Setting the Reformed Record Straight

Posted by on April 7, 2011 in Catholicism, Confessionalism, Gospel, Justification, Law, Michael Horton, Protestantism, Reformed Theology, Sanctification, Sola Fide, Westminster Seminary California | 26 comments

The discussion over at Called to Communion on the post titled “How John Calvin Made Me a Catholic” has recently turned to the supposed absence of the notion of inward renewal and the need for practical holiness in Reformed thought. One commenter wrote:

[Contrary to what Reformed theology teaches], salvation must be a real deliverance from the power of sin and death and transformation in the Spirit. If it is not, then I will take my Hell with me wherever I am.

I immediately objected, citing the Westminster Standards to the effect that in sanctification God indeed infuses the believer with righteousness, that the law is our rule of life, and that there will be a final judgment according to works. Appeal was then made to Michael Horton’s recent video on the nature of the gospel as an announcement rather than something to be “lived out.” I’ll post my reply in full:

Let me just clarify Horton’s law/gospel schema (if for no other reason than to aid those who may not be familiar with it at all—so bear with me even if you already know this).

When the Reformed speak about the antithesis between the law and the gospel, we are speaking in the specific context of justification. Or, if the term “salvation” is used, we are referring to the meritorious cause of our salvation. How can a sinner pass from death to life? How can he be pardoned? It is in response to this specific question that we insist that works play no role whatsoever. We cannot get God’s attention by trying to be good. No, our salvation (by which I mean our being accepted by God and made his child) is by grace alone. “By grace you have been saved… not of works,” “Not by works of righteousness that we have done, but by his mercy he saved us….” etc., etc. You guys know the verses.

So when we use language that pits grace against works or law against gospel, it is ALWAYS in the context of how we are accepted by God and acquitted in his heavenly court. But the Reformed, and Horton in particular, also talk about what we call “the third use of the law,” which has to do with how the law of God functions as our rule of life. You can look at the Larger Catechism to see how meticulously we treat the ten commandments and how seriously we take their application to the Christian life today (again, no one can accuse the Puritans of advocating moral laxity). However, we insist that our Spirit-wrought obedience is offered as a response of gratitude to God because of the grace we have been given in Christ, and never as the cause of that grace.

So the picture looks like this: Guilt –> Grace –> Gratitude, and it’s in that third category that we talk about things like the infusion of righteousness, inner transformation, and holy living. We live godly lives because we have been made God’s sons through adoption, for “the grace of God… teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts.” That’s why Paul always begins his letters by telling his readers what God has done for them, then he says “Therefore,” and then proceeds to tell them how to live.

Hope that helps.

Thoughts?

26 Comments

  1. This is helpful. It may be something that the WSC guys should work on clarifying more. I know I struggled with thinking the WHI guys were antinomians after I first because a calvinist. It took a number of years before I think I heard this clearly spelled out. Maybe I just didn;t have ears to hear or something. Seems like a common charge thats made though (pyromaniacs).

    DJ

  2. sorry for all the typos!

    DJ

  3. This is a slam dunk. It's hard to believe Christians from other streams of the church continue to raise this canard. Reformed theology/piety/practice has weaknesses, but an insufficient recognition of the need for “real deliverance from the power of sin and death and transformation in the Spirit” isn't one of them. Makes me think some people haven't actually read our confessions.

  4. Jason,

    In the Catholic system justification, regeneration, and sanctification get sort of mushed together, a product I think of a lack of clear definition of these soteriological elements among the ECF's. So the Catholics read about our insistence of pulling works out of the equation of justification and interpret this to mean that we are arguing for God justifying those who remain in an unregenerate state. I've pointed out to the CTC folks that in the Reformed system regeneration logically precedes justification so that there is indeed this infusion of grace as you state. It's just that we don't see that the works that flow out of a regenerate person in the continual process of sanctification should be part of the righteousness by which the Father judges us to be innocent. We need to continue to emphasize to the Catholics that God really does make us righteous when we become Christians and thus there is a real deliverance from the power of death, not just an innocent verdict meted out on unregenerate sinners.

  5. Let's put this into practice then – is there hagiography in the Reformed world? This is kind of like when you asked if there were Reformed writers who advocate fairies and the imagination.

    I don't remember people saying things like, let's pray for our holy pastor Leithart/Stellman/Bahnsen.

    Am I wrong?

    Where is the proof of an internalization of the concept of holiness as a infused post justification by the Reformed who move beyond the simul iustus et peccator model?

