Archive for March 22, 2014

Covenantal Nomism Needs a Particular Sort of People, Not the Merits of Christ

March 22, 2014

Brain Vickers, Justification by Grace Through Faith, Explorations in Biblical Theology , edited by Robert Petersen, Presbyterian and Reformed, 2013

His chapter 3 puts the emphasis on the conditionality of Abraham continuing to do what needs to be done. We got this reading of Genesis a long time ago from Dan Fuller, and it certainly fits with an Edwardsian notion of justification as a process based on God knowing that God will enable the children of Abraham to keep doing well enough to meet the conditions to obtain what they have learned to desire. The theological grammar depends on a “covenantal nomism” distinction between election and conditional covenant.

Listen to this Vickers soundbite— “God keeps his word. At the same time the blessing is unconditionally promised to a particular sort of people.” (p 66) Clever, is it not? “At the same time”. The covenant itself is “unconditional”. But. Who stays in the covenant, well, that’s not so unconditional. “A particular sort of people”. The people God keeps causing these sort of people to keep meeting the conditions (100% God, but also 100% them). Be warned— you haven’t got to the end and there is no “closure” (assurance) for you yet.

This approach avoids the “antinomian” “once justified, always justified” and “once born again, always born again” teaching. Maybe you think you are in the “particular kind of people” but are you really? Sure, justified people stay justified, but you can never know until the end if you ever were justified! There are different ways to get to these “gospel threats” and warnings. Vickers does not sound like the federal visionists about water baptism making you elect, and then you losing your election. But still you have to keep running to the end in works without ever knowing for sure that you believe the gospel.

But don’t I myself have a similar kind of problem, since I insist first, that Christ died only for the elect and second, that the elect will come to know and believe the gospel.? So maybe next week, I will find out that I am not elect, and that I don’t believe the gospel, and then it will be seen as evidence that I never did? . We should continue to think about that challenge, but for sake of information, let me remind you that Vickers and Schreiner (along with John Piper and Dan Fuller) don’t like to think of the warnings as after-the-fact evidence. They love the “beauty of threats” as the means of grace. See especially John Piper’s book Future Grace and its plea for “conditionality”.

Then we can discuss if there is a practical difference between the idea of “evidence” and “warnings as means”. Maybe we can discuss also the conclusion by Vickers: “However, while Abraham sets the standard for justification by faith alone, he also proves the old Protestant phrase—the faith that justifies alone is never alone.” (p 70) Yes, I do want to question old phrases, but before we do that, we need to question the idea that God counts faith as the righteousness. God imputes righteousness. God does not impute faith. And God certainly does not impute faith as righteousness.It’s not faith that justifies. It’s Christ’s death which justifies. It’s Christ’s righteousness which justifies, and Christ’s death is Christ’s righteousness.

Faith is not ‘all that is needed”. Christ’s righteousness is needed. Faith is a gift given by means of Christ’s righteousness. II Peter 1:1– To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.

On page 74, Vickers makes some of the most polemical remarks in his book. They are not directed against NT Wright or the new perspective, or against those who say that God counts faith as righteousness. Vickers instead attempts to distance himself from the metaphor of a “storehouse of merit”. Vickers seems very worked up when he insists that “righteousness is not a commodity”. Sure, agree also that it’s not a gas or a liquid either, but if you really want to do us a service, interact with a specific old (or new) writer who uses the metaphor in a way you don’t approve. Help us to think through the problems.

When you simply say that “the righteousness in view is incarnate”, that opens you wide to Osiander who located the righteousness in Christ indwelling us. Even worse, it opens up the old false antithesis between person and work, so that the work of Christ can be disregarded (or believed in “implicitly”, ie, without understanding) just so long as we all look together at Christ. But the “righteousness revealed” in the gospel (Romans 1) is not simply God’s attribute as just, but what God got done in Christ, in His death and resurrection.

Vickers teaches that “imputation is sharing in the Christ who is our righteousness”. Does that mean that we no longer need the language of imputation, and we can simply say “union with Christ” or “participation in Christ”?

It turns out that the phrases we prefer to use need their own explanations. For example, how does “in Christ” relate to “Christ in us”, and is the difference between the two phrases important, or is everything solved by simply saying “union” or “participation? Don’t those metaphors have to be thought through as well, both in what they mean and what they don’t?

While we don’t have to talk about “first national bank of heaven”, Bunyan was not wrong to say that the righteousness is not in us but in heaven. Nor do I think it’s helpful to be so dismissive of “some theologians who speak of the atonement as something that can be mathematically quantified.” If Vickers wants to think more about that, he should read the excellent book by his colleague Tom Nettles (By His Grace and for His Glory) on old Baptist theologians Boyce and Dagg and Abraham Booth. No matter what Andrew Fuller may have said, it was not John Gill who invented the idea of atonement by price, nor was it Tom Nettles who invented the idea of Christ doing things by measure (instead of by infinity). We need to pay special attention to the distinction Nettles makes between imputation in the atonement, and imputation in justification.

