Archive for February 2014

Daddy Died—Promises that Abraham Believed

February 14, 2014

a funeral message for the father of a friend:

Daddy’s going to die someday. And for two of you today that day has come. Daddy died. We think, we know that we are going to die, we ourselves are going to die. But we think, not now, not until Daddy has died. As we know, it doesn’t always work that way— sometimes we die before daddy dies. But today, two of you come with your families, to this grave, because Daddy died.

And what can we say in the face of this reality, what is there to talk about beside this grave? It’s hot, but I want to read to you from the book of Hebrews chapter 11, verses 17-19

“By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac, and he that had received the promises offered up his one and only Son. Of whom it was said: That in Isaac shall thy seed be called. Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead…”

We could talk about faith, about Abraham’s believing. But my question is— what gospel did Abraham believe? What is the gospel, what is the good news for us now, standing here at this grave and with Daddy dead? What are these promises that Hebrews talks about?

We know that there was a promised land. I find it interesting that in Genesis 23, right after the chapter about Abraham and Isaac on the mountain, we see Abraham buying land to bury his wife Sarah. And when Abraham himself died, that grave, that burial place was the only part of the promised land that Abraham owned. And when Abraham died, his two sons Isaac and Ishmael came to bury him. And so we remember that God promised Abraham not only the land but many children.

But is that all there is to the promises? Is that all the gospel Abraham knew? Is that all the gospel we know? It’s hot, but I want you to see two other promises here in this text. One is the promise in v 19: counting that God was able to raise Isaac up from the dead. Abraham knew about resurrection. Abraham believed in resurrection. The gospel is about resurrection.

Not today, but the day when Jesus comes, there will be a resurrection from the grave. Both the elect and the non-elect will be raised. At that resurrection day God will demand from us a righteousness, a perfect righteousness, a divine righteousness, a righteousness we do not have and cannot earn or produce…we need to receive it by grace. This righteousness is not grace changing us on the inside. This righteousness is Christ’s death for the elect to satisfy God’s law for all the sins of the elect. This righteousness we receive by God’s imputation, and not because of our faith.

The resurrection day which is to come will not be good news for the non-elect. But for the elect it will be, because Jesus Christ did a work of righteousness, and the merit of that work is in time imputed to the elect so that they will stand perfect before God at the resurrection day.

So what are the promises Abraham believed? Not only land and many children, but resurrection. But not only resurrection, because there is a resurrection to nothing but second death. Let me read Hebrews 11 verse 18 again: “In Isaac shall thy seed be called.” The promise Abraham believed is not only that he would have many children, not only that Isaac was his elect seed, his one and only, and that Ishmael was not. The promise was about one specific child of Abraham, about one particular descendent of Abraham, the promise was about Jesus Christ.

Abraham (as far as I know) did not know his name, but Abraham did know that there was one child, one seed, who was coming to do a work of righteousness for the elect. Abraham did see the need of that perfect righteousness, and he did trust God’s promise to bring in that righteousness. “In Isaac thy seed shall be called”. Yes, Isaac is the seed of Abraham. Yes, Isaac’s children are God’s firstborn son, God’s national seed. But IN Isaac there is to be one seed, one child, and that human person is named Jesus. Jesus is not only God now; Jesus is also human now and Jesus was raised from the grave because Jesus had completed that perfect work of righteousness which God had promised to Abraham.

Are you elect? You will never know, unless and until you believe this gospel that Abraham believed, trusting in the seed of Abraham and his perfect work of righteousness for the elect. Hebrews 9:27-28 “And it is appointed unto men once to die but after this the judgment. So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of MANY; and unto THEM that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.”

It is not just Daddy who is appointed to die. All of us are going to die, unless Jesus comes back before then. After we die, it’s too late to believe the gospel. After we die, we must all wait for the day of resurrection, for the day of judgment. And on that day, the question will be: do we have a perfect righteousness? Have our sins all been taken away?

What is the gospel for us, for today, for right here and right now? The gospel is that Jesus has taken away some sins. Some will die in their sins, but the good news is that others will die without sins. Why? Why do the elect die WITHOUT their sins? Hebrews 9:28 says it’s because Christ died WITH their sins.

Listen to the gospel again! Christ was handed over to death, delivered, offered TO BEAR THE SINS OF MANY. Christ died because he was imputed with all the sins of the elect. But Christ no longer bears all the sins of the elect. Christ did something only He could do—He put away these sins, He bore them away, He took them away, He paid the full price for all the sins of all the elect.

Jesus Christ is no longer imputed with these sins. Hebrews 9:28 says He shall appear. Christ rose from the grave. And when Christ rose from the grave, He was no longer imputed with the sins of the elect. Christ had by His death satisfied for all those sins. All the sins of the elect, past and future, were then non-imputed to Jesus Christ.

This is the gospel. Not that you are going to die. Your death is no gospel. But the death of Christ for the elect, that is the gospel. Christ the seed of Abraham died for Abraham and for all the seed of Abraham.

Mark McCulley


The Cross Against Human Glory, by David Engelsma

February 6, 2014

On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Eerdmans, 1997).