    I remember sermons in the OPC/PCA being the very focused on how it's God who saves us, or why viewpoint X is dangerous, but not really something like what I will hear this Sunday-about the life of St. Mary of Egypt.

    http://www.stmaryofegypt.org/life.aspx

  6. I totally agree with what you said Jason, but I'm not sure that is what your quoted segment is referencing.

    I think what they're objecting too is the idea that “everything I do is tainted by sin, and therefore is sinful.” Or perhaps simplified in this person's thought as; “Everything I do is sin.”

    If that's the case, then I can see them objecting to it by saying that we have no real holiness in ourselves, but are still slaves to sin. Thus the objection to Horton's video of announcement vs. living it out.

  7. Like many RC “complaints” or arguments against the Ordo Salutis, or Reformed Soteriology in general. . . . this train of thought greatly, greatly minimizes the scope and degree of indwelling sin.

    Yes, the Spirit is chipping away at us, yes, works matter (as proof, not basis), yes, we are made righteous. If you think that going to the Priest for a time of confession, observing the sacraments, and following the Catechism is going to prevent you from “carrying Hell around with you”, I'm not sure what to say.

    That's just not reality for Catholics or Protestants. The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, and that doesn't totally get fixed until That Day. Progressive Sanctification is hard and real. . . . there is nothing I want less in this life than to have my Spirit Wrought good works serve as the basis of my justification with the Father.

    That is hell.

  8. Thanks for the link JJS, that whole original post was fascinating, in a trainwreck kind of way. He gets soooo close to the truth, and then just tanks in the end. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!

    Did you ever watch that Good-O-Meter video referenced in their comment #611? I watched it, and I think it's fantastic. It doesn't deal at all with the concept of Sanctification (or Glorification for that matter, one commenter objects that people in heaven will still be beleagured by their earthly sins and lusts?).

    If you're looking for post material, I'd like to see you embed the video and say a few words of what you think about it.

  9. Contrarian,

    Let's put this into practice then – is there hagiography in the Reformed world? This is kind of like when you asked if there were Reformed writers who advocate fairies and the imagination.

    I don't remember people saying things like, let's pray for our holy pastor Leithart/Stellman/Bahnsen.

    No, we don't have the same degree of hagiography as Catholics do, but it's not really fair to pick some arbitrary element of your church and fault mine for not having it (it reminds me of how some Baptists fault non-KJV translations for not mentioning the “blood” enough. All they're really saying is that the NIV is not like the KJV).

    However, maybe our hagiography consists less in praying to saints as it does reading about their lives? I have biographies in my library on men like Spurgeon, Whitefield, Calvin, Luther, and Edwards. No, I don't pray to them or bow before their statues (although I do have a couple bobbleheads), but I do let their lives encourage and challenge mine.

  10. I'm not asking for an exact imitation of praxis. In fact, my example was to ask for prayer on behalf of a pastor who is deemed to be Holy, not praying to the saints. But let's even back up more and ask this–if you know that someone who you to be very holy (say, R. Scott Clark) is praying for you, are you more excited by this concept than if someone who has struggles with the life of sanctification (Rev. Leithart?) is praying for you? Is there any sense in which a human's progress in sanctification really leads to a difference in how one views their prayer on their behalf? Does it change your view of them in any sense?

    We know that the effective fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much from James. How does that trickle into Reformed spirituality? I recall feeling guilty if I was excited about Pastor Chuck laying hands on my pastor and telling that he was praying for him. I felt guilty that I was bummed to be baptized by our youth pastor than that same pastor. Granted, these are Calvary Chapel stories but they are pretty much the same as my time in the OPC/PCA.

    If I ask St. Mary of Egypt for me, I have to admit that is more powerful in my mind than if I were to ask you to pray for me, because of this difference in holiness/sanctification. This is a natural consequence of applying the idea that salvation is more than just saying “my account is no longer defaulted”. There should be some fruit of it that the Reformed world can point to, if the Reformed world is being nourished by such a view.

  11. Jason,

    I quoted your statement at CtC to a Presbyterian friend of mine about salvation in part being our works/infusion of grace, etc., and asked whether he agreed. He wouldn't agree and said he thought the statement was dangerous. Then he quoted me verses from Romans about how we were “justified (past tense) and now have peace with God through Christ (present/future tense.”

    It seems like he sees justification as the only crucial component to salvation, since he believes that once justified you can never lose your salvation, and sanctification is icing on the cake and not an integral part of salvation.

  12. Contrarian,

    Is there any sense in which a human's progress in sanctification really leads to a difference in how one views their prayer on their behalf?

    Not really, no. I guess I just don't picture God's plans for me as being up in the air, as if he could be persuaded to bless me if only enough of his favorite people ask him nicely. I realize you probably wouldn't put it that way, but that's how it sounds to me.

