Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Life Under Moses or Carnal Christianity?

We have seen that life under the Mosaic Law produced bondage because of its works principle ("do this and live"), a situation that Paul vividly describes in (drum roll please)…

Romans 7.

Theologians have spilled plenty of ink debating whether Paul is speaking of a regenerate or unregenerate person in that text. My answer to that question is "No." Let me explain.

We all notice immediately that there is a contrast of some sort between Romans 7 on the one hand and Romans 6 and 8 on the other. In chapter 6 we are told that the person who is not "under the law" is no longer subject to sin's dominion, while the subject of chapter 7 is "sold as a slave to sin." In chapter 8 we are told that those who have the Spirit are not like those who are "in the flesh [and who] cannot please God," yet in chapter 7 the "wretched man" expressly tells us that he "is carnal."

To muddy the waters a bit (as if things aren't murky enough), chapter 8 explains that those who do not have the Spirit have minds that are "hostile to God," while the subject of chapter 7 "delights in the law of God according to the inward man."

I have tipped my hand a bit already, but before I lay my cards on the table, what do YOU make of all this?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Old Covenant and the Law of Moses

Properly speaking the Old Covenant is equivalent to the Mosaic Covenant inaugurated upon Mount Sinai (Jer. 31:31-34; cf. Heb. 8:8-13; Gal. 4:21-31). Like the Creation Covenant, the Old Covenant contains its own specific law—the Mosaic—with its own inherent uses, the primary of which was to reissue to Israel the creation covenant's works principle in order to demonstrate to all men the folly of attempting to secure God's blessings by means of personal observance of the law, and to typologically demonstrate the need to seek an alien righteousness from the hand of the promised Deliverer (Gal. 3:24).

In addition to this pedagogical use, the Mosaic law also governed the civic life of the nation as they existed in the land of Canaan (WCF XIX.4), outlined in great detail the ceremonial means whereby the sins of the people were to be covered until the coming of the Messiah and true High Priest (Heb. 10:1-18; WCF. XIX.3), and demonstrated Yahweh's standards for righteous conduct (Pss. 19:7-10; 119:105).

The nature of the Old Covenant as preparatory and parenthetical demands the conclusion that its law is neither ultimately indispensable nor perpetually binding. The law of Moses was an expression of God's will specifically and covenantally formulated for those to whom it was given. Moreover, part of that covenantal formulation was the law's works principle, which Paul summarizes as "do this and live" and insists is antithetical to the faith principle of the gospel (Gal. 3:12; Rom. 10:5). To attempt extract the kernel of the Decalogue from the husk of its works principle is to put asunder what God hath joined together, for from its bestowal to its removal, the Sinanitic Covenant instilled fear, produced bondage, and perpetuated the nation's juvenility by keeping the kids under the constant, watchful eye of a babysitter.

Here's the point: To insist that all members of the covenant of grace are "under the law" in the same sense (tertius usus legis) is to completely ignore the nature of the law under which God's people in time past labored. The Mosaic law comes with a principle attached that was intended to instill doubt in its subjects (that's the whole point of its "pedagogy").

So aren't you glad it has expired?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Covenant of Creation and Natural Law

The Westminster Confession of Faith XIX.1 states that God, upon creating Adam, bound him to a covenant of works. The covenant of creation was inextricably bound with the law of creation, both of which are of perpetual validity.

The law of nature is a covenantal expression of God's will for his rational creatures, whether fallen or redeemed. Because this is the case Paul could hold Gentile sinners responsible for such breaches as failure to worship and glorify the one true God, idolatry, homosexuality, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, gossip, prideful boasting, disobedience to parents, and covenant breaking (Rom. 1:18-32).

As I stated previously, each covenant's law has its own inherent uses, the identification of which helps alleviate the difficulty that many unnecessarily feel in seeking various ways to apply "the moral law."

