The following appeared on the Trinity House Blog:

Are apostasy and assurance mutually exclusive? Some seem to think so. But let’s consider this a bit:

No reformed man would ever say that a man who is “saved” today will be safe forever no matter what. Rather we say, “your sins are forgiven, now, walk faithfully, glorify the Lord, love and worship Him all your days.” And we say this without qualification, because it is true.

The implication of this is important, however. If someone walked into my study and declared, “Hey Wilkins guess what? I’ve decided, based upon God’s promises, that I can live as I please and believe anything I want and still go to heaven when I die! And I don’t have to worry about anything you or anybody else says or does to me!” If anyone said this to us, we’d respond by telling him in no uncertain terms that he’s lost and deceived and headed for eternal condemnation. And if he says that we’re making God a liar and an “Indian-giver,” we’d say, “Nope, the promises of God are ‘Yea’ and ‘Amen’ in Christ. But when you deny Him, ignore His will, and walk as His enemy, you forfeit all interest in those promises and call down God’s judgment upon yourself.”

That’s a classic Reformed response.

And this response in no way undermines assurance (just as it in no way impugns God’s faithfulness to His promises). Assurance is founded upon the fact that all who believe can know for certain that they are beloved of God, forgiven of their sins, and the recipient of all His promises and thus, may rest in peace with sure and certain confidence.

Assurance is based upon the fact that Jesus promises He will not cast us off arbitrarily or forsake us for no reason. Assurance is based upon the fact that no man and no circumstance can rip us out of Christ’s hand. Indeed, nothing outside of me can separate me from the love of Christ Jesus.

But assurance is not based upon a belief that eternal life is mine no matter what I do or believe. Assurance is only for those who believe.

The rebel, the unbelieving skeptic, the self-conscious hypocrite, the one who crucifies Christ afresh and tramples upon the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, the one who despises the baptism that saved him, will surely perish – and has no right to any assurance of salvation.

This is the common position of everybody who is Reformed.

And that reality does nothing to undermine true, legitimate, biblical assurance.

One of the problems in this discussion is the view that some have of apostasy. We sometimes speak of apostasy as if it is something that comes upon a man like a flu virus. Here’s a guy who loved Jesus and was faithful when he went to bed on July 28 but then, for no apparent reason, he woke up on July 29 and was an unbeliever who didn’t love Jesus any more and yet, couldn’t tell you why. Apparently, the Spirit just decided to up and leave him and allow him to return to his “unregenerate” state.

This is like the modern view of love which views love as an arbitrary emotion that falls upon us and leaves us without reason or rhyme. So that men claim simply to have fallen “out of love” with their wives for no specific reason whatsoever. They just woke up one morning and their love had fled, never to come home again. We all know this to be bogus and if a man says this, we know he’s lying. Love doesn’t just vanish, it dies – and there’s always a cause of death.

In the same way apostasy doesn’t “just happen.” Apostasy is the result of an extended period of compromise, disobedience, and unbelief that culminates in a denial of Christ not to be repented of. In other words, no one apostatizes, unless he wants to and is willing to work at it. And therefore apostasy catches no one by surprise. It’s the result of an intentional, purposeful, and persistent choice to depart from Jesus and the faith.

In other words, apostasy is something that a person who is sincerely loving Jesus and seeking to be faithful to Him need never fear.

[This article appeared in TableTalk magazine (a publication of Ligonier Ministries) sometime before the turn of the century]

Dear John,

I trust this finds you well and prospering. Forgive me for coming right to the point, but I feel an urgency to address your last question to me and to tell you why I am “so upset” over your rejection of traditional “six-day” creation. I recognize that rejecting the traditional view of Genesis 1 is not as serious as rejecting of the divinity of Christ. Good and gracious men have embraced the position you now hold.

And I grant your contention that we cannot ignore extra-biblical insights which might clarify our understanding of certain Scriptural texts. Your admonition to me to “remember Galileo” is not forgotten. But Galileo’s observations on the existing universe strike me as of a quite different nature than the speculations of modern science on the origins of the existing universe. There we are beyond the capabilities of scientific inquiry. Science is helpless to explain miracles (which is precisely what Genesis 1 presents to us) and when it attempts to do so, we are under no obligation to take it seriously.

