Erasmus feared that the teaching of a human will that is not free, even if true (which he denied), served no good purpose and would cause people to neglect their own responsibility to respond to the gospel. Luther responded:
‘What use or need is there, then, of publishing such things when so many harmful results seem likely to follow?’ I reply: It should be enough to say simply that God has willed their publication, and the reason of the Divine will is not to be sought, but simply to be adored, and the glory given to God, Who, since He alone is just and wise, wrongs none and can do nothing foolish or inconsiderate—however much it may seem otherwise to us. This answer will satisfy those who fear God. However (to say a little more than I need, since there is so much more that I can say), there are two considerations which require the preaching of these truths. The first is the humbling of our pride, and the comprehending of the grace of God; the second is the nature of Christian faith. For the first: God has surely promised His grace to the humbled: that is, to those who mourn over and despair of themselves. But a man cannot be thoroughly humbled till he realises that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, counsels, efforts, will and works, and depends absolutely on the will, counsel, pleasure and work of Another—God alone. As long as he is persuaded that he can make even the smallest contribution to his salvation, he remains self-confident and does not utterly despair of himself, and so is not humbled before God; but plans out for himself (or at least hopes and longs for) a position, an occasion, a work, which shall bring him final salvation. But he who is out of doubt that his destiny depends entirely on the will of God despairs entirely of himself, chooses nothing for himself, but waits for God to work in him; and such a man is very near to grace for his salvation. So these truths are published for the sake of the elect, that they may be humbled and brought down to nothing, and so saved. The rest of men resist this humiliation; indeed, they condemn the teaching of self-despair; they want a little something left that they can do for themselves. Secretly they continue proud, and enemies of the grace of God. This, I repeat, one reason—that those who fear God might in humility comprehend, claim and receive His gracious promise. The second reason is this: faith’s object is things not seen. That there may be room for faith, therefore, all that is believed must be hidden. Yet it is not hidden more deeply than under a contrary appearance of sight, sense and experience. Thus, when God quickens, He does so by killing; when He justifies, He does so by pronouncing guilty; when He carries up to heaven, He does so by bringing down to hell. As Scripture says in 1 Kings 2, ‘The Lord killeth and maketh alive; He bringeth down to the grave and bringeth up’ (1 Sam. 2.6). (This is no place for a fuller account of these things; but those who have read my books are well acquainted with them.) Thus God conceals His eternal mercy and loving kindness beneath eternal wrath, His righteousness beneath unrighteousness. Now, the highest degree of faith is to believe that He is merciful, though He saves so few and damns so many; to believe that He is just, though of His own will He makes us perforce proper subjects for damnation, and seems (in Erasmus’ words) ‘to delight in the torments of poor wretches and to be a fitter object for hate than for love.’ If I could by any means understand how this same God, who makes such a show of wrath and unrighteousness, can yet be merciful and just, there would be no need for faith. But as it is, the impossibility of understanding makes room for the exercise of faith when these things are preached and published; just as, when God kills, faith in life is exercised in death. —Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Revell, 1957) 100–101.
knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. —Galatians 2:16 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. —Ephesians 2:8–9 for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. —Romans 2:13 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. —James 2:24
Contradictions! The Bible is full of them. How are we to make sense of this? Let’s ask Dr. Luther:
Here [in Romans 3:1–20] the question arises: How can a person be justified without the works of the Law, or how can it be that justification does not flow from our works? For St. James writes: “We see how that by works a man is justified, and and not by faith only” (Jas. 2:24). So also St. Paul: “Faith . . . worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6); and: “The doers of the law shall be justified” (Rom. 2:13). To this we reply: as the Apostle distinguishes between the law and faith, the letter and grace, so also he distinguishes between the works resulting from these. He calls those deeds “works of the Law” that are done without faith and divine grace, merely because of the law, moved by either fear of punishment or the alluring hope of reward. By works of faith he calls those deeds which are done in the spirit of (Christian) liberty and flow from love to God. These can be done only by such as are justified by faith. Justification, however, is not in any way promoted by the works of the Law, but they rather hinder it, because they keep a person from regarding himself as unrighteous and so in need of justification. When James and Paul say that a man is justified by works, they argue against the false opinion of those who think that (for justification) a faith suffices that is without works. Paul does not say that true faith exists without its proper works, for without these there is not true faith. But what he says is that it is faith alone that justifies, regardless of works. Justification therefore does not presuppose the works of the law, but rather a living faith which performs its proper works, as we read Galatians 5:67. By the law is the knowledge of sin (3:20). Such knowledge of sin is obtained in two ways. First, by meditation (of the Law), as we read in Romans 7:7: “I had not know lust except the law had said, thou shalt not covet.” Secondly, by experience, namely, by trying to fulfill the Law, or we may say, through the Law as was assure to fulfill its obligations. Then the Law will become to us as occasion to sin, for then the perverted will of man, inclined to evil, but urged by the Law to do good, becomes all the more unwillingly and disinclined to do what is good. It hates to be drawn away from what it loves; and what it loves is sin, as we learn from Geneses 8:21. But just so, man, forced by the Law and obeying it unwillingly, sees how deeply sin and evil are rooted in his soul. He would never notice this, if he did not have the Law and would not try to follow it. The Apostle here only mentions this though, since he intends to treat it more fully in Chapters 5 and 7. Here he merely meets the objection that the Law would be useless if its works could not justify. —Martin Luther, Luther’s Commentary on Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1954), 59–60.