The law of creation serves to demonstrate the Creator's glorious existence (Psa. 19:1ff), to highlight his righteous demands upon his creatures (Rom. 1:18ff), and to hold man's sin and rebellion in check (Gen. 9:6). For those who are in Adam the creation covenant's curse-sanction still functions to accuse and condemn the conscience of sin and evil (Rom. 2:14-15). For those in Christ, however, the curse has been lifted but the precepts still remain in effect (Matt. 19:4-8; I Tim. 2:11-15).

The covenant of creation, therefore, provides us with our paradigm's first example of a covenant with its corresponding law. Because of the fact that all of mankind is "hardwired" to recognize this law and acquiesce in it, I will concede that it may be referred to as "the moral law" (though it is not my preferred nomenclature).

It is when we get to the next two examples that things will get interesting....

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Triplex Usus Legis

Despite the fact that the Bible rarely, if ever, uses the term "law" in an a-historical fashion denoting the theological category into which all divine imperatives—whether found in Genesis, Jeremiah, or John—must fit, it is precisely this assumption that makes the taxonomy of the triplex usus legis (the threefold use of the law) possible. A more redemptive-historical and covenantal paradigm, on the other hand, would yield similar conclusions while employing a different method in reaching them.

The schema that I am proposing would avoid extrapolating a general and universal notion of "moral Law" (with a capital L) which is then applied to people in varying ways depending upon their individual status before God. Rather, this approach would seek to discover the application of the divine will to individuals by identifying which covenant, and thence which law, they are under. As I hope to demonstrate, there are three principal covenants identified in Scripture under which men and women throughout redemptive history have stood in relation to God. Each covenant contains its own law, with its own respective uses.

I will unpack this in future posts, but for now I will just set the taxonomy forth:
1. All people, by virtue of the imago Dei, are under the covenant of creation and are subject to its law, the law of nature.

2. Israelites in time past were under the Old Covenant and were subject to its law, the law of Moses.

3. Believers today are under the New Covenant and are subject to its law, the law of Christ.
"Law" in this schema is connected to, and coextensive with, the covenant of which it is a part. Moreover, each law (-of nature, -of Moses, -of Christ) has its uses built into it, which eliminates the biblical acrobatics needed to decode how "the Law" applies to people in their varying covenantal contexts.

OK, fire away....

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Law: Existential or Eschatological?

We have seen that questions such as "How does the law function in the covenant of works as opposed to the covenant of grace?" betray a view of law that is ipso facto non-covenantal. "Law," this question assumes, stands outside of time and simply drops into covenantal arrangements while remaining distinct from the covenants themselves.

The Bible, however, simply doesn't speak about the law in this way. Nowhere is "law" used to denote an eternal and unchanging list of moral norms that stands outside of covenant history. Sure, God talks about "My law" in Jeremiah 31, but that's none of our business. What is our business is how that "moral law" gets covenantally enshrined, either on tables of stone (as under the Old Covenant) or on the fleshy tables of the hearts of men (as under the New).

When the Bible does speak about the law, rather than pointing to an abstract and a-historical ethical code, it is almost always referring to the law of Moses (sometimes to the OT Scriptures in general, other times to the books of Moses in particular, and still other instances to the specific works principle upon which the Mosaic covenant is based).

So for example, when Paul says that "sin shall not have dominion over [us, for we] are not under the law, but under grace," he is not saying that the person who believes the gospel is free from the condemning aspects of the law (regardless of redemptive-historical context), and possibly also from the civil and ceremonial aspects as well (depending on redemptive-historical context)... but either way, he is still subject to the moral parts of the law (but only in its third use, no longer in its first).

This view, while common, assumes an existential rather than eschatological conception of "law."

What Paul is actually saying is that the person who is under the New Covenant is not under the law of Moses, period. No moral/ civil/ceremonial division, no first use/second use/third use distinction. The law, by which Paul means the Mosaic law, has passed into obsolescence in its entirety.

(... Which seems to me to be exactly what his first-century audience would have understood him to be saying.)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Moral Law: Elusive, But Not Illusive

Sometimes I wonder if all our boasting as Reformed people in the fact that we refuse to peer behind the veil and steal a glimpse of God's nakedness isn't just a tad self-congratulatory. Sure, we claim to concern ourselves with the Deus revelatus rather than absconditus (the "revealed" rather than "hidden" God), but on the issue of the law our voyeurism tends to rear its head and prove that we're really Peeping Thomases at heart.