You have asked why God would create a world that looks so old if in fact it was as young as the Bible indicates (approximately 6000 years-old). “Wouldn’t that be deceptive?” you asked. Well, frankly, no. God tells us clearly that He created all things by His Word and created them “full grown” as it were. Obviously, Adam looked older than he actually was, the trees were created mature, etc. If God expected us to guess their age, one might consider His work deceptive, but when He tells us how He did it, where is the deception?

Further, why is it considered “deceptive” for the world to appear old, but actually be young, but honest for the world to be old even though God clearly tells us that it is young? Why should we assume that scientific speculation about the age of the earth is more honest and accurate than the plain statements of Scripture?

But your view has other ramifications beyond Genesis 1, for example: What are we to do with the genealogies of Genesis 5? There we read that Adam was 930 years old when he died. But if the sixth day was of indeterminable length, how can we know that this statement is accurate? Indeed, what are we to make of this genealogy altogether? It clearly teaches that from the creation of Adam to the birth of Noah there were only 1,056 years.

Now, you may say, “But this is not intended to be a complete genealogy, there are obvious gaps in it!” Well, surely it is not a complete genealogy, there are many sons (and daughters) left unmentioned. But even so, we are still told how old the “father” was when his “son” was born. Thus, even if the “son” was a great-great-great grandson, where are the “gaps”? And even if I grant your contention that there are “gaps” can we imagine “gaps” large enough to make you (or our scientific friends) comfortable with the resulting length of time? (Remember, science now thinks the world is at least four billion years old; can we find that many gaps?)

If you protest that the age of the earth can be accounted for by the length of time prior to Adam’s creation, that only leads to more questions. Was the sixth day different from the first five days in its length? Did “normal calendar time” begin after Adam’s creation on the sixth day? On what basis can we assert these things? Your view appears to be an unwarranted accommodation to unprovable scientific claims.

Again, what shall we do with the Flood account? We are told precisely what day the Flood began (Gen. 7:6,11) which was, according to the biblical genealogies, in the 1656th year of the world. And we are told how long the waters “prevailed” upon the earth and the extent of this terrible judgment.

I bring this up not to switch subjects but to say that we have similar problems here as in the creation account. Our scientists (some of them good and faithful evangelicals) tell us that there is absolutely no evidence of a universal flood. They assure us, the flood could not have happened in the year 1656 after the creation of Adam because the “geological evidence” makes this an impossibility. They also say the Flood must have been a local disaster, confined to the Mesopotamian area.

Not to be disrespectful (and I am certainly no scientist) but I have a few questions: How can water “stand” (15 cubits “higher than the mountains”) for 150 days if the Flood was only “local”? And if the Flood was “local” why did Noah have to build the ark to escape it? And why take all those animals on board? God told him the Flood was coming 120 years before the event, plenty of time to migrate to higher ground, it seems to me. If, however, we follow your assumptions regarding science and Genesis 1, are we not equally bound to re-interpret Genesis 6-9 in light of the scientific “evidence”?

Indeed, what is to prevent someone from doing this same thing with the account of the Lord’s resurrection? Science says that’s impossible too. I know you would not want to go that far, but my point is that the assumptions which call for a rejection of the traditional view of Genesis 1 can be taken that far. If the claims of Genesis 1 are not true, why are the claims of John 20 true?

It seems that rejecting the traditional reading of Genesis 1 leaves us with far more problems than we have taking the text as a straight-forward historical account. Accepting scientific theories as authoritative seriously threatens the integrity of Scripture. If contradicting the observations of science places biblical teachings in doubt, then most of the claims of historic Christianity must of necessity be classified as “doubtful.”

In the end we must make a choice: Believe God’s Word and live with a few “scientific dilemmas” for the present or embrace the Word of the scientists and spend our lives in the impossible task of reconciling their unprovable theories with the text of the Bible. I happily take the former position and promise to be stubbornly insistent that you rejoin me!

