Monthly Archives: March 2014

Doctrines of Grace: Total depravity and unconditional election

Today I’m beginning a new series of articles on what are commonly known as the Doctrines of Grace. These doctrines are the foundation of Calvinism, but I am sometimes reluctant to refer to ‘Calvinism’ because I do not want to reinforce the idea that Reformed theology is the work of one man. Indeed, these ideas formulated systematically by Calvin, the Reformers and the Westminster Divines can be traced back to the church father Augustine and ultimately, I aim to show, their proof lies in the Holy Scriptures. The five points, also known by the acronym TULIP, are as follows:

  1. Total depravity
  2. Unconditional election
  3. Limited atonement
  4. Irresistible grace
  5. Perseverance of the saints

In this post, I will endeavour to cover total depravity and unconditional election. This first point should by no means be controversial: Christians in all periods of history have accepted original sin. There are some with a broad church mentality who perceive humans to be inherently good, but I believe this is due to a misconception. Scripture is clear that ‘there is none who does good, not even one’ (Psalm 14:3)  and ‘we have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment’ (Isaiah 64:6). Total depravity means that sin permeates every part of our mind, soul and flesh, affecting everything we think and do. It does not mean that we are all absolutely evil, and we are still capable of performing outwardly righteous deeds because we are made in God’s image despite our fallen state. What it does mean is that – outside of a relationship with God – everything we do, whether outwardly good or bad, is inwardly out of rebellion against God, not to his glory. Hence, such deeds are a polluted garment, tainted by sinfulness.  The only way for us to be acceptable to God is through our intercessor, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Calvinism and its opponent Arminianism both teach total depravity (according to what is said in the gospel), that only divine grace (by the internal work of the Holy Spirit) can enable man to truly do good. However, Arminianism is self-defeating because its nominal position on man’s total depravity is contradicted by its other arguments. Notably, Arminianism teaches that salvation is conditional on human choice – but if a person can only do good by divine grace, how can this act be conditional on totally depraved human will?

Arminianism is human-centred rather than God-centred. It skirts around the issue of election by teaching that God elects based on foreknowledge of who will believe (belief being the condition for salvation). While it is true, also under Calvinism, that God does indeed foreknow who will believe, it must be acknowledged that – because of total depravity – he is the one who has given them belief in the first place! Can one who is dead to sin freely accept God’s call any more than a corpse can take hold of a lifeline? John 1:13 teaches that those who are born again are ‘born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God’. To preach that God elects according to foreknowledge and not according to his eternal unsearchable will denies the sovereignty of God. Those who receive God by faith past, present and future have been elected by God to do so before creation and predestined to salvation:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3-6)

So why does Arminianism get itself in a twist over election and foreknowledge, why does it make itself human-centred when it acknowledges humans are depraved? The answer seems to be that it is the only way to avoid double predestination, which for many Christians is understandably awkward (seen from a human perspective) and has led some to react to Calvinism with disgust. Double predestination (I exhort you to contain your initial reaction) teaches that God actively predestines some to salvation and foreordains others to hell. Without denying God’s sovereignty over creation, unless we instead deny the extent of human sinfulness, we cannot escape double predestination.  This idea is fully biblical:

As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory. (Romans 9:13-23)

This passage distinguishes between Jacob, who represents the elect, and Esau, who represents the reprobate. God’s hate for Esau is not malicious in terms of human hate, but it does mean that – regardless of the common love between Creator and creature – he is given over to his sinful desires. God is just to elect some and not others, since he is not obliged to elect anyone who acts contrary to his moral will. Double predestination only becomes distasteful if we view God as the author of sin. God is not the author of sin. He does not force people to sin or create them explicitly in order to sin, but he does harden those who are already in sin and allows them to be so in order to bring about his ultimate purpose. God changes the will of those whom he chooses and passes over others so that they will face the consequences of their own actions. How can we bring a case against God if we ourselves reject him and choose hell? Hell is a place where God is absent; if we remain cut off from God, he gives us exactly what we desire – his absence. There is no evil in double predestination, but there is great mercy that even a single person might be predestined to salvation.

There were no conditions when God determined his elect before creation, only a gift of grace which is being realised in many every day according to God’s timing. It isn’t too late until we have breathed our last. If you, reader, feel offended at this article or if you worry that you are foreordained to hell, why are you concerned? Take the offer of salvation and if you believe, the Father has drawn you and you can therefore be assured of your salvation. Double predestination is not an excuse to hate or condemn others – we should never tell people they are going to hell, since we cannot discern God’s purpose – but we must extend salvation to all in the hope that all will accept it even if many will not.