Think about it: We affirm wholeheartedly that God cannot be discovered (or in this case uncovered) by his fallen creatures, but that he must reveal himself to us by way of covenant. But then when we start talking about the law we posit a set of timeless principles that we canonize as "The Moral Law," and immediately begin attempting to figure out how "the law" functioned in the covenant of works versus how "the law" functions in the covenant of grace. And once we've plumbed those depths we turn our attention to how "the law" is used (the triplex usus legis): 1. "The law" convicts us of sin; 2. "The law" restrains evil in society; 3. "The law" serves as a guide for holy living.

The only question we haven't tackled is the one about where this so-called "moral law" is in the Bible. Apparently in our zeal to divide and apply "the law" we seem to have forgotten to actually go to the trouble of finding it (talk about taking our suspicion of proof-texting a bit too far).

And no, we can't say that the moral law is found in the Decalogue, for we all agree that the moral law, as an expression of God's unchanging character, must also be unchanging (which the Decalogue clearly is not). Rather, we have traditionally confessed (quite correctly, I might add) that the Ten Commandments summarize the moral law and are not therefore properly equated with it (WLC 98).

So if "the moral law" is an eternal, unchanging, universally binding expression of God's righteous character that lurks behind all the various laws that he has actually revealed in historical covenants throughout Scripture, is there any use discussing it? And if we insist on doing so, are we not speculating about "secret things" that God has not revealed, and that are therefore not our business in the first place?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Assurance and the Law of God

We have been considering the doctrine of assurance, and I have been hinting that a properly-realized eschatology should reduce the skepticism concerning the practical syllogism that I often detect from Reformed believers.

Though confessional Reformed and Presbyterian theologians are often unjustly (and pejoratively) labeled "Lutheran" by those whose seminaries never taught them that the distinction between the law and the gospel is associated no less with Westminster than it is with Wittenberg, there are instances in which the charge may be valid.

I'm thinking particularly about the law of God and how it relates to the believer under the New Covenant. Though I plan to unpack this in some detail in subsequent posts, in the interest of brevity I will say presently that the idea that there is an a-historical and non-covenantal category dubbed "The Moral Law"—a law we are expected to decipher—is problematic.

Moreover, the insistence that lex semper accusat (the law always accuses us) is precisely the type of Lutheran distrust of sanctification that breeds suspicion of the practical syllogism, not to mention the drastically under-realized eschatology such a view promotes.

So the discussion that follows regarding the law will be in the interest of providing a biblical, Reformed framework within which the doctrine of assurance can be considered.

Thoughts or comments so far?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Assurance in the Ache

We have seen that any genuine claim to assurance of salvation, however small in measure, is impossible without the work of the third Person of the Trinity, whose primary role in the economy of redemption is to “take what is [Christ’s] and declare it to [us],” revealing to us treasure that, without his testimony, “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has entered into the heart of man” (Jn. 16:14-15; I Cor. 2:9).

As the concept of marturia suggests when correctly understood, this assurance results from Spirit-wrought fiducia and Spirit-interpreted self-examination. Insistence upon the latter is no symptom of legalism, however, for the fact that the reflex act often results in crisis rather than complacency is itself evidence of our semi-eschatological conundrum wherein we, along with creation, groan for the full enjoyment of a redemption that we already partly possess (Eph. 1:7, 14). In this very Abba-confession the Scylla of the “already” meets the Caribdis of the “not yet,” for it is due to the present awareness of our sonship that we can call God “Father,” but it is because this adoption has yet to be consummated that this bold affirmation comes in the form of a fervent cry (Rom. 8:15).

There is assurance in this ache, however, for it is the expectant ache of a journeying son dispossessed “but for a moment” (II Cor. 4:17), yet at the same time a prince and heir of a kingdom that boasts “greater riches than the treasures of Egypt” (Heb. 11:26). It is because “assurance is glory in the bud, the suburbs of paradise,” therefore, that the yearning pilgrim can groan in “the hope that this dirge will not last long, but will soon drown in a song not sung in vain.”