In the book, Lutheran theologian Gerhard O. Forde gives a brief commentary on the 28 theological theses that Luther presented and defended at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. In addition to the commentary, the work is valuable simply in that it makes available Luther’s 28 marvelous doctrinal propositions, in full.

The Heidelberg Disputation was convened on April 26, 1518, a mere six months after Luther’s posting of the 95 theses. The Disputation was a direct result of the posting of the 95 theses. The pope had instructed the head of Luther’s Augustinian order to silence the monk. vonStaupitz instead asked Luther to acquaint the Augustinians with his new, evangelical theology by means of a disputation on certain theses which Luther was to draw up.

Luther came to the meeting with 28 theological and 12 philosophical theses, or propositions. Each of the theological theses was followed by a brief explanation and defense. To the theses, Luther appended an “explanation” of the question, “Is the will of man outside the state of grace free or rather in bondage and captive?” This amounted to an important treatment of the fundamental theological issue of the freedom or bondage of the will of the natural man.

The complete text of the theological and philosophical theses, of Luther’s own explanation of the theological theses, and of the appendix on the bondage of the will is found in Luther’s Works, vol. 31, ed. Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), pp. 39-70. It was at the Heidelberg Disputation that Martin Bucer was won to the cause of the Reformation, and captivated by Luther.

Gerhard Forde comments on the theological theses. These theses set forth Luther’s beliefs concerning sin, the bondage of the human will, the inability of the unsaved man outside of Christ to perform any good work, and salvation by grace alone in the cross of Christ.

In these theses, Luther spoke explicitly of the “theology of the cross,” which he explicitly contrasted with the “theology of glory.” Thesis 21 reads: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” The theology of the cross is the biblical gospel of God’s salvation of dead sinners out of mere grace only through the suffering and death of the cross of Jesus Christ. The theology of the cross not only rules out, but also curses all human worth, will, and working that would accomplish or account for the salvation of sinners, in whole or in part. Thesis 16 reads: “The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him ADDS SIN TO SIN so that he becomes doubly guilty.”

the theology of glory is the corruption of the biblical gospel, consisting of attributing to man some “little bit” (to use Forde’s description) of cooperation with God in salvation. The glory that the theology of glory is concerned to preserve and promote is the natural glory of man. The theologians of glory are offended by the cross’ exposure of man as utterly helpless in his own salvation and utterly hostile to the God who saves him. The theology of (man’s) glory is pitted against the theology of (God’s) grace.

Forde writes: A theology of glory … operates on the assumption that what we need is optimistic encouragement, some flattery, some positive thinking, some support to build our self-esteem. Theologically speaking it operates on the assumption that we are not seriously addicted to sin, and that our improvement is both necessary and possible. We need a little boost in our desire to do good works. Of course our theologian of glory may well grant that we NEED THE HELP OF GRACE. The only dispute, usually, will be about the degree of grace needed. If we are a “liberal,” we will opt for less grace and tend to define it as some kind of moral persuasion or spiritual encouragement. If we are more “conservative” and speak even of the depth of human sin, we will tend to escalate the degree of grace needed to the utmost. But the hallmark of a theology of glory is that it will always consider grace as something of a supplement to whatever is left of human will and power. It will always, in the end, hold out for some free will (p. 16; emphasis added).

Luther opposed the Roman Catholic form of the theology of glory: “Do what is in you, and God will reward you with grace and salvation.” Basic to Rome’s theology of glory was (and is) their doctrine of the freedom of the human will: the sinner has of himself the ability to choose God and salvation. Against the Roman Catholic theology of glory, therefore, Luther (in 1518!) laid down Thesis 13: “Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.”

Forde comments on Thesis 13: This thesis was perhaps the most offensive of all to the papal party in Luther’s day. That is indicated by the fact that it was the only one from this Disputation actually attacked in the bull “Exsurge Domine” threatening Luther with excommunication. Luther’s reply to the bull indicates how important he considered this thesis to be. He said it was “the highest and most important issue of our cause” (p. 53).

Central to Luther’s theology of the cross was justification by faith alone. Luther expressed this doctrine in Thesis 25: “He is not righteous who works much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.”

Very definitely and prominently “looming in the background,” as Forde puts it, “always is the troublesome question of predestination.” In its repudiation of free will, Forde points out, the theology of the cross unmistakably proclaims that “we are saved by divine election.” “The cross itself is the evidence that we did not choose him but that he, nevertheless, chose us (John 15:16)” (pp. 50, 51). The protest is always raised, “We aren’t puppets, are we? If everything happens by divine will, how can we be held responsible? We just can’t accept such a God! There must be some freedom of choice!” As Forde observes, “This is evidence of theologians of glory at work defending themselves to the end. They actually admit that they cannot and will not will God to be God (p. 51).