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What is love? (The Trinity)

I don’t pretend to be a biologist or a neurologist, but science can attempt to explain the process of love with neurochemical reactions, as in this article, which states, ‘At the center of how our bodies respond to love and affection is a hormone called oxytocin.  Oxytocin makes us feel good by acting through the dopamine reward system.’ The chemical reactions in the brain which uphold feelings of love seem sound to me, but the very existence and foundation of love should not boil down to a simple ‘reward system’. That is a mechanical process – there’s far more to love than the mere mechanics!

If we look to the Bible, we see the astounding and oft-quoted statement ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). Note that this statement cannot be reversed: if we said ‘love is God’, we would be blasphemous New Age spiritualists (by believing that God somehow is the universe) and we would also assign to God a very human ideal of love which is not always good, since we can love imperfectly, destroy loving relationships and love evil things. But God’s love is far greater and our human love, though it comes from our being made in his image, is only a tiny reflection of God’s.

So why do humans love? ‘We love because he [God] loved us first.’ (1 John 4:19) And how can we say that God is love? I argue that a unitarian god (the Islamic god, for example) could not feasibly be love. If God transcends creation, if he is to be acknowledged as sovereign over it, then how can love be part of God’s image if he did not love before he created? If we take a unitarian god, he would be dependent on his creation for love, and we know this is not the case – God does not need us!

God’s love is eternal, and this is the nature of a triune God, one God in three persons. In my previous article, I touched on God’s covenants with man (the Covenants of Works and Grace). But in order for these things to be, there is first a third overarching covenant known in theological terms as the Covenant of Redemption. This is rooted in the fact that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (three distinct persons, but equal in divine essence) love each other eternally. Though the Father and the Son have equality in essence, the Son who lovingly obeys his Father agreed to be subservient in role, to become an incarnate federal head for mankind (the second Adam) and to be a propitiation for our sins. It was ordained from all time that this should be the case.

From the moment humans rebelled, God had the right to destroy us (if God takes the life of a human, this does not diminish his justice because humans are criminals before him – to destroy us is the just thing to do).  A unitarian god, therefore having no intrinsic love, would have destroyed us instantly for being so wicked. But God has mercy on sinners because of the Covenant of Redemption, because the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit share in a loving relationship. The Father loves mankind through the Son – through whom all things are made – who became what man was always supposed to be, bore the price of sin and became our intercessor. The Holy Spirit effects our relationship with the Son (and with the Father through the Son) by imputing Christ’s righteousness to us, so that God on his judgement seat no longer sees a sinful man but Christ himself.

God hates sin and nothing unclean can come into his presence – that would defile him and render him an imperfect judge. The only way that he can truly love us and spare us lies in his triune nature and the Covenant of Redemption. And the love between humans, which arises from the image of God, is patterned on the Trinity – the real reason for love! When we see the unconditional love between earthly fathers (or mothers) and sons (or daughters), we see a tiny reflection of the original unconditional love between the eternal Father and the eternal Son. Similarly, the relationship between husband and wife echoes the relationship between Jesus Christ and his bride, the Church. Unfortunately, because of our sinful nature, our human love is flawed and our relationships break down; parents can be abusive, and spouses can divorce. But the love of God is not contaminated by sin!

And this has particular implications for Christians. We must ensure that our relationships are firmly modelled on the Trinity. One striking point from scripture is that husbands are told to love their wives ‘as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’, and Paul talks of marriage as a ‘profound mystery’ that ‘refers to Christ and the church’ (Ephesians 5:22-33). This is a great love indeed! In the same way, there must be an orderly and loving relationship between parent and child as there is between the Father and the Son.


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God’s covenants with man (Israel and the Church)

When we constrain our theology in two categories, the Old and the New Testament, it is easy to think of the two as completely separate. This results in a dispensationalist view, which maintains that in different periods of history, God has related to mankind in different ways. There is some underlying truth in this, but let’s not miss the broader picture. Dispensationalist ideas possibly contribute to the sub-Christian view that Jesus is in some way a change in God’s character, that the Old Testament God was nasty and vengeful and the New Testament God is a lovely chap. This is not the case!