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Works, Assurance, and Bad Eschatology

Contrary to the opinion some theologians, I would argue that the inclusion of the syllogismus practicus (that's "practical syllogism" for all you monolinguists out there) in the assurance equation, far from being an example of inchoate legalism, is exactly the opposite.

Under the Old Covenant administration the Israelite's relationship to the law of God was different than that of the Christian under the New. This is seen in two respects. First, during the Mosaic epoch the law was written on tables of stone, whereas under the present dispensation it is engraved upon the fleshy tables of the hearts of men. According to the prophetic witness, this internal inscription of God's will is the direct result of the gift of the Spirit, facilitating our obedience and sanctification.

It is precisely this pneumatic pledge and foretaste of the heavenly regeneration that enables the new covenant saint to derive comfort from his sanctification rather than fear.

Furthermore, the Decalogue, being the very core of the Mosaic covenant, carried with it a works principle that demanded perfect and entire obedience upon threat of judgment and death (Lev. 18:5). While it is true that the Levitical priesthood provided a shadowy and obscure picture of an atonement for sin that would eventually be provided, the fact remains that the Mosaic law, strictly considered, administered death and condemnation to those who labored under its yoke.

On this side of the cross, however, the will of God for his covenant people comes not from the fire and blackness of an earthly Sinai, but from the nail-pierced hand of the risen Lamb who ministers from the heavenly Zion. The works principle that was part and parcel of the law of Moses is altogether absent from the law of Christ, for the Seed of the woman has abolished the law's curse and drunk its threatened cup of divine fury in our stead. His burden, therefore, is not unbearable (Acts 15:10) but easy (Matt. 11:28-30), not because God's demands have been lessened or his law changed, but because we now labor as full-grown sons, "upon whom the fulfillment of the ages has come" (I Cor. 10:11; cf. Gal. 4:1ff).

My point, then, is that a refusal (or fear) of considering our sanctification as a means to deducing our justification betrays an under-realized eschatology that assumes, first, that the law is still written in stone rather than flesh, and second, that Jesus is still dead in the tomb.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Direct and Reflex Acts of Faith

I have been arguing that the witness of the Spirit is not some form of verbal or propositional testimony by which the Holy Spirit communicates the fact of our adoption, but rather (in keeping with how the NT uses the term martureo), the witness of the Spirit involves an appeal to the evidence of divine handiwork in our lives.

To what, then, does the Spirit appeal to demonstrate our sonship?

The handiwork to which the Holy Spirit points consists of two lines of evidence. The first is the fact that we have exercised faith in Jesus Christ -- which includes the element of fiducia -- and therefore carries with it a degree of certitude and confidence (Rom. 5:1-2). The primary means of the saint's assurance, then, is what Turretin calls "the direct act" of faith -- looking outside of ourselves to Jesus the Savior.

The second line of evidence to which the Spirit points us is the resultant fruit of holiness that always accompanies justification, and has been called "the reflex act" of faith (II Pet. 1:5-8, 11; I John 3:10-15). The duplex beneficium (double benefit) of Christ's work, according to Calvin, is justification and sanctification, and our confessional documents make it clear that the former always produces the latter (Westminster Confession XI.2).

The witness of the Spirit, therefore, is no tertium quid. It is not merely of the "benessence" of faith, reserved for those of God's favorites who have tarried long and struggled hard to attain it. It is, rather, the conditio sine qua non of assurance, for without the testimony of the Holy Spirit we would not only be unable to call Jesus Christ "Lord" (I Cor. 12:3), we would be unable to recognize that we have called him "Lord." Without the testimony of the Holy Spirit we would not only be unable to perform good works, we would be unable to recognize the good works that we do perform.

As Thomas Goodwin has beautifully stated, "[The Spirit] writes first all graces in us, and then teacheth our consciences to read his handwriting, which we could never do without his light."