“I believe in God.”
I have had some interesting conversations that began with that statement. Sadly, few who make it can honestly drop that little preposition: in. Most people I know will say, yes, I believe in God, but when confronted with what God has said about himself and about them, have to admit that, well, no, I don’t actually believe that. Then I have told them that it isn’t those who believe in God who will be saved, but only those who believe God. And this is the great stumbling block.
Here are a few words from Luther on what it means to believe God:
Abraham believed God (4:3). This must be understood in the sense that Abraham was always ready to believe God. He steadfastly believed God. This fact we learn from Genesis 12 and 13, where we are told that Abraham believed God who called and commanded him to leave his country and go into a strange land. Again he believed God when, according to Genesis 1:22ff., he was commanded to slay his son Isaac, and so forth. Whatever he did, he did by faith as the Apostle declares in Hebrews 11:8–10. So also what is stated in our text (v. 3) is said of Abraham’s faith in general, and not merely with regard to the one promise recorded in Genesis 15:4–6. To believe God means to trust him always and everywhere. —Martin Luther, Luther’s Commentary on Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1954), 66.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. —Romans 8:28–39
When Jesus Died on the cross, he did not merely make our salvation possible; he actually secured that salvation—and all that it entails—for each of his elect. J. I. Packer expounds this truth from Romans 8:
The thought expressed by Paul’s [question in v. 32] is that no good thing will finally be withheld from us. He conveys this thought by pointing to the adequacy of God as our sovereign benefactor and to the decisiveness of his redeeming work for us. Three comments will bring out the force of Paul’s argument. Note, first, what Paul implies about the costliness of our redemption. “He did not spare his own Son.” In saving us, God went to the limit. . . . We cannot know what Calvary cost the Father, any more than we can know Jesus felt as he tasted the penalty due to our sins. . . . Yet we can say this: that if the measure of love is what it gives, then there never was such love as God showed to sinners at Calvary, nor will any subsequent love-gift to us cost God so much. So if God has already commended his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (5:8), it is believable, to say the least, that he will go on to give us “all things” besides. . . . But this is not all. Note, second, what Paul implies about the effectiveness of our redemption. “God,” he says, “gave him up for us all”—and this fact is itself the guarantee that “all things” will be given us, because they all come to us as the direct fruit of Christ’s death. We have just said that the greatness of God’s giving on the cross makes his further giving (if the words may be allowed) natural and likely, but what we must note now is that the unity of God’s saving purpose makes such further giving necessary, and therefore certain. At this point the New Testament view of the cross involves more than is sometimes realized. That the apostolic writers present the death of Christ as the ground and warrant of God’s offer of forgiveness, and that we enter into forgiveness through repentance and faith in Christ, will not be disputed. But does this mean that, as a loaded gun is only potentially explosive, and an act of pulling the trigger is needed to make it go off, so Christ’s death achieved only a possibility of salvation, needing an exercise of faith on our part to trigger it off and make it actual? If so, then it is not strictly Christ’s death that saves us at all, any more than it is loading the gun that makes it fire: strictly speaking, we save ourselves by our faith, and for all we know, Christ’s death might not have saved anyone, since it might have been the case that nobody believed the gospel. But that is not how the New Testament sees it. The New Testament view is that the death of Christ has actually saved “us all”—all, that is to say, whom God foreknew, and has called and justified, and will in due course glorify. For our faith, which from the human point of view is the means of salvation, is from God’s point of view part of salvation, and is as directly and completely God’s gift to us as is the pardon and peace of which faith lays hold. Psychologically, faith is our own act, but the theological truth about it is that it is God’s work in us: our faith, and our new relationship with God as believers, and all the divine gifts that are enjoyed within this relationship, were all alike secured for us by Jesus’ death on the cross. For the cross was not an isolated event; it was, rather, the