The Dangers of Self-Flattery

In his book Knowing and Living the Christian Life, Joel Beeke warns against self-flattery.[1] Self-flattery is a deceptive attitude that makes a person believe they are a Christian when they are nothing of the sort. He gives four ways that people can be self-flatterers:

  1. People can be self-flatterers through their outward morality. Someone in this condition relies upon their own works to make it into heaven. They rely on their church attendance, their Bible reading, their prayer life. They read books about the Bible. They don’t give in to base sin. They might be good parents who instill good habits in their children. They might give significant funds to the church. They look upon their life and believe that God will receive them on the basis of what they have done well. In response, Beeke writes, “To rely on outward morality for eternity is to lean on a righteousness that does not exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, of whom Jesus said, “They trusted in themselves that they were righteous….Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 18:9; Matt. 5:20)….Leaning upon outward morality for eternity is a ride on a slippery glissade which will only prove to be a smooth road to hell in the end.”
  2. People can also be self-flatterers because of religious self-righteousness. These people rely upon the emotions they have felt to convince them that they are true Christians. They have been moved to tears from sermons. They have been moved in their consciences by the presence of sin in their lives. Because of these “spiritual impressions” they believe that they are saved and have eternal life. Beeke writes, “All of these things rest short of God’s only foundation for salvation, Jesus Christ and Him crucified (Acts 4:12)…If Christ, the Rock of ages, has never become precious to you, how dare you build your hopes for eternity on the sands of your fluctuating feelings and impressions (Matt. 7:24-27)?” In other words, religious emotions and impressions can never be the foundation of salvation—only Christ is!
  3. People can also be self-flatterers because of their good intentions. In other words, these people rely on a future time when they will turn to salvation—just not today. Maybe tomorrow, maybe when I am old, they think. Beeke writes, “They rest their hopes for eternity, like Felix, on a future “convenient season” (Acts 24:25). Some day they hope to reform their lives, to earnestly seek after God, and to join the church. They aim for future faith and repentance. “The road to hell,” Martin Luther wrote, “is paved with good intentions.” Future faith is simply today’s unbelief. Future faith is a self-flattering glissade that slopes straight into hell.”
  4. Finally, people can be self-flatterers because of providential circumstances. Some believe they are saved because they are in a conservative church with good preaching and right doctrine. Some rely on the families that they were born into, trusting in their parent’s or grandparent’s faith in God. Others might look to how God has blessed them outwardly in their business or family life. Others might be inclined to think that because their life has been particularly difficult that God will have pity on them. Beeke writes, “All of these forms of reasoning and feelings are dangerous for our souls.” We cannot let earthly circumstances (good or bad) be the ground of our reception into God’s presence. “Concerning prosperity, Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). And of adversity we must confess that if God does not sanctify it, we are not saved but only hardened beneath it (Gen. 4:13-14). In short, all leaning upon providence rather than on Christ’s atoning blood will flatter us into hell.”

In the end, all of these self-flattering “crutches” must be removed. People must believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ for eternal, heavenly life. He is the only source of salvation. “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes…” (2 Cor. 1:20).

 

 

[1] All references and quotations come from Joel R. Beeke and James D. Greendyk, Knowing and Living the Christian Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1997), 60-63.

Four Exhortations to Enter the Covenant of Grace

In his book The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Wilhelmus à Brakel gives four passionate appeals to his readers to become members of the (unconditional) covenant of grace. These appeals could be considered surprising since à Brakel, beforehand, focuses so much on the efficacy and eternity of the covenant of grace residing in God himself. It is a reminder that our beliefs concerning God’s sovereignty never rule out persuasive appeals for sinners to come to Christ! After all, Christ said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). And the apostle Paul said, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11). It is important that all who fall outside of the gospel of Christ meditate on the terrifying nature of God’s wrath, but also the benefits that accompany salvation.

Here are the four appeals à Brakel makes to enter the covenant of grace:[1]