Please give my best regards to Meredith, Jack, and Bruce. May the Lord continue to bless your ministry for our Creator and Redeemer,

Steve

One of the chief goals of the Westminster Assembly was to produce a confessional statement which the majority of evangelicals of the British Isles could endorse and upon which they could stand together. This was a much more daunting task than many today might realize.

Peter Wallace in his essay “Whose Meaning? The Question of Original Intent,” (available here) has pointed out that because there were a wide range of theological opinions present in the Assembly and because there was a concern to frame statements that all could embrace without giving up these particular convictions, the Assembly’s language was often not nearly as precise and specific as it sometimes appears to be.

Some of the issues over which there were divisions were passed over in silence (infra- vs. supra-lapsarianism and the millennium, e.g.) but this could not be done at every point of difference. Among the best known of the doctrinal accommodations of the Assembly are those relating to the imputation of the active obedience of Christ and baptismal efficacy. Both issues were carefully debated and, in the end, the Assembly adopted language that was sufficiently broad and ambiguous to allow for all views that were considered to have plausible scriptural support. Coming to a definitive position on these issues was judged to be secondary to being able to stand together.

The Westminster Divines did not believe all ministers had to accept exactly the same interpretation of the language of the Confession in order to affirm it. The Confession was a consensus document (as is true of nearly all the creeds). It was designed to bring together all those who were Reformed in doctrine so that a solid front could be presented against Romanism, Arminianism, Socinianism, the Antinomians, and other errors which existed in the British Isles.

Far from trying to frame a document which would “lock” men into a precise theological position on every issue, they wrote the document in such a way as to allow for a diversity of interpretations at particular points where there were legitimate, honest differences in understanding. So long as a man could affirm the wording of the Confession based upon responsible exegesis, they were willing to live with a diversity of opinion and trust that the Lord would bring them to further unity in time.

This is not the way many view the Westminster Confession today, however. We commonly hear the Westminster Confession acclaimed as “the best” and “most thorough” of all the Protestant creeds – and from this many have drawn a very dangerous implication. If the Westminster is the “most faithful summary of the teaching of the Bible” then it is often assumed (in practice if not always in theory) that to disagree with it is tantamount to disagreeing with the Bible itself.

In practice we come perilously close to equating the Confession with the Scriptures. This is shown in how some seek to interpret the Confession. It is viewed as a precisely worded, internally consistent document which accurately reflects the harmony and consistency of the Bible. Rather than viewing the Confession as the fruit of committee work, sewn together by amendment, some insist on treating it as if it was somehow inspired of God and infallible. In spite of our protests to the contrary and our affirmation of Sola Scriptura, we have not successfully avoided this error.

For this reason some are appalled over the mere suggestion that Westminster’s language is at points confusing, inconsistent, and in need of amendment. The distinction between the teaching of the Scriptures and the teaching of the confession has been, for all practical purposes, lost.

We must remember that the confession is a summary of some of the teachings of the Bible (it is not a comprehensive compendium of all the Bible teaches). Nor is it an authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures. To view the Confession in either of these ways is to make all disagreement with the creed a departure from the Bible and practically to destroy the supremacy of the Scriptures over the creed.

Alister McGrath has observed that these problems are not new to the Reformed Church. In the early years of the Reformation a great many beliefs and practices were viewed as matters of indifference. But as the arguments between the Lutherans and the Calvinists intensified, the need to distinguish between the two groups led them to search for distinctive doctrinal differences.

