Thursday, July 5, 2007

Justified for Christ's sake

I recently read Chapter XI of Gordon Clark's commentary or exposition on the Westminster Confession of Faith. The title of the chapter is "Of Justification" and follows the WCF's sectional delineation. The book itself is title "What Do Presbyterians Believe?"

In recent days a controversial issue has arisen in the Presbyterian Church in American denomination under the general label of "Federal Vision." I am not well versed enough in the controversy to explicate it mains points here and the proponents of Federal Vision are diverse and sometimes contradictory of each other on certain points of importance. One of the major concerns that was dealt with through a special commission of elders and addressed in a report to the General Assembly was the question of whether Federal Vision was amenable or consistent with the WCF's statement on justification. The decision was, generally speaking, that it was not consistent. Despite some honorable aims of several of the proponents of Federal Vision, the burden remains upon them to formulate a consistent and specific explanation of their position.

The central issue is what does it mean for individuals who are within the Covenant to be united with Christ. The assessment I have heard, but have not corroborated with my own reading, is that the Reformers did little to explain the details of the unbeliever's relationship to Christ within the Covenant. They spoke about the elect's union with Christ and its qualities and benefits, but their discussion of Covenant breakers--that is, those who profess and enter the Covenant but who fall away in unbelief or are revealed in the end not to be elect because of their unbelief--is relatively silent. Some Evangelical Presbyterians in recent days have sought to recover the vitality of the Sacraments of Baptism and The Lord's Supper in the communion of the saints upon the Lord's Day and in obedience to the requirements of the Covenant. I believe these to be important considerations, especially when taken in light of the culture of the larger Church of the United States, which contemns tradition, liturgy, and the foundations of Christian faith and practice. Modernizing and popularizing movements aside, the question of the relationship of unbelievers who are within the Covenant is an important one.

But beyond these contemporary controversial matters, the WCF's chapter on justification is one that has been a supreme encouragement to me and a source of recurrent reflection upon the goodness of Christ and the supremacy of God's purposes in glorifying the name of Christ, and therefore also glorifying His own name.

Clark is a writer who enjoys what I call dialectical writing. That is, he prefers to couch his statements in arguments against contemporary misconceptions, heresies, and inadequacies. In this sense his writing is both apologetic and pastoral. He addresses those weaknesses that are creeping in (or already have too strong a foothold) in the modern Church and provides encouragement to those readers who desire a consistently Biblical knowledge to understand their God and to defend Him against their own foolishness and the fools whom they inevitably encounter.

I particularly like Clark's description of "evangelical." He defines its original use as referring to those "who believed in justification by faith." The importance of this distinction is easy to miss because many people today consider faith as something against reason and/or as something that is their own production rather than the gift of God. But faith cannot be reduced to an emotional experience or a mystical "apprehension" (apart from understanding) of Truth. In another of Clark's books (Thales to Dewey) Clark argues that faith is assent, which includes both intellectual understanding (I know what proposition X means) and willful acceptance (I believe that the meaning of proposition X is true). The Bible is clear that our darkened minds (the word "heart" in Scripture predominantly refers to the intellect and the will) cannot agree with the holiness of God, therefore God saw fit to regenerate the minds of some in order that His name would be glorified. Regeneration precedes faith and faith is granted to the regenerate person by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Faith cannot be based upon intellectual acumen (for then humans could boast in themselves), nor of moral integrity (again, more reason to boast in oneself), nor of anything contained within the human soul. The WCF is clear on this point. And if we take seriously our "dead" condition absent of both righteousness and faith we must see that it is Christ alone in whom our surety of salvation resides.

In this realization comes another grand conclusion in the WCF--the righteousness which we possess by means of justification is a legal declaration, an acquittal, a statement of position rather than of essence. We are not made into righteous beings (this comes with our glorification upon Christ's return), but we are declared righteous being upon the substitution of Christ's righteousness for our own unrighteousness. This is the idea of imputation as opposed to infusion. Imputation recognizes that the believer is declared righteous, but has not yet been fully delivered from sin--the power of sin is broken because we can not deny our flesh and sinful desires, but the effects of sin in our bodies and upon our minds has not yet been removed. Infusion holds that the believer is either returned to a state of neutrality or of actual righteousness. The flaw in this view is that when one sins he is forced to either doubt the validity of saving faith (I sinned, thus I am not righteous, therefore I must not be truly saved) or doubt the perseverance of faith unto glory (I sinned, thus I am not righteous, therefore I have lost my salvation in Christ). Not only do these create psychological tension for the believer, but they make salvation contingent upon the believer's abilities (rather than Christ's sufficiency) and worst of all these contradict the statements of Scripture that indicate that those whom God has given to Christ shall be preserved by Christ until the end when they will be glorified fully (see John 17). The confession gives practical information about how the sins of the elect are dealt with according to God's holy Law--they too are forgiven and God has promised to sanctify His people and produce good works in them.

Brothers and sister, our hope is in Christ alone, of whom Scripture gives us all the knowledge we need to lead us to vibrant faith and godliness.