  1. “First, outside of this covenant there is nothing but misery. God is a Judge whom you have provoked to wrath; you are not a partaker of the Surety and His fullness, and you have no part in the promises. Rather, all threatenings apply to you, and all the judgments rest upon you. All that you enjoy in the world increases your sins and makes your judgments all the heavier, and eternal damnation shall be your portion…Awaken, come to yourself, be terrified and tremble! Let the terror of the Lord move you to faith and flee the wrath to come by entering the covenant of peace.”
  2. “Secondly, in this covenant the fullness of salvation is to be found…examine all the promises of this covenant…and consider if there is anything which you would desire in addition to this. If not (for there is nothing lacking), embrace this covenant and yield yourself unto the Lord. You will forsake nothing but filth, and you will lay down that which is but a heavy burden. It is a hard and cruel taskmaster whose service you will renounce. Contrary to this, it is God with whom you shall live in peace and friendship. This consists of nothing but light, love, joy, and pure holiness, which all partakers of the covenant will enjoy both now and forever. Why do you still hesitate?”
  3. “Thirdly, it is God himself who beseeches you. He comes to you and calls out, “Turn to me and be ye saved.” He sent His only begotten Son, and through Him He speaks to you. Will you not hear God? The Lord sends His servants…How they labor, how they beseech you…My dear friend, allow yourself to be persuaded. Be reconciled with God, be conquered by the urgency of love…”
  4. “Fourthly, the Lord shall turn no one away who in truth comes unto Him through Christ—even if for so many years you have been disobedient to this friendly offer; even if until now your entire life has been nothing but sin; and even if until now you have done abominable things, are a murderer, an adulterer and fornicator, a thief, a slanderer, and a liar. If only you would but acknowledge your sin, have true sorrow, and have a true desire to be a partaker of this covenant in all its ramifications, and of its Surety so that through Him alone you may become a partaker of all these benefits. Be not discouraged, for there is hope concerning this matter. Come, for the Lord will certainly not cast you out, but will receive you, as He has said. You may observe this in all the promises, such as in John 6:37, “Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out.”

 

 

[1] All the subsequent quotes come from Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992), v. i, 449-450.

 

The Divinity of Christ: Reality and Necessity

Every orthodox Christian affirms with the Nicene Creed that Jesus Christ is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.” The early church, in accordance with Scripture, clearly states that Christ was God—consubstantial with the Father. This is the reality of Christ’s person.

A few of the proof texts used to defend and explain Christ’s divinity in the New Testament are John 1:1-3, Hebrews 1:3, 8, and Colossians 1:15-17. These verses are, in themselves, enough to prove the reality of Christ’s divinity. But we must never forget that Christ is not only divine in reality, but he is also divine by necessity (it might be better to say, Christ is God in reality because it was a necessity). That is, there is no other way that we humans can receive salvation unless Christ has two natures united in one person. He must be both truly human and truly God.

But have you ever asked the question why? Why must Christ be “God of God…one substance with the Father”? In his Reformed Dogmatics, Geerhardus Vos gives several theological considerations[1] as to why Christ must be divine:

  1. Vos notes that the voluntary nature of the Son’s condescension highlights his divinity. Only God can volunteer for redemption. He writes, “Scripture teaches everywhere that the Father gave the Son, but that same Scripture also teaches that the Son gave Himself. And because this voluntary character is noteworthy throughout the work of the Mediator in its entirety, this characteristic must no less be sought and presupposed in the initial origin of that work. This may be assumed only if the Mediator Himself is independent God, the eternal source of all right.” In other words, since man in himself can never volunteer to stand in another’s place before God (Psalm 49:7-8), it stands to reason that Christ must be divine since he volunteered. Because he comes into the world by voluntary choice, that shows that it was “his by right” to do so, and this cannot be said of any mere man. Therefore, Christ must be the God-man, and it was only the God-man who could do so.
  2. Vos also notes the direct relationship that a believer has with Christ. Christ is not simply the stepping stone to the Father. Salvation comes through faith in Christ. Vos writes, “They do not draw near only to God the Father in Christ, or to the Triune God in Christ the Mediator, but also to Christ Himself. Their faith, their love must embrace Him; they are subject to Him in body and soul…He must make disposition of the Holy Spirit, who Himself is God, must send the Spirit into the hearts of His members, regenerate them with omnipotence, unite them to Himself, sanctify, and glorify them. It is completely impossible that all these predications could be attributed to one who is mere man.” In other words, Christ is not forgotten when we are brought to the Father. Rather, he continues to be the one we rely on for all the blessings of the New Covenant. Since this can’t be true of any mere man, he must be the God-man, and it is only through a God-man that we can receive divine salvation-blessings.
  3. Vos also notes that in the Scriptures the glory and honor for the salvation is attributed to God alone. But if Christ were not God, then something could be attributed to man. He writes, “Man may not ascribe to himself anything of the glory of the covenant of grace. In it, all things must be from God, through God, to God.” If salvation is “through God” then Christ must be God. Otherwise, there would be no salvation. If Christ were merely man, “No longer would a triune God reveal himself in [the covenant of grace], but it would be a work shared between God and man. When the faith of the sinner is directed to Christ and he is justified before God through faith, the significance of that is that by faith he acknowledges and becomes conscious how all salvation is located in God. Faith is the subjective side of monergistic divine grace. Therefore, a faith that is directed to a man is a contradiction in adjecto [contradiction in terms]. The object of saving faith cannot be a man, but must be God.”
  4. Finally, Vos notes that Christ’s work must “possess infinite value, since that work must extend to the satisfaction of the eternal wrath of God.”[2] Hell is eternal because no human being can extinguish the wrath of God against his sin without being utterly destroyed. Thus, because unbelievers cannot bear the intensiveness of the punishment, “they bear the infinite wrath of God through their endless punishment.” How could Christ, if he were merely human, bear the intensity of the wrath of God without being utterly destroyed? Vos answers, “[Christ’s] deity could cause the bearing of the burden of the endless wrath by His humanity without his humanity succumbing or being destroyed.” Thus, “We find that…His deity was necessary for two reasons: (1) to support His humanity in bearing the infinite wrath of God; (2) to put an infinite value on the merits of the mediator.” In other words, without Christ’s divinity, there would be no wrath bearing sacrifice.