focal point in God’s eternal plan to save his elect, and it ensured and guaranteed first the calling (the bringing to faith, through the gospel in the mind and the Holy Spirit in the heart), and then the justification, and finally the glorification, of all for whom, specifically and personally, Christ died. Now we see why the Greek of this verse says literally (and so the KJV renders it), how shall he not with him also give us all things? It is simply impossible for him not to do this, for Christ and “all things” go together as ingredients in the single gift of eternal life and glory, and the giving of Christ for us, to remove the “sin barrier” by substitutionary atonement, has effectively opened the door to our being given all the rest. . . . Note, third, what Paul implies about the consequences of redemption. God, he says, will with Christ give us “all things.” What does that cover? Calling, justification, glorification (which in v. 30 includes everything from the new birth to the resurrection of the body) have already been mentioned, and so throughout Romans 8 has the many sided ministry of the Holy Spirit. Here is wealth indeed, and from other Scriptures we could add to it. —J. I. Packer, Knowing God (InterVarsity Press, 1993), 264–266
For those who don’t know, Rob Bell is the leader of the euphemistically-named Mars Hill Bible Church and author of a number of books suitable only for hanging on the outhouse wall. His latest effluvium is Love Wins.
Happy April Fool’s Day. Our topic for the day, appropriately, is Rob Bell, innocent victim of slander*, who offers the following answer to the question, “Do you think you’re going to go to heaven?”
Yeah, and I say that because I trust Jesus and I believe in Jesus, but I say it because of my experiences now, that which I can’t explain: the peace and joy now, the sense of presence, especially for me in the midst of difficult things. I am loved, I am being guided, I am being supported . . . [more here]
That is a terrifying testimony, especially coming from a man who has created his own Jesus, rejecting the Jesus of Scripture and the substitutionary atonement of the cross. The source of his assurance is his present experience and how he feels right now. It’s a fool’s testimony because it rests not on what the Christ of real history has done, but on his feelings about what a fictitious Jesus is presumed to be doing for him now.
I write this not because anything more needs to be said about Bell’s heresy, but to warn you that if Bell’s testimony is your testimony, you have no cause for hope of salvation. Unless your faith is in the finished work of Christ as recorded in Scripture, in his life, death, and resurrection, your hope is empty.
The Bible is quite clear on what the foundation of genuine saving faith is. It is never based even in part on our experiences or feelings. It is firmly founded upon absolute propositional truths. At the center of every one of those truths is Jesus, not you, and not your feelings about Jesus. When someone asks you if you think you’re going to heaven, you should be able to answer with those truths.
I offer my own testimony as an example.
* Slander: To accurately repeat and analyze the public statements of those not man enough to face examination.
In 2 Corinthians 13:5, Paul exhorts his readers to “test yourselves to see if you are in the faith.” Previously (2 Corinthians 6:14), he had instructed them to judge the faith of others. In spite of this clear teaching, it is virtually unthinkable in today’s church to question anyone’s profession of faith. To do so is deemed judgmental and uncharitable. Everyone must be given the benefit of the doubt, as though they can in some way take credit for their salvation.
I suppose this may be a byproduct of the synergistic gospel embraced by most of the church in which God provides salvation, but man has to go get it (i.e., accept Christ, ask Jesus into his heart, make a decision for Christ). But that isn’t how it works. We can only give the benefit of the doubt (or not) in relation to things done or not done. Spiritual status (saved or unsaved) is not achieved by any work of man. It could be compared to physical stature. If a man is of short stature, it is no insult to admit it is so. On the other hand, the height of a tall man is no cause for praise. Neither man can take any credit for his height.
Unlike physical stature, whether or not one is saved matters. We should waste no time praying for a short man to grow taller, or for an awkwardly tall man to shrink. We need not think of it at all. Discerning our spiritual state, and that of those around us, is eternally vital. Love demands it. Toward that end, Mike McKinley has written Am I Really a Christian?, in which he lists “five things Christians have,” indicators by which we can judge our profession of faith.