    We know that the effective fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much from James. How does that trickle into Reformed spirituality? I recall feeling guilty if I was excited about Pastor Chuck laying hands on my pastor and telling that he was praying for him. I felt guilty that I was bummed to be baptized by our youth pastor than that same pastor. Granted, these are Calvary Chapel stories but they are pretty much the same as my time in the OPC/PCA.

    Regarding James, I would just say that God ordains the means to the end as well as the end itself, so when we pray, God answers according to his will. But if it is not God's will for me to pastor a church of 5000 people, then it wouldn't matter if Mother Teresa asked him for that, because it wouldn't happen. With God there's no variableness or shadow due to change (that's James, too).

    PS – You know Chuck was just saying that, right?!

  13. Is there any sense in which a human's progress in sanctification really leads to a difference in how one views their prayer on their behalf?

    Sure. The best prayers for me are prayed by Jesus, so I just depend on him to mediate for me.

  14. Devin,

    I quoted your statement at CtC to a Presbyterian friend of mine about salvation in part being our works/infusion of grace, etc., and asked whether he agreed. He wouldn't agree and said he thought the statement was dangerous.

    This just goes to show that we need to be dialoguing with the official positions of those we oppose rather than with what this or that guy thinks about it. At C2C I provided the confessional evidence for what I am saying.

    It seems like he sees justification as the only crucial component to salvation, since he believes that once justified you can never lose your salvation, and sanctification is icing on the cake and not an integral part of salvation.

    I think he's Lutheran….

  15. Ok, so if believing in the “real presence” of holiness in the lives of those transformed by grace is not manifested by one's sense of closeness through intercessory prayer, I'm at a loss. I'm trying to help this case you're making. Where does sanctification really break open and show transformation.

    The Horton quote about us not extending Christ's incarnation is one that really challenges your view, so if you're going to go beyond the WCF and show more on this issue, that would be very helpful.

  16. Jason, I hear what you are saying, but my friend is the kind of guy who brings the big Reformed Systematic Theology book to lunch when we talk (and he reads it in his free time!). It seems like the idea that works sanctify us isn't very well-known among Reformed Christians. God bless!

  17. Contrarian,
    I have a friend who struggles with a past of alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and much of his present life is still in a mess because of it. When he tells me that he's praying for me, I get excited.

    It sounds to me in your scheme that his prayers are practically worthless.

  18. It seems like the idea that works sanctify us isn't very well-known among Reformed Christians.

    Devin – I think a better way to say this is that God uses our works to sanctify us but but I will assume that this is what you meant. What do you think of Jason's approach of using the Reformed confessions as a standard when one of your Protestant friends questions some aspect of Reformed doctrine?

    When I have taught classes where aspects of current Roman Catholic theology have been at issue, I generally utilize the CCC, Ott, the pronouncements of Trent, or at least something from the Catholic Encyclopedia as a reference. I know that if I start asking Catholics what they think I will get a bewildering array of answers depending on the knowledge of those I'm asking and the version of Catholicism they hold to.

  19. Andrew, I totally agree with you. And my friend is pretty knowledgeable about Reformed doctrine, but words like “infused” and “works are involved in our salvation” naturally scare him, smacking of Catholic doctrine. He's not the equivalent of your average Joe Catholic who has never read the Bible or catechism, but his understanding of Reformed doctrine is not exhaustive and may be mixed with Evangelical/Anabaptist principles as well.

    Still, because once you are justified, you are saved, with no possibility of falling away, one's works really do seem like icing on the cake. You could argue they are important icing, but you can't do (or not do) any act that would cause you to become unjustified after that moment when you are justified, and that initial justification has no works involved whatsoever.

  20. Darren,
    By no means. I was just trying to get to what James says about prayer. Or think of how in the book of Acts people wanted to receive things that were touched by Paul.

    Part of the problem with the holiness discussion is there is much pride in the world. Some of the greatest saints considered themselves to be the worst of sinners. But the point is, they were and are more infused with the divine life through union with Christ.

    Ultimately, this is about salvation. Salvation in the Catholic/Orthodox scheme can be seen quite clearly in this video. It's less clear cut than saying I'm saved, or that you are not saved.