It’s not enough to contrast believing and doing, especially if it turns out that you stress the evidence of believing is doing. (p 80) The big focus of the gospel is not our believing. The big focus of the gospel is the doing of Christ. If we are only depending on the idea that we believe instead of doing, we are still not believing on what Christ did. And if we think that God will count our believing as the righteousness God accepts, we are mistaken, no matter how much we give God the credit for our believing.

On Romans 8:4, Vickers comments: “I do not think it is likely that Paul is speaking here of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as the fulfillment, but rather of what Christ’s work accomplishes in us through the Spirit.” p 160) But since Vickers is not into polemics (except with those who use commercial metaphors for the atonement or for justification), he does not interact with Hodge or Smeaton or anybody else who has a different view. He thinks the word “walking” proves his point. As to the question of which law it is that we are imperfectly fulfilling, Vickers tells us that “it is not the law of Moses per se but the aim of it that believers fulfill through the Spirit. So Vickers doe not think perfection is necessary for “fulfillment”. Vickers fudges things a bit–the intent of the law, and the intent of us wanting to be perfect.

So what sort of people are you? Are you the sort of person who can live in the distinction between “based on” and “part and parcel”? Or do such distinctions tend to deconstruct before your eyes when you end up in the same place the enemy’s tax agent: God be merciful (propitiated!) to me .

One problem with Vicker’s apporach is that he wants to say different things to different people. He wants to be wise enough to preach faith is not alone to those who believe in faith alone, and then preach faith alone (look outside) to those who thank God for having given them a new heart which meets the conditions. Vickers concludes: “We must be bold enough to tell people that no amount of confessional orthodoxy is enough to save anyone, and that being a dyed in the wool believer of justification by faith is not the same thing as trusting Christ for salvation. We cannot skirt the reality that the true people of God are meant to live as those who have the Spirit…” (p 162)

“Meant to”? Yes, the law still commands perfection? But are you living it? I do not ask about how bold and open you are about “covenantal nomism”. I ask, are you self-righteous enough to think that you yourself are the sort of person who will keep on living well enough to make the death of Christ work for you?

The Gospel for the Right “Sort of People” Who Accept the “Offer”?

March 22, 2014

Matthew Barrett, Salvation by Grace, Presbyterian and Reformed, 2013, p 78.

“Hoeksema argues that there can be no well meant offer of the gospel, which would imply and desires the salvation of the nonelect, for Scripture is clear that God determines to harden the hearts of the nonelect, not to save them. In fact, says Hoeksema, God does not even desire the salvation of of the nonelect, nor does God act favorably toward the nonelect, but only acts to further their sentence to destruction. When the gospel is preached it is simply a promise meant only for the elect. The only thing the nonelect receive in hearing this message is condemnation.”

A few responses from Mark McCulley

Throughout Barrett’s book the reference to “historic” or “traditional” Calvinism is used as a code word to mean the “universal sufficiency” view of Andrew Fuller. He wants to equate “old Calvinism” with the contested idea that “God loves everybody, at least enough to WANT TO save them. Barrett does not discuss the writing of Gerstner, Gordon Clark, and others who agree with Hoeksema in denying that God loves everybody.

Barrett simply quotes Anthony Hoekema, with whom Barrett agrees. From Hoekema’s Saved by Grace: “The Bible teaches that God seriously desires that all who hear the gospel should believe in Christ and be saved. To our finite minds it seems impossible that election and this should both be true… One type of rational solution is that of Hoekseam and the hyper-Calvinists. Since the Bible teaches election, it cannot be true that God desires the salvation of all to whom the gospel comes. Therefore we must say that God desires the salvation only of the elect among the hearers of the gospel. This kind of solution may seem to satisfy our minds, but it completely fails to do justice to Scripture passages (Ezekial 33:11, Matthew 23:37, II Corinthians 5:20, and II Peter 3:9).”

His finite mind is simply not satisfied with any idea that God loves some sinners and does not love other sinners, so he assumes that only other minds perhaps more finite than his own would be satisfied with a rational solution. His view does, you must remember, come along with some Bible texts referenced in parenthesis. But nowhere does either he show from the Bible that God loves the nonelect or desires the salvation of the nonelect. They simply begin with that assumption and then argue in a circle back to it.

Those who advocate the “free offer” are intentionally use the word “will” in a double sense so as to sneak in their assumption without making an argument for it. God’s law does not depend on the ability of humans to keep it for that law to be legitimate. God can and does command all sinners to believe the gospel. Barrett writes as if Hoeksema somehow denies that responsibility depends on ability, and that this is somehow in parallel to the Arminian argument that inability to keep the law would mean that we have no duty to keep the law.