A theologian of the cross, according to Luther in Theses 9 and 10, judges all works done “without Christ” as “dead” and as “mortal sin.” In his own defense of the theology of the cross, Luther condemned as sin, and nothing but sin, every work done by unbelievers:

“Every one who commits sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). How is it possible that a slave of the devil and a captive of the sin he serves can do anything else but sin? How can he do a work of light who is in darkness? How can he do the work of a wise man who is a fool? How can he do the work of a healthy person who is ill? … Therefore all things which he does are works of the devil, works of sin, works of darkness, works of folly…. Everything that does not proceed from faith is a mortal and damnable sin (Luther’s Works, vol. 31, pp. 65, 67).

This exposes the “common grace” theologians in Calvinist churches, who approve the works of unbelievers as good and righteous. Outside of Christ, according to the flattering theory of ‘common grace”, is something, even much, that is not accused, judged, and condemned by the law of God, contrary to the confession of Luther in Thesis 23.

“To defend themselves,” says Forde, ‘theologians of glory are always driven to claim at least some freedom of choice and to play theological games, bargaining for little bits. In one way or another the claim is made that the will must have at least a small part to play (pp. 49, 50).

The theological game that many play today, exactly as in Luther’s day, is to concede that “without grace the will (can) do nothing to merit eternal salvation” and to acknowledge that we are saved by grace. But immediately they add that “the will must at least desire and prepare for grace” (p. 50).

In his appendix to the theses that he brought to Heidelberg in 1518, Luther himself passed a devastating judgment upon the theology of the preachers who make the grace of God depend on anything at all in the sinner. “Such teachers attribute nothing to the grace of God except a certain embellishment of our works.’ (Luther’s Works, vol. 31, pp. 67).

Those who believe and confess the theology of the cross are a mere remnant, a little flock. As soon as a a denomination of churches show that they take divine predestination seriously as the source and foundation of all salvation, the churches are surrounded in protests and judgments— “You make us puppets! You make God the author of sin! You deny human responsibility! Hyper-Calvinists!”

David Engelsma

If We Remove the Ceremonies, and We are United to Christ, Then the Law Is Our Friend?

February 5, 2014

Ephesians 2: 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, in order to create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 in order to reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

In Ephesians 2, Paul is not dividing the law from its curse, or saying only that the curse has been abolished. What has been abolished is “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances”. In some sense, the law itself has been abolished. Paul speaks in Ephesians 2 the opposite of the way he would have to speak if he thought that curse and law were two different things.

While the Reformed distinction between law and curse lays the exclusive emphasis on the law in Romans 3:31, Paul’s point in Romans 3:31 accentuates the curse.

While the Reformed distinction between law and curse lays the emphasis on the curse in Ephesians 2, the emphasis in context of Ephesians 2 is the law itself.

The law is not our friend but our enemy, because we are sinners. The one and only way that the law is now our friend is Christ’s death by law to the law for the sins of the elect.

“For I through the law died to the law” Galatians 2:19

Machen, Notes, p 159 “The law . . . led men, by its clear revelation of what God requires, to relinquish all claim to salvation by their own obedience. In that sense, surely, Paul could say that it was through the law that he died to the law. The law made the commands of God so terribly clear that Paul could see plainly that there was no hope for him if he appealed for his salvation to his own obedience to those commands.”

Machen: “This interpretation yields a truly Pauline thought. But the immediate context suggests another, and an even profounder, meaning for the words.”

Machen: “The key to the interpretation is probably to be found in the sentences, I have been crucified together with Christ, which almost immediately follows. The law, with its penalty of death upon sins (which penalty Christ bore in our stead) brought Christ to the cross; and when Christ died I died, since he died as my representative.”

Machen: “The death to the law… the law itself brought about when… Christ died that Since He died that death as our representative, we too have died that death. Thus our death to the law, suffered for us by Christ, far from being contrary to the law, was in fulfillment of the law’s own demands. “

Ephesians 2:15 teaches that the law is the instrument of condemnation and death. The emphasis is on the code, the “commandments expressed in ordinances”. Instead of separating out the curse from the code, Paul actually writes of the abolition of the commandments themselves. This can be seen from the statement itself, and also from the context which speaks of the joining of jew and gentile into the body.

It is impossible to maintain that only the curse itself is that which divides the two groups, since both are under the curse equally. No, the curse divides God from humans. What stands between jew and gentile is the law itself, the code, the covenant mediated by Moses.

Think of the parallel in Colossians 2:13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

The “record of death” against us is the same as the “legal demands” against us. It is difficult to see how the law and its curse can be separated, when the Apostle integrates them together in this way. It is the demands which are hostile to us. Colossians 2: 16 goes on to say: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.”

It is more than the removal of the curse that the law-work of the cross achieves. The cross brings about in some sense the abolition of the law itself. Nobody has to do anymore what the Mosaic covenant commands to be done.

The familiar moral/ceremonial distinction was often used by Roman Catholics against the Reformers, when the topic was justification by imputation vs justification by our law-keeping. Calvin would not allow the Romanists this distinction in order for them to say that only some kind of our works were not a condition of salvation. Calvin ruled out all of our works (even “works of faith”) as having any part in our justification.

The curse does not attach to the ceremonies. Rather, the ceremonies picture the way out from the curse. If you say that “law” in these texts is only the ceremonies, then you have ceremonies that damn rather than ceremonies that prefigure Christ and the cross.