Belief in true doctrine. You’re not a Christian just because you like Jesus. Hatred for sin in your life. You’re not a Christian if you enjoy sin. Perseverance over time. You’re not a Christian if you don’t persist in the faith. Love for other people. You’re not a Christian if you don’t have care and concern for other people. Freedom from love of the world. You’re not a Christian if the things of this world are more valuable to you than God. —Mike McKinley, Am I Really a Christian? (Crossway, 2011), 39.
These are all expanded in following chapters.
In short, what you believe, that is, the object of your faith, matters. Intellectual assent to biblical theology, however, is not by itself proof of genuine faith. Genuine faith bears specific fruits. And to the predictable objection to perfectionism, we admit that the fruit will not be perfect. Some apples are sour, others are mealy, and a few might contain a worm here and there. But a live apple tree produces apples.
Without Irresistible Grace, perhaps better called the “effectual call,” no sinner would believe. Salvation would be impossible.
It is clear from the Bible that the Spirit’s regenerating work always precedes and causes faith. Jesus stated this to Nicodemus: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). This is reflected more or less clearly in every conversion recorded in the New Testament. An excellent example is the conversion of Lydia, which Luke records by writing, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). Likewise, Jesus ascribed Peter’s great confession not to the operations of his flesh but to divine grace: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17). Regeneration—the new birth—precedes faith, so that prior to being born again it is impossible for anyone to believe on Jesus. Paul explains why: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Therefore, if regeneration had to result from faith—if unregenerate sinners had to believe in order to be saved—then according to Paul, no one would ever be regenerated and saved. Instead, the Bible uniformly teaches what our sinful condition demands: regeneration precedes and causes saving faith. The apostle John put it succinctly: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:1). —Richard D. Phillips, What’s So Great about the Doctrines of Grace? (Reformation Trust, 2008), 76–77.
In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. —John 1:4
Romans 10:17 tells us that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” This is also the message of John 1:4.
We should observe the link between John 1:4 and the preceding ones, that is, between Jesus as the Word and Jesus as the Life. It is through God’s Word that Christ’s life comes to us. This means that if you want to be green and growing—if you want to be flourishing with spiritual life—then you need to be drinking from God’s Word. Psalm 1 speaks of the man who is “blessed,” whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Ps. 1:2–3). —Richard D. Phillips, The Incarnation in the Gospels (P&R Publishing, 2008), 152.
Yesterday, I linked to 5 Signs Your Child Is Not Saved. Being a father, this is obviously of immense concern to me. Nothing delights me more than the evidences of genuine saving faith I see in some of my children, and nothing grieves me more than the absence of those evidences in others. I want nothing more than to see them all following Jesus. It would be nothing less than parental malpractice to assume their salvation and cease confronting them with their sin and their need to examine themselves to see if they “are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5). It troubles me to see how many Christian parents assume the salvation of their children.
It also troubles me to see how many Christians assume the salvation of virtually everyone around them who claims to be a Christian, attends church, and generally lives a moral life. Christianity, while certainly never less than that, is much more than that. Yet so often, when challenging those assumptions, I am charged with being judgmental and uncharitable, as though we should give the benefit of the doubt.
But the benefit of the doubt only goes to those who are able to accomplish the goal in question. We may assume individuals to be honest until they lie to us or steal from us. We may assume new employees to be reliable until they are habitually tardy, absent, or lazy. We may assume the best of people until they give us reason to doubt them, because we may assume they are able to perform dutifully. Even unbelievers are capable of basic integrity.
No one is capable of doing anything to save themselves. Salvation—in particular, regeneration—is a miracle, an act of God (John 3:1–8). Therefore, it is not uncharitable to assume someone is unsaved. In fact, since we are born as unregenerate sinners (Psalm 51:5), enemies of God (Romans 5:10), and Scripture clearly states that the people of God are the minority (Matthew 22:14), we should assume the vast majority to be unsaved and in need of the gospel. It is no loving act to assume sick people to be well, and thereby deny them the cure.
The notion of assumed salvation is found nowhere in Scripture. On the contrary, we are repeatedly taught to judge the faith of others. Matthew 18:15–18 instructs us to treat unrepentant sinners as unbelievers. 2 Corinthians 6:14ff commands us not to “be bound together with unbelievers.” Both involve judgment of faith, and the latter in particular assumes we can—and must—make that judgment.