McGrath notes, “At the social and political level, the communities were difficult to distinguish; doctrine therefore provided the most reliable means by which they might define themselves over and against one another.” Each group produced precise doctrinal formulations in hopes of demonstrating the places in which they differed. This led not only to a loss of theological “elbow room” but to something far worse:

Perhaps more importantly, given the central role of the Bible for Protestantism, this new trend meant that the Bible tended to be read through the prism of ‘confessions’ – statements of faith that frequently influenced, and sometimes determined, how certain passages of the Bible were to be interpreted. This shift was a contributing factor to the rise of ‘proof-texting’: citing isolated, decontextualized verses of the Bible in support of often controversial confessional positions. Paradoxically, this development actually lessened the influence of the Bible within Protestantism, in that biblical statements were accommodated to existing doctrinal frameworks rather than being allowed to determine them, and even to challenge them. (Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, 103)

We see the same thing in our own day as recent controversies over the so-called “Federal Vision” have demonstrated. But this stands in stark contradiction of our profession to Sola Scriptura and to the goal of continuing reformation. In its most vibrant seasons, the Reformed Church has been concerned to preserve the liberty of theologians to examine creedal statements in light of the Word of God and refine them as necessary. Faithfulness to the Word of God, not adherence to the language of a particular confessional statement, was supreme.

If loyalty to a confessional statement supplants faithfulness to the Scriptures (or if loyalty to a confession is identified with faithfulness to the Scriptures), we have fallen away from the Reformed tradition. Indeed, we are, at that point, in danger of  departing from Jesus Himself and identifying with His enemies.

(to be continued)

In spite of the Westminster Assembly’s warning that the Scriptures are “the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined,” and its caution that “All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both,” we see all around us, those who act as if the Westminster Confession is infallible and the standard of orthodoxy.

The desire for a timeless creed is a normal and quite understandable desire. After all, God’s Word is applicable to all men in all ages and is in itself unchanging and authoritative for every day and age. Truth by definition does not change and thus, it is not irrational to desire a creedal statement which contains formulae that stand as reliable expressions of the teachings of God’s Word in all times and places and remain so for every succeeding age. But no matter how reasonable this desire might appear, it is in fact ultimately impossible to attain.

This longing for creedal permanence has always been present in all branches of the church but historically, the Reformed have been particularly keen to avoid this snare. The emphasis placed upon the supremacy of the Scriptures as the one infallible rule of faith and life has worked to undermine the temptation to absolutize confessional statements. Consequently, no branch of Christ’s Church has been more quick to write new creeds and confessions in light of the circumstances and needs of their own day as the Reformed (no less than 50 major creedal statements were formulated in the 125 years after Luther’s posting of his 95 theses in 1517). And we may add, no group has been more careful to warn against idolizing their creedal statements.

When Henrich Bullinger and Leo Jud signed the First Helvetic Confession, they added this comment:

We wish in no way to prescribe for all churches through these articles a single rule of faith. For we acknowledge no other rule of faith than Holy Scripture. We agree with whoever agrees with this, although he uses different expressions from our Confession. For we should have regard for the fact itself and for the truth, not for the words. We grant to everyone the freedom to use his own expressions which are suitable for his church and will make use of this freedom ourselves, at the same time defending the true sense of the Confession against distortions. (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. I, 389-390; translated by Leith, The Assembly at Westminster, 19).

Their preeminent concern was to prevent any confession of faith from usurping the supreme authority of the Scriptures. The confession was not to be used to bind the consciences of men as if it had the authority of the Word of God. Of course, there were important reasons for this in addition to maintaining the Scriptures’ supremacy. In the early stages of the Reformation it was vital that the various groups and leaders be given room to disagree amiably within the confines of God’s Word. If there was to be any unity at all among the various groups and movements of the Reformation, this freedom had to be maintained.

But they were also keenly aware of other realities which stood as barriers against absolutizing confessions and creeds. The first of which is the influence of the historical situation upon theology (i.e. all theology is historically conditioned, i.e. molded and formed in the light of the peculiar historical circumstances in which theologians live). This is always the case no matter what the creed or confession or the giftedness of the authors. John Murray writes:

the creeds of the church have been framed in a particular historical situation to meet the need of the church in that context, and have been oriented to a considerable extent in both their negative and positive declarations to the refutation of the errors confronting the church at that time. The creeds are therefore, historically complexioned in language and content and do not reflect the particular and distinguishing needs of subsequent generations. (“The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith,” Collected Writings, IV, 242)

All creeds are framed by men who have grown up in a particular culture with particular influences and experiences — all of which have contributed to the way in which they read the Bible and understand its teachings and applications – and this reality limits the usefulness of all creeds and confessions, no matter how closely they may express an accurate understanding of the Word of God. Unavoidably, the form and content of particular creedal statements are shaped and influenced by the peculiar historical circumstances in which they are composed.