Taking the Bible in its entirety into consideration, it is evident that there are two overarching covenants between God and man. Both covenants have been in place since the Fall and the objective of them has never changed. There is the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. The former dictates that in order to be right with a perfect and holy God, one must – like him, as he intended when he made us in his image – be perfect and holy. God’s people have always demanded laws to live by, with the belief that they could put right their sins and attain their salvation, and God obliged. However, this hopeful legalistic box-ticking has never worked: no man has ever been able to change his nature.  This so-called original sin is acknowledged when David says in Psalm 51, ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me,’ and when Job says, ‘Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one.’ Nevertheless, despite our total depravity and inability to act apart from our own fallen will, God still requires that we meet his perfection. In order to be a perfect judge, he must consistently punish sin, and because all of us are by nature sinful (of our own volition), we are all in our initial state deserving of death. Man from the beginning has failed in the Covenant of Works. No man has ever been saved through works, neither Jew nor Christian! So what now?

God in his omniscience knew that man could not live up to the Covenant of Works. He granted it to us knowing full well that we would fail. But his real plan for our salvation is manifested in the Covenant of Grace. This is evident even in the Garden of Eden when God says, ‘I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.’  (Genesis 3:15) This is a promise that there would arise a Mediator in human lineage who would redeem his people from Satan’s power. Job knew his Redeemer lived and Isaiah wrote extensively about God’s coming in human flesh to suffer for our transgressions – in fact, to an extent that it is impossible to describe here, the entire Old Testament is about Jesus Christ. So we see here that Jews before the incarnation were no different to Christians today in the sense that they were saved through Jesus Christ, the Son of God, their Redeemer!

The Covenant of Grace has never changed. It has always saved formerly the Jew and now the Christian. We are therefore to lose the distinction between Israel and the Church: Israel in the Old Testament is the primitive Church, and the Church in the New Testament is the continuing Israel of God (both terms being synonymous with the covenant people in any age). There is another concept in the New Testament of ‘Israel after the flesh’, this referring to ethnic Jews who are not saved unless they are called to put their trust in Christ and enter into the Israel of God. Let us reflect on the words of Paul:

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:28-29)

Circumcision was only an outward sign of belonging to the covenant people. The elect Jews were circumcised not only physically, but in their hearts. This applies equally to Christians today, who do not require circumcision, but if they are elect will be circumcised in their hearts, or baptised by the Holy Spirit, or regenerated, however one wishes to phrase the condition. Christians are the spiritual Jews of the modern age. Talmudic Jews descend from the Pharisees and have no special place with God, but must be called to salvation the same as any other.

While this demonstrates that the Covenant of Grace has always been essentially the same, if we are to acknowledge any kind of dispensationalism, it is that grace has been administered in different ways to the Old Testament and New Testament Church. Before Christ came in the flesh, grace was administered through messianic types and shadows. We refer to this now as ceremonial law. It instituted a system of mysterious separation including laws about clean and unclean foods and mixed fabrics, which pointed to the nature of holiness later to be fulfilled in the Messiah, and it also instituted a system of animal sacrifice. That is, when a Jew broke the Covenant of Works (as happened very frequently), he was to absolve his sin by sacrificing an animal in his place (since sin demands blood – God must punish all iniquity in order to be holy). But the Jews, who were condemned under the Covenant of Works, were not saved through their observance of ceremonial laws or through their animal sacrifice, but rather through their faith in the Messiah, whom these things prefigured, who was to be the fruition of the Covenant of Grace and redeem them through his perfect obedience to the Covenant of Works and his becoming sin on the cross that the Father’s wrath might be satisfied. Christians today are redeemed in the same way, with a difference in the means by which the grace is administered.

Sadly the Pharisees turned the ceremonial law into a form of box-ticking legalism to the extent that they rejected their promised Saviour. But now that he has come and died for our transgressions, and torn down the curtain that separated us from the Father, Christians are no longer bound by any ceremonial laws – and if we are determined to obey them, we fall into the heresy of legalism, believing we can justify ourselves. Christ has justified us! This is now plain to see. The ceremonial laws prefigured Christ, but we now have Christ who lives through us by the indwelling Holy Spirit – yet Christ has been the Redeemer of all who believe past, present and future, and the Covenant of Grace is unchanging. Our privilege of Christian liberty under the New Testament means we are not to be judged ‘in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath’, as these were ‘a shadow of things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ’ (Colossians 2:16-17). Christ is come – the substance is his! And we are privileged indeed to be able to understand the Covenant of Grace in a way that is much clearer than could the Jews who were before us.