But Hoeksema nowhere makes this argument, and Barrett is projecting it onto Hoeksema to avoid the read question which is about God’s supposed desire to save all sinners. Barrett assumes that God loves all sinners. When Hoeksema denies that, Barrett accuses Hoeksema of making duty depending on ability.

Barrett is doing exactly what Andrew Fuller did, which is confusing the gospel with the law, by making duty depend on God’s supposed desire to save that person. Instead of merely saying that God commands all sinners to believe the gospel, the Andrew Fuller assumption is that God commanding you to believe the gospel, must mean that God wishes (unsuccessfully in many cases) that you would believe the gospel.

In what way do we make a distinction between the command to believe the gospel and the gospel itself? is the command itself part of the gospel? Is the gospel in the end no different from law, with commands and “conditions”? In what way do we make a distinction between the promise of the gospel and the gospel itself? What is the promise of the gospel? Is the promise of the covenant that God loves everybody, or is it a promise that God only loves those in the covenant? Or only the elect in the covenant?

I will ask two questions.

1. Does God desire the salvation of the sinners who never hear the gospel? Barrett keeps saying that God desires the salvation of all who hear the gospel. What about those who never hear the gospel? Does God want them to be saved as well? If the gospel in the end is also the law, so that only those who hear the gospel can justly be condemned, how can those who never hear “the gospel” be justly destroyed by God? And why, if God really loved them, did God not send somebody with the gospel to these people? If Jesus died in order to condemn those who resist them, how can God condemn those who never heard of Jesus? Now it will be argued that these questions are another topic, and not appropriate for the book Barrett wanted to write.

If there can be no sin unless God has first somehow loved us and desired our salvation, then this changes everything about how we approach the Bible. Instead of beginning with our plight (before the law), the Andrew Fuller approach begins with good intentions from God, in which God’s love, is supposedly universally sufficient but in the end not enough to be the solution.

2. “When the gospel is preached it is not a free offer to whomever will believe, but rather it is simply a promise meant only for the elect”. What if I flip the phrases around here in the structure of this sentence? What if I “deconstruct” the implied difference? Are there any elect who will never believe the gospel? Are there any non-elect who will believe the gospel? How can the gospel be good news for who will perish to be told that those who won’t believe will perish? Thus far I leave out the word “election” (the word most Calvinists want to leave out when they do evangelism), but my point is that Barrett has not yet argued for a real difference between those who believe and those who are elect. The gospel is good news for those who believe. The gospel is good news for the elect. There’s no ultimate difference, unless you are somehow ashamed of the word “election” and want to leave it out.

Nathan Finn-”Chun agrees with scholars who emphasize greater continuity than discontinuity between Edwards’s understanding of the atonement and the moral government view of the New Divinity theologians. Fuller embraced governmental language and was actually much closer to Edwards, who also allowed for a governmental aspect . Both men combined a universal sufficiency with a particular efficacy, the limitation being in God’s covenantal design rather than in the nature of propitiation itself.”

Andrew Fuller (Reply to Philanthropos, Complete Works,II, p499) comments: “There would be no propriety in saying of Christ that He is set forth to be an expiatory sacrifice THROUGH FAITH IN HIS BLOOD, because He was a sacrifice for sin prior to the consideration of our believing in Him. The text does not express what Christ WAS as laying down His life , but what He IS in consequence of it.”

Andrew Fuller made a distinction between “covenantal intent” and “the nature of the atonement itself”. We need to examine Fuller’s controversy with Abraham Booth, and take sides with Abraham Booth.

This is NOT a question about the duty of the non-elect to have faith in the gospel, and the related question of “two kinds of ability” (as argued by Edwards and Fuller). All that talk about “ability” and “sufficiency” is a distraction from the greater question about the nature of the atonement. While I don’t see much in the Bible about the “duty” of unbelievers to believe the gospel, I don’t deny that all sinners are commanded to believe the gospel. Nor do I need to connect that command to some philosophical account of “ability”.

Election is God’s love, and when the Bible talks about God’s love, it talks about propitiation. I John 4:10, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” If all we can stipulate is that the appeasement of wrath will not work without our faith, then it’s not enough to add on that God sent His son to purchase our faith. The nature of the cross as God’s propitiatory love will not be proclaimed.

You can use the word without agreeing with the Bible about what it means. A propitiation for the non-elect amounts to nothing. Since there is only one propitiation, a propitiation for the elect which is also the same thing for the non-elect, amounts to nothing.

Those who defend the “offer” justify their version of grace (God loves everybody and wants everybody to be saved) as being the only perspective possible to us. We have to know we believe, before we can know if we are elect. I agree that knowing our election before we believe is impossible. Knowing our election is not our warrant to believe. (See Abraham Booth, Glad Tidings). But this is no excuse for leaving the doctrine of election out of the doctrine of redemption and propitiation by the cross. And it certainly no excuse for telling everybody that God loves them and wants to be their Father!