Notice that the doctrine of Christ’s divinity does not simply hinge on several New Testament proof texts (however important these may be). Broader theological considerations concerning Christ as mediator also play a role in determining not just the reality of Christ’s divinity, but the necessity of Christ’s divinity.

Undermine the foundation of Christ’s two natures in one person (God-man), and you undermine the foundation of salvation itself. This is one of the reasons why Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses stand outside the pale.

 

 

[1] All the following quotations come from Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), v. iii, 21-24. Any italicized words within the quotations are original.

[2] Vos is following the lead of the Heidelberg Catechism (LD 5-6), where it focuses on the necessity of having a mediator who is not only true man, but also true God. This was necessary in order for Christ to bear the infinite wrath of God.

Sanctification by Faith Alone?

Any knowledgeable Reformed Christian will unreservedly declare, “I am justified by faith alone in Christ alone.” But are Christians sanctified by faith alone?

Listen to Herman Bavinck’s answer: “It is by no means in justification only, but quite as much in sanctification, that by faith exclusively we are saved” (italics mine).[1] So are Christians sanctified by faith alone? Bavinck’s answer is an unequivocal yes.

Why is this so?  First, because our works have a basis in the eternal counsel of the Trinity. Good works, Bavinck says, “lie completely prepared for them all and for each one of them individually in the decision of God’s counsel; they were fulfilled and were earned for them by Christ who in their stead fulfilled all righteousness and the whole law; and they are worked out in them by the Holy Spirit who takes everything from Christ and distributes it to each and all according to Christ’s will. So we can say of sanctification in its entirety and of all the good works of the church, that is, of all the believers together and of each one individually, that they do not come into existence first of all through believers, but that they exist long before in the good pleasure of the Father, in the work of the Son, and in the application of the Holy Spirit” (italics mine).[2] In other words, sanctification has a delicious Trinitarian basis in eternity and in the history of salvation. In the application of this salvation, we receive these gifts by faith alone in Christ alone.

Bavinck notes that just as Christ is the foundation-stone for justification, so the same is true for sanctification. And, “If Christ is the workmen of our sanctification, then on our own part the work of sanctification can only be fulfilled by faith. For sanctification is, like all the other benefits of Christ, so inseparably related to the person of Christ that we cannot receive it except in communion with Christ himself; and this is, viewed from our side, only obtained and enjoyed through faith” (italics mine).[3]

Notice the logic. Sanctification can only be received in communion with Christ. A person can only have communion with Christ by faith. Thus, sanctification is by faith alone in Christ alone.

He continues, “Although this faith presents itself in a different way and is viewed from a different vantage point in the sanctification than it is in the justification, it is in both of these benefits the only sufficient means by which we come to share in them” (italics mine).[4]

Here we see how Bavinck can hold that justification and sanctification are both by faith alone. Faith operates or functions in two distinct ways. Justification is an open hand receiving, and sanctification is the faith working. “Faith is often compared, and properly so, with a hand. But a hand is not the only organ with which to take something and to make it our own [justification]: it is also the instrument whereby we objectify our thought and our will [sanctification]. Thus faith is not only a receiving organ, but also an active force. The faith which justifies and saves is not a dead faith, but a living one. In its own nature it brings forth fruits of good works; it works by love (Gal. 5:6). Man is not justified by love, but the faith which justifies him proves his living active power in love” (italics mine).[5]

In closing, Bavinck writes, “We do not live through good works but for them; we fulfill the law not for eternal life but out of it, for this life has been planted in our hearts through faith. It is according to this order alone that a true moral life is possible…In the gospel [God] gives us everything for nothing: the forgiveness of sins; the reconciliation; the annihilation of punishment; the salvation and the blessedness…Faith, by virtue of its own nature, brings us comfort, peace, joy, and happiness, and these are in turn of invaluable worth for the moral life” (italics mine).[6]

 

[1] Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, 480.

[2] Ibid. 479.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. 482.

[5] Ibid. 484.

[6] Ibid. 483.