Great! But a word of warning – we Christians must never convince ourselves that we are free from all laws: rather, our freedom is such that, being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, we are able to freely choose to obey God. In addition to the Covenant of Grace which redeems us, the Covenant of Works – which condemned us and compelled us to the gospel – has not been abolished! We must always bear in mind that our justification depends solely on Jesus Christ. Our works can never earn us a place in God’s kingdom; Christ perfectly fulfilled the Law and the Prophets on our behalf. Knowing this, that faith in Christ alone saves, we should also understand that such salvific faith produces good works. Though works are futile for salvation, faith is not apart from works! As James said, faith without works is dead – if we do not bear fruit, we are not assured of our election, but our profession is in vain. As faithful Christians, we should be obedient to the Covenant of Works, or so-called moral laws, no longer in the false hope of earning anything, but out of joy arising from the victory achieved by Jesus on the cross.

Even if we keep to moral laws and preach their virtue in civil life, we should expect that unbelievers will always accuse us of ‘cherry-picking’ because they do not understand the difference between that which is ceremonial, now abrogated (an administration of the Covenant of Grace to the primitive church), and that which is moral (which has continued since creation under the Covenant of Works). When we evangelise, we cannot preach one covenant without the other – we must preach man’s failure in the Covenant of Works and above all emphasise Christ’s redemptive work in the fruition of the Covenant of Grace. In this manner, the elect will respond to their failures and believe in Christ who has won their salvation. People can come to Christ as they are, but this does not mean they should stay as they are. Let us not forget the virtue of works of faith modelled to us by Christ. Let us not forget our heritage and our privilege and that God is unchanging, that his promises have stood for all time and that his covenant people from all ages are in permanent communion. Let us be clothed in the righteousness of Christ and ever persevere in him by the Spirit.

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Are images of Christ OK?

Recently, I have felt the need to raise the topic of which images are acceptable to the faithful Christian. Some Christians, principally from a Romish background, will unashamedly adore depictions in the form of statues and paintings not only of Jesus Christ and the saints, but also of the Father! Many Protestants would be disgusted with the portrayal of the Father as an aged man, which completely denies the vastness of his glory, and many of these Protestants will scorn the Papists who adore images. However, to a large extent, the modern evangelical Christian community has tolerated images of Christ. I ask now, is this hypocritical of us?

If we are Reformed Christians, we are reformed according to scripture. Therefore, if any of our actions or beliefs are found to be contradictory to scripture, we must be prepared to change them and conform. Let us reflect on the first and second commandments:

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:1-6)

First, we must understand what this commandment tells us. Taken out of context, the Second Commandment may be perceived to forbid the creation of any image for any purpose whatsoever. We know this is not the case: in the Old Testament, depictions of heavenly creatures sometimes adorned even holy objects, but this was always done correctly under the instruction and inspiration of God. We are to understand the second commandment in the context of the first: ‘I am the Lord your God… You shall have no other gods before me.’ Thus, when we are instructed not to make images for ourselves, this refers to representations of God.

Now some Christians may defend images of Christ because Christ is indeed our Lord, because he was incarnate in the flesh and seen by man. Is it really unlawful to depict his human nature? An objection to this point is that the Apostles, who saw Christ first-hand, never saw fit to paint pictures of him. Indeed, none of the Evangelists or Apostles have even seen fit to describe his physical features! In the first four centuries of the Church during which Christianity spread most rapidly, there were no images of Christ. Our modern-day images of Christ are cultural, derived in most cases from medieval Romish tradition. There are no images or physical descriptions of Christ produced under the instruction or inspiration of God. They are certainly of neither necessity nor benefit!

Some Christians may argue that it is acceptable to produce representations of members of the Trinity as long as the representations themselves are not worshipped. But this is not what the commandment says! The commandment does not say, ‘You shall not make images in order to bow down to them.’ It does say, ‘You shall not make images… you shall not bow down to them…’ Therefore, we are neither to make images of God nor to bow down to them.

It must be questioned if it is really possible not to bow down to an image of Christ. When we see such an image which reminds us of him, it naturally evokes worshipful feelings. In this case, are we really worshipping the glorious risen Christ, our Lord, or are we worshipping a picture of a handsome European hippie who has been ingrained in our minds by culture? Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word of God. God has already graciously provided us with means of meeting him, through meditating on the inspired written Word and the partaking of the Lord’s Supper, which is spiritually edifying to him who believes in it. This is the faithful Christian’s encounter with the glorious Almighty God! We need no other.

I conclude with my belief that, in assemblies or private homes of obedient Christians, there should be no representations of  any member of the Trinity. Even the use of lamb and dove imagery (standing for the Son and the Holy Spirit) found in many church buildings is questionable. Even large crosses which stand before the congregation. These objects should play no part at all in our worship – a plain building, the reading of God’s Word, and the sharing of bread and wine is perfectly sufficient for Christian worship.



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