So, how should we judge?
We should assume anyone we don't know to be unsaved, because we love them and want them to be saved. To that, we should make the single following exception: we should treat as brothers and sisters anyone who belongs to a local church body that is theologically orthodox (notice, I do not say any and every church so-called) and practices biblical discipleship (meaning: first, that their testimonies have been judged credible by the elders before admittance; second, that the Word is taught faithfully and thoroughly; and third, Matthew 18 discipline is practiced). In other words, we should give the benefit of the doubt to the qualified shepherds who have already judged their profession, understanding that because no shepherd is omniscient or infallible, there are still tares among the wheat.
Those we do know should be judged, in addition to the local church affiliation standard in the previous paragraph, by the same criteria as we judge ourselves. But that's another post, a whole book, even, which you will find here.
The purpose of this is not simply to see who is in and who is out. The purpose is two-fold: to maintain the purity of Christ’s bride, and to prioritize evangelism. The mission field, for most of us, is not out there and far away. It is right next door, and in our own homes. It will not do to pray for unreached peoples far-off while pretending the unsaved nearby are safely in the fold.
John MacArthur writes, “If we are to honor our divine Guest, treating Him with the reverence and respect that is His royal due, we must rightly discern His true ministry—aligning our hearts, minds, and wills with His wondrous work.” Toward that end, he lists “six aspects of the Spirit’s work in salvation.”
The Holy Spirit Convicts Unbelievers of Sin
As the general, external call of the gospel goes forth, through the preaching of the message of salvation, unbelievers in the world are confronted with the reality of their sin and the consequences of their unbelief . For those who reject the gospel, the Holy Spirit’s work of conviction might be likened to that of a prosecuting attorney. He convicts them in the sense that they are rendered guilty before God and are, therefore, eternally condemned (John 3:18). The Spirit’s convicting work is not about making unrepentant sinners feel bad, but about delivering a legal verdict against them. It includes a full indictment of their hardhearted crimes, complete with irrefutable evidence and a death sentence. Yet for those whom the Spirit draws to the Savior, His convicting work is one of convincing, as He pricks their consciences and cuts them to the quick. Thus, for the elect, this work of conviction is the beginning of God’s saving, effectual call. —John MacArthur, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Thomas Nelson, 2014), 184.
The Holy Spirit Regenerates Sinful Hearts
Regeneration is a transformation of a person’s nature, as the believer is given new life, cleansed, and permanently set apart from sin (cf. 2 Thess. 2:13). Those who formerly operated in the flesh now operate in the Spirit (Rom. 8:5–11). Though they were dead, they have been made alive, indwelt by the very Spirit who raised Christ Jesus from the dead (v. 10; cf. 6:11). The Spirit of life has come upon them, empowering them to resist temptation and live in righteousness. This is what it means to be “born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). —Ibid., 188.
The Holy Spirit Brings Sinners to Repentance
A vivid illustration of this is found in Acts 11:15–18, where Peter reported the conversion of Cornelius to the other apostles in Jerusalem: ”As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.” As Peter and the others realized, the undeniable proof Cornelius and his household had truly repented was that they had received the Holy Spirit. They had been convicted of their sin; their hearts were regenerated; their eyes were opened to the truth of Peter’s preaching; and they were given the gift of repentant faith (cf. Eph. 2:8; 2 Tim. 2:25)—all of which was the Holy Spirit’s work. —Ibid., 188–189.
The Holy Spirit Enables Fellowship with God
The Spirit produces an attitude of profound love for God in the hearts of those who have been born again. They feel drawn to God, not fearful of Him. They long to commune with Him—to meditate on His Word and to fellowship with Him in prayer. They cast their cares freely on Him, and openly confess their sins without trepidation, knowing that all has been covered by His grace through the sacrifice of Christ. Thus, the Spirit makes it possible for believers to enjoy fellowship with God, no longer fearful of His judgment or wrath (1 John 4:18). As a result, Christians can sing hymns about God’s holiness and glory without cowering in terror—knowing they have been securely adopted into the family of their heavenly Father. —Ibid., 190.