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Witness and the Whisper

As I mentioned in passing already, the "threefold method" of gaining assurance betrays an anachronistic understanding of the nature of testimony. In modern usage the words "testify" or "witness," perhaps due to their legal connotations, evoke the idea of a case being made via carefully worded argument and verbal appeal.

But the New Testament was not written in English but in Greek, and the word martureo is a lexeme with a slightly different nuance than its equivalent in our own vernacular.

In Hebrews 2:4, for example, we read that "God also bore witness [to the gospel] by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit...." It is not verbal communication of factual data that is in view here, but the appeal to evidence as confirmation of the preached Word. These spiritual phenomena served as witnesses, not through assertion, but through demonstration and proof.

Likewise in Acts 14:3, concerning Paul's and Barnabbas's ministry in Iconium, we read that the Lord "bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands." As with the passage just considered, God’s method of witness-bearing takes an indirect form. He does not verbally communicate—or inwardly suggest—that the ministry of the apostles is indeed divine, but he testifies to its genuineness by means of appeal to evidence and proof.

If we are to follow the analogia fidei, therefore, we must allow the Scripture to define its own terms rather than forcing them into our own preconceived straitjackets. When this is done it becomes evident that the witness of the Holy Spirit is no internal voice, whisper, or suggestion to our minds that we are the children of God. If such were the case the divinely-ordained harmony between Word and Spirit would be disturbed, and a mystical dissonance would result.

Rather, the witness of the Holy Spirit is an appeal, indirectly made, to the evidence of God’s own handiwork in the lives of his children, resulting in a full and well-grounded assurance of salvation.

Agree? Disagree? Why?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Word, Works, and a Tertium Quid?

It is safe to say that a great deal more attention is given to the fact that the Spirit bears witness than to how this witness is borne.

Still, it was customary for Puritan divines such as Thomas Goodwin to speak of the Spirit's testimony—often referred to as the third prong of the "threefold method" for attaining assurance—as being a direct, immediate communication of the fact of our sonship from the heart of God to the heart of man.

The most obvious, but by no means the only, problem with this approach is seen in the fact that if assurance is something that can be gained in small measure without the witness of the Spirit (Rom. 8:15), but in greater measure with it (Rom. 8:16), then what God hath joined, i.e. Word and Spirit, man hath put asunder.

If the witness of the Spirit is, as this paradigm admits, a tertium quid, then the dove has escaped the ark despite our efforts to rein her in. Once this has occurred, the only place she will find to rest her foot will be upon the unmediated experiences with which many have replaced the more sure word of prophecy.

So much for "Credo en spiritum sanctum qui ex patri filioque procedit."

The threefold method, therefore, is flawed for at least two reasons. First, it seems to presuppose an unproven and, as will be demonstrated, untenable definition of the Holy Spirit’s witness, i.e., the communication of factual data concerning the condition of the doubting saint. And secondly, by virtue of its being threefold, it divorces Word from Spirit, making assurance possible by Word alone without the Spirit’s witness, by Spirit alone without the Word’s promise, or by works alone without either.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Threefold Method of Assurance

"When the Spirit of truth comes," Jesus declared on the eve of his betrayal and arrest, "he will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you." The Holy Spirit, then, fulfills his role as Comforter by pointing believers not to himself but to Christ, thereby providing them assurance of salvation.

But how does the Spirit do this?

In no other discussion is the "shy member" of the Trinity's bashfulness as obvious as in that of his role as witness-bearer to our status as adopted sons of God the Father. Many unwittingly assign the Spirit the job of divine whisperer whose greatest function is, in the midst of the believer's quiet time, to say in his still, small voice, "Pssst! You’re elect!"

It is common in Reformed circles to speak of the "threefold method of assurance," referring to the comfort we derive, first, from the divine promises found in Scripture, secondly, from the fruit of sanctification in our lives, and thirdly, through the witness of the Holy Spirit (this method's proponents include Theodore Beza, William Perkins, Willem Teelinck, Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones).

What are we to make of this view of assurance? How does the Spirit "bear witness with our spirits that we are children of God"?