Thus, to say that the Westminster Confession (or any other confession for that matter) doesn’t address or fully meet the needs of our current theological and cultural milieu, is not necessarily to say that it is mistaken or erroneous. Many of us can affirm the statements contained in the Confession with few, if any, reservations while realizing that there is much more to say still. To acknowledge the time-bound nature of creeds is not a harsh critique. It is simply a fact. But it is a vital fact to remember in order to avoid falling into the trap of creedal idolatry.

The realities of history, distinctive cultural traditions, and the evolving situations in which the Church found itself were preeminent factors in provoking the proliferation of creeds in the Reformed branch of the Church. Reformed churchmen often chose to write new creeds even though existing creeds were available. They believed it was important to confess the faith in ways appropriate to their particular time and place and culture. As John Leith observed, “They refused to exalt any one creed as the perennial theology of the church or as a theology for eternity. They knew that every statement of faith is very historical and limited by the finiteness and sin of man.” (The Assembly at Westminster, 19).

The last observation (remembering the limits placed upon man by his sin and finiteness) leads to the second factor that mitigates against absolutizing the creeds: the progressive sanctification of the Church. God has promised to cause His people to grow up to maturity in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 4:11-16). Just as individuals grow in wisdom and knowledge throughout their lives, so the body of Christ collectively grows in wisdom and maturity throughout history.

Living later is a great advantage. We learn from those who have gone before us. We see some things more clearly simply because we have the privilege of standing on the shoulders of those who have preceded us. The sanctifying work of the Spirit means that those who come after us will have a more clear and accurate understanding of the Word of God than we have at present. This reality means that all creedal statements are limited in their usefulness simply because they are the expression of the best knowledge of the church at the time in which they were written. Professor Murray again notes:

There is the progressive understanding of the faith delivered to the saints. There is in the church the ceaseless activity of the Holy Spirit so that the church organically and corporately increases in knowledge unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . . the Westminster Confession . . . is the epitome of the most mature thought to which the church of Christ had been led up to the year 1646. But are we to suppose that this progression ceased with that date? To ask the question is to answer it. An affirmative is to impugn the continued grace of which the Westminster Confession is itself an example at the time of its writing. There is more light to break forth from the living and abiding Word of God. (Collected Writings, IV, 242)

This means that we ought not to be surprised if the Church determines the Westminster formulations (or those of other creeds) are not totally adequate for today and the future – even as those who have gone before us determined that the Apostle’s, Nicene, Athanasian, and Chalcedonian creeds were not fully sufficient for their own times.

This is exactly what is happening today. Recent studies have reminded us of the historical situation which shaped the Westminster Confession. We have been shown that the Confession was written using language broad enough to allow for a rather wide range of doctrinal views at specific points and not just one narrow position. We are seeing how the particular circumstances and concerns of the members of the Assembly affected their doctrinal formulations. Westminster theology was no more immune to the forces of history than any other theology.

This, coupled with the fact that we are continuing to grow in our understanding of God’s Word means that we may be on the verge of  seeing some things more clearly than those who have preceded us (think particularly in regard to the doctrines of the Trinity, the covenant, the church, worship and the sacraments among others).

And these insights should lead to the formulation of new confessional statements that build gratefully upon the old. As heretical as that may sound to some, this is the Reformed tradition – indeed, it is the tradition of the holy catholic Church.

(to be continued)

It’s been a while coming but finally the new printing of The Federal Vision is at the printers and will be arriving in bookstores soon.

But, before it does, Athanasius Press is giving you an opportunity to purchase this new printing at a special pre-publication price of $16!

(That’s 35% off the retail price)

A new foreword has been added along with all the original essays.