The Holy Spirit Indwells the Believer
It is important to emphasize that there is no such thing as a genuine believer who does not possess the Holy Spirit. It is a terrible error—one tragically promoted by many within Pentecostalism—to assert that a person could somehow be saved and yet not receive the Holy Spirit. Apart from the Spirit’s work, no one could be anything other than a wretched sinner. To reiterate Paul’s statement from Romans 8:9, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.” Put simply, those who do not possess the Holy Spirit do not belong to Christ. Genuine believers—people in whom the Holy Spirit has taken up residence—think, talk, and act differently. They are no longer characterized by a love for the world; instead, they love the things of God. That transformation is evidence of the Spirit’s power at work in the lives of those whom He indwells. —Ibid., 192.
The Holy Spirit Seals Salvation Forever
The Holy Spirit Himself personally guarantees that fact. As Paul told the Ephesians, “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:13–14). Believers are sealed by the Holy Spirit until the day of redemption. He secures them unto eternal glory. —Ibid., 193.
This might have surprised the Lutheran evangelists of my youth: Luther believed that regeneration precedes faith.
The truth is that no sinner can believe and embrace the Scriptures without the Holy Spirit’s divine enabling. As Martin Luther observed, “In spiritual and divine things, which pertain to the salvation of the soul, man is like a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife, yea, like a log and a stone, like a lifeless statue, which uses neither eyes nor mouth, neither sense nor heart. . . . All teaching and preaching is lost upon him, until he is enlightened, converted, and regenerated by the Holy Ghost.” —John MacArthur, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Thomas Nelson, 2014), 225.
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. —1 Corinthians 11:27–29
Participation in the Lord’s Table requires faith.
Examine thy faith. This grace is thy spiritual taste, without which thou canst relish nothing on the table. This is the bucket, and if it be wanting, I may say to thee, as the woman to Christ, ‘The well is deep, and thou hast nothing to draw with.’ This is the hand to receive Christ, John i. 12. This is as the arms whereby we embrace Christ; they ‘embraced the promises’ by faith, Heb. xi. 13. As loving friends that have been a great while asunder, when they meet together, hug and embrace each other in their arms; so the Christian who longeth to see Jesus Christ in the promises, when at a sacrament he meeteth him, huggeth and embraceth him in the arms of faith. Examine not so much the strength as the truth of thy faith. The wings of a dove may help her to mount up towards heaven, as well as the wings of an eagle. Try whether thy faith be unfeigned, 1 Tim. i. 5. What price dost thou set upon Christ? ‘To them that believe, Christ is precious,’ 1 Pet. ii. 7. An unbeliever, like the Indians,* seeth no worth in this golden mine, but preferreth a piece of glass, or a few painted beads, mean, earthly things, before it; but a believer, like the Spaniard, knoweth the value of it, and will venture through all storms and tempests that he may enjoy it. Dost thou prize the precepts of Christ, the promises of Christ, the people of Christ, the person of Christ, (is that altogether lovely in thine eyes?) and the passion of Christ? Is thy greatest glory in Christ’s shameful cross? Dost thou esteem it above the highest emperor’s most glorious crown? . . . God forbid,’ saith Paul, ‘that I should glory, save in the cross of Christ,’ Gal. vi. 14. Doth thy faith purify thine heart? ‘Having their hearts purified by faith,’ Acts xv. 9. The hand of faith, which openeth the door to let Christ into the heart, sweepeth the heart clean. Faith looks to be like Christ in glory, and faith labours to resemble Christ in grace. An unbeliever . . . though he keep the room of his life a little clean, which others daily observe, yet he cares not how dirtily those rooms of his inward man lie, which are out of their sight; unbelieving and defiled are joined together, Tit. i. 15. —George Swinnock, The Christian Man’s Calling, Works of George Swinnock (Banner of Truth, 1992), 1:183–184
* To those who might take offense at this simile: consider the times (1627–1673) before making any anachronistic judgments.
But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him. —John 12:37
While the purpose of Jesus' miracles was the authentication of himself and his word (Hebrews 2:1–4), that fact should not lead us to believe that miracles have any power to convince unregenerate minds (Luke 16:31). Calvin writes,
That no man may be disturbed or perplexed at seeing that Christ was despised by the Jews, the Evangelist removes this offense, by showing that he was supported by clear and undoubted testimonies, which proved that credit was due to him and to his doctrine; but that the blind did not behold the glory and power of God, which were openly displayed in his miracles. First, therefore, we ought to believe that it was not owing to Christ that the Jews did not place confidence in him, because by many miracles he abundantly testified who he was, and that it was therefore unjust and highly unreasonable that their unbelief should diminish his authority. But as this very circumstance might lead many persons to anxious and perplexing inquiry how the Jews came to be so stupid, that the power of God, though visible, produced no effect upon them, John proceeds further, and shows that faith does not proceed from the ordinary faculties of men, but is an uncommon and extraordinary gift of God, and that this was anciently predicted concerning Christ, that very few would believe the Gospel. —John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XVIII (Baker Books, 2009), Commentary on the Gospel according to John, 2:40.
Only one miracle has the power to produce faith, and that is the miracle of regeneration (John 3:4–8).
Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God. —John 12:42–43
Theologians break faith into three components: noticia, assensus, and fiducia, or, for the rest of us, knowledge, assent, and trust. Faith must have a known foundation and we must agree with—give assent to—that foundation. But those two components indicate belief only, and belief alone does not equal faith. “The rulers” who “believed in [Christ]” only gave assent to the facts about him. They did not entrust themselves to his care. They did not dare to follow him. While Jesus’ messianic identity was clear to them, they had not truly encountered the living God. They had learned truth about him, yet did not know him.
The Evangelist expressly states that those men were not guided by any superstition, but only endeavored to avoid disgrace among men; for if ambition had greater influence over them than the fear of God, it follows, that it was no vain scruple of conscience that gave them uneasiness. Now, let the reader observe how great ignominy is incurred before God, by the cowardice of those who, from the fear of being hated, dissemble their faith before men. Can any thing be more foolish, or rather, can any thing be more beastly, than to prefer the silly applause of men to the judgment of God? But he declares that all who shrink from the hatred of men, when the pure faith ought to be confessed, are seized with this kind of madness. And justly; for the apostle, in applauding the unshaken steadiness of Moses, says that he remained firm, as if he had seen him who is invisible, (Heb. xi. 27.) By these words he means that, when any person has fixed his eyes on God, his heart will be invincible, and utterly incapable of being moved. Whence, therefore, comes the [delicacy], which causes us to give way to treacherous hypocrisy, but because, at the sight of the world, all our senses grow dull? For a true sight of God would instantly chase away all the mists of wealth and honors. Away with those who look upon an indirect denial of Christ as some trivial offense, or, as they call it, a venial sin! For, on the contrary, the Holy Spirit declares that it is more base and monstrous than if heaven and earth were mingled. —John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XVIII (Baker Books, 2009), Commentary on the Gospel according to John, 2:47.
If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. —John 15:7
The Lord promises that he will do whatever we ask, and there is no “except for this or that” added. ”Whatever” really means whatever. This does not, however, mean that there is no limit to God will do. Of course there is. But the limiting factor is not found in the promise, but in the recipients of the promise. The promise is given to a particular kind of people, who will have a particular kind of desire, stemming from a particular source.
If you abide in me. Believers often feel that they are starved, and are very far from that rich fatness which is necessary for yielding abundant fruit. For this reason it is expressly added, whatever those who are in Christ may need, there is a remedy provided for their poverty, as soon as they ask it from God. This is a very useful admonition; for the Lord often suffers us to hunger, in order to train us to earnestness in prayer. But if we fly to him, we shall never want what we ask, but, out of his inexhaustible abundance, he will supply us with every thing that we need, (1 Cor. i. 5.) If my words abide in you. He means that we take root in him by faith; for as soon as we have departed from the doctrine of the Gospel, we seek Christ separately from himself. When he promises that he will grant whatever we wish, he does not give us leave to form wishes according to our own fancy. God would do what was ill fitted to promote our welfare, if he were so indulgent and so ready to yield to us; for we know well that men often indulge in foolish and extravagant desires. But here he limits the wishes of his people to the rule of praying in a right manner, and that rule subjects, to the good pleasure of God, all our affections. This is confirmed by the connection in which the words stand; for he means that his people will or desire not riches, or honours, or any thing of that nature, which the flesh foolishly desires, but the vital sap of the Holy Spirit, Which enables them to bear fruit. —John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XVIII (Baker Books, 2009), Commentary on the Gospel according to John, 2:111.
In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will request of the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father. —John 16:26–27
From this passage some might conclude that God does not love his elect until they come to Christ in faith. The analogia scriptura prevents such an erroneous interpretation.
Because you have loved me. These words remind us that the only bond of our union with God is, to be united to Christ; and we are united to him by a faith which is not reigned, but which springs from sincere affection, which he describes by the name of love; for no man believes purely in Christ who does not cordially embrace him, and, therefore, by this word he has well expressed the power and nature of faith. But if it is only when we have loved Christ that God begins to love us, it follows that the commencement of salvation is from ourselves, because we have anticipated the grace of God. Numerous passages of Scripture, on the other hand, are opposed to this statement. The promise of God is, I will cause them to love me; and John says, Not that we first loved Him, (1 John iv. 7.) It would be superfluous to collect many passages; for nothing is more certain than this doctrine, that the Lord calleth those things which are not, (Rom. iv. 17) raises the dead, (Luke vii. 22,) unites himself to those who were strangers to him, (Eph. ii. 12,) makes hearts of flesh out of hearts of stone, (Ezek. xxxvi. 26,) manifests himself to those who do not seek him, (Isa. lxv. 1; Rom. x. 20.) I reply, God loves men in a secret way, before they are called, if they are among the elect; for he loves his own before they are created; but, as they are not yet reconciled, they are justly accounted enemies of God, as Paul speaks, When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, (Rom. v. 10.) On this ground it is said that we are loved by God, when we love Christ; because we have the pledge of the fatherly love of Him from whom we formerly recoiled as our offended Judge. —John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XVIII (Baker Books, 2009), Commentary on the Gospel according to John, 2:158–159.
but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; —1 Peter 3:15
A while ago, as I was working (or, possibly, napping) in my study, I overheard this line from a movie that was playing in the next room: “Sometimes you just have to make a leap of faith. The trust part comes later.” That is, without a doubt, one of the most ridiculous statements I have ever heard. Faith, as theologians define it, consists of three elements: notitia, assensus, and fiducia, or knowledge, agreement, and trust, with trust being the most defining element. There is no faith without trust. But that is the kind of ignorant philosophy one expects to find in movies.
More troubling is the philosophy often encountered in the church. While few there would divorce faith from trust, many separate faith from knowledge. Faith is not only thought to be a nonintellectual exercise, it is often set in opposition to the intellect. Biblical Christianity rejects that notion.
Some Christians tell those who inquire that we simply take a leap of faith with no bother about the credibility or the rational character of the truth claims of the Bible, but that response goes against the teaching of this text. The only leap of faith we are to take is out of the darkness and into the light. When we become Christians, we do not leave our mind in the parking lot. We are called to think according to the Word of God, to seek the mind of Christ and an understanding of the things set forth in sacred Scripture. The Bible is a big book, and every bit of it, I believe, has been inspired by God the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, the author of this Book is God. He gave it to us to be understood, and we cannot understand it if we close our mind to the careful study of it. —R. C. Sproul, 1–2 Peter: Be All the More Diligent to Make Your Calling and Election Sure (Crossway, 2011), 115.
but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; —1 Peter 3:15
Peter says that after we sanctify the Lord God in our hearts, we are to be ready to give an apologia, a defense, to everyone who asks us a reason for our hope—not a feeling, but a reason. . . .A while ago I was involved in a serious controversy involving a professor who had been teaching that biblical truth cannot be understood by reason but through some kind of mystical intuition. That is the position that was taken by the heretical Gnostics in the second and third centuries. They believed that their mystical apprehension of truth was superior to the Apostles’ because the Apostles relied on the mind. Relying on the mind is criticized by some who say that if you rely on the mind to understand the content of the Christian faith, you have submitted to the heresy of rationalism. I asked this particular professor, “When you talk about rationalism, what do you mean? Are you talking about the Cartesian rationalism of the seventeenth century? Are you talking about the Enlightenment rationalism of the eighteenth century? Are you speaking about the Hegelian rationalism of the nineteenth century that deified reason itself?” He was completely unaware of those radically different types of rationalism. To say that you are a rationalist because Christianity is rational simply does not follow. One can be rational without being a rationalist, just as one can be human without being a humanist, or can exist without being an existentialist, or be feminine without being a feminist. On the basis of Scripture, we must never negotiate the principle that the truth we receive from God is rational. It is not irrational or illogical. To say that the Word of God is irrational, contradictory, or absurd is to accuse the Holy Spirit of speaking with a forked tongue. As Peter said, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16). What they had witnessed was the sober truth of the Word of God, which is intelligible and reasonable for any reasonable