    Please watch this video-it really gets beyond the “icing on the cake” statement mentioned by Devin. It goes to an older view of salvation which sustains me as I fumble around from day to day. May it sustain us all in the road to the neverending Pascha.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAlCze3ZFjA

  21. Still, because once you are justified, you are saved, with no possibility of falling away….

    Devin,

    Something which I noted a few days ago at CTC was that when we speak of justification that cannot be lost we are looking at the divine perspective here. That is, we are not saying that because someone prays a prayer and says they are justified that they truly are justified. We all know or know of folks who joined Evangelical communions, made seemingly credible professions, lived for a period of time in that communion, and then apostatized and fell into denial of the Christian faith. Apostasy is a certainly a very real phenomena that we all should take note of.

    When we speak of remaining in God's grace without the possibility of falling away we are saying that Christ cannot loose His sheep. That is, those who are eternally elect cannot jump out of a justifying relationship with Christ by an act of their free will. We say that if they are justified they will be glorified, but this looks at the matter from the perspective of the divine pronouncements, not the human perspective of what we believe about our justification.

    So in the context of Christ speaking of His sheep that He prays for and who will never perish, we ask our Catholic friends whether it is possible for the individual to overcome this grace of Christ and ultimately reject Him by an act of his own will. The question reflects something that in my mind has never really been resolved in the RCC system. The Molinists and Thomists were far apart in the 17th century but I think they are still far apart today. The Jansenist party had the resolution from my perspective but Jansen and his followers were condemned as heretics and the question of just how much importance free will should be accorded is left up in the air in the Roman Catholic soteriological system.

  22. Andrew's right, Devin. We must always remember that only “the Lord knows those who are his,” ultimately. Every multitude that a minister addresses is mixed, and all our professions of faith are undifferentiated, even if they're covenantally credible.

    Thus the Reformed never say, “I prayed the prayer so I have no need for self-examination or concern.” No, we must recognize that we are only a couple serious temptations away fom playing the prodigal, so we need to daily cling to God's grace.

  23. Following up on Andrew M.'s and Jason's last comments, this is one line of thought along which Catholic and Reformed thought converge.

    [BOQ] No one, moreover, so long as he lives this mortal life, ought in regard to the sacred mystery of divine predestination, so far presume as to state with absolute certainty that he is among the number of the predestined, as if it were true that the one justified either cannot sin any more, or, if he does sin, that he ought to promise himself an assured repentance.

    For except by special revelation, it cannot be known whom God has chosen to Himself.

    Similarly with regard to the gift of perseverance, of which it is written:

    He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved, which cannot be obtained from anyone except from Him who is able to make him stand who stands, that he may stand perseveringly, and to raise him who falls, let no one promise himself herein something as certain with an absolute certainty, though all ought to place and repose the firmest hope in God's help. [EOQ]

    (Trent, VI, XII, XIII.)

  24. That should be (Trent, Session VI, Chapters XII, XIII.)

  25. It's firmly Reformed and rooted deeply in the tradition to say that justification and sanctification are two sides of the same salvation coin. Or, put differently, they're the two legs in the body of salvation, and no one is going to be hopping on one leg into eternal, resurrected life.

    I wouldn't saddle Lutherans (in every instance) with the aberrant view expressed by the Reformed guy who carries around the systematic theology book with him. Justification?Salvation. But that thinking is deeply pervasive among the neo-Reformed. There's a lot more to it than that (just take St. Paul's brief list in Rom 8 into account: for-loved, pre-shaped, called, justified, glorified [note that early modern also used “imperfect glorification” to denote “sanctification”]).

  26. I know this conversation's kinda dead, but from where I'm standing, the problem isn't that we as Catholics don't understand that justification and sanctification are implicitly linked in Reformed theology. We get that.

    It's the way they're linked that I, at least, find troubling. The whole idea that works will absolutely follow from the life of the justified person raises a lot of existential problems for the average Christian that the Catholic understanding of justification and sanctification as ongoing process neatly sidesteps, and jives better with the whole counsel of Scripture while we're at it.

    When you fall, you confess your sins and they are truly wiped away. Like literally gone. Not just covered up but gone. You are a new creation. This, btw, is the bottom line reason Chesterton gave for his conversion to Catholicism. It's the only religion that actually claims to get rid of your sins.

    It seems the Reformed view inevitably leads the Christian who struggles with sin (especially any sin his community considers particularly “serious”) into the “am I saved or not” game, which we all know is nothing but a vicious circle. But for the stumbling Protestant, it seems an unavoidable one.

    The evangelicals try to solve it with their altar calls and recommitting their hearts to God, but what does the Reformation have for the perpetually mediocre Christian other than, “Well, pal, you've been among us, but you may never really have been OF us.” And how can you tell if you're really OF the Church? Well, you'll have good works that will flow naturally and unavoidably out of your justification.

    So you're not saved by works, but if you want anybody to believe your profession of faith, you better get to work.

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