All you have to is click here and place your order.

But do it soon so you don’t miss out!

 

Singing dads

Singing with vigor and joyful abandon has always been one of the things we’ve tried to emphasize over the years. I’m usually especially rabid about it after going on vacation, having visited churches where all you can hear is the piano (or organ) playing and a few weak voices here and there in the congregation like night thieves sneaking around afraid of waking someone.

When we join these churches for worship, our family always causes “a stir” – not because we want to or try to, but just because we actually sing the hymns. Out loud. And the result is, before the fourth verse is finished, everyone in the congregation has turned around to get a sneak peak at the show-offs who’ve come to disturb the peace and serenity of the Quiet Waters of Tranquility Church.

Truth is, not many churches sing anymore. I mean, SING – singing the words of the hymn with something that approaches zeal, following along in the general proximity of the tune being played, and acting like they really believe what they’re singing. In some churches, nobody sings. Except the choir. Or the singers in the worship band. In other churches only the women sing – while the men stand, uncomfortably looking about with the same interest and enthusiasm they would have if their wives had dragged them to the matinee of La Traviata.

It’s a shame really. Given what the Scriptures teach about the importance and significance of singing.

It has to be an indicator of our spiritual well-being when the worst singing we hear each week is usually that which we hear in church. During worship.

But let’s, for the moment, put aside a full critical analysis of why this is so and focus upon one reason it is so: Dads – men – don’t sing anymore. And that has had many bad consequences. I was reminded of this after seeing an article by Trevan Wax, titled “A Dad Who Sings.” After mentioning the fact that his dad was always singing, Mr. Wax observes:

We certainly weren’t a charismatic family. We weren’t the type to raise our hands in church. We didn’t dance in the aisles.

But I never remember a time I sat with my parents in church that they did not sing. Not once.

Outside the church, Dad sang too. In the van, he may not have lifted his hands off the steering wheel, but he lifted the roof with his praises. He wasn’t a soloist or a choir member, but he was a worshiper.

Dad didn’t see himself as being “above” praising the Lord. He didn’t see praise and worship as something unmanly. In fact, I remember how many of those songs celebrated the power of Jesus Christ over the principalities and powers of this world. The impression the songs left on me was that Jesus had achieved an important victory, and He was worth singing about and cheering for. Jesus was the Conqueror, so praise the victorious Lamb!

Dad never had to tell me I should sing along. Much of what I learned wasn’t verbal instruction. I knew Jesus was good and powerful, not just because the Bible told me so, but because Dad sang about it so much. The impact wasn’t in him telling me that Jesus was everything; it was him singing it. For that example of faithfulness, I am, as one of those old songs said, “forever grateful.”

There you go.

Dads lead families. Dads often set the “tone” of the family. Dad’s example is always a powerful one – for good or ill. But dads often forget this and think that their lectures are more influential than their example. Wrong.

If you’ve been distressed over the poor singing in your church (or other churches) or in your family, here’s what you can do about it: SING. Sing loudly. Sing with joy. Sing like the gospel is true. Sing like Jesus really is alive. Sing like you would sing if you had been delivered from certain death and given unending life piled high with the most joyful things. Sing like you have been given the great honor of being adopted into the family of the King of the Universe.

Sing!

And your children will join you.

And, more importantly, they will learn about the One who is worthy of all praise. At all times. In every place.

And others will too.

And things will begin to change.

So . . . sing!

 

 

Resurrection

RESURRECTION.

Moist with one drop of Thy blood, my dry soul
Shall—though she now be in extreme degree
Too stony hard, and yet too fleshly—be
Freed by that drop, from being starved, hard or foul,
And life by this death abled shall control
Death, whom Thy death slew; nor shall to me
Fear of first or last death bring misery,
If in thy life-book my name thou enroll.
Flesh in that long sleep is not putrified,
But made that there, of which, and for which it was;
Nor can by other means be glorified.
May then sin’s sleep and death soon from me pass,
That waked from both, I again risen may
Salute the last and everlasting day. 

–John Donne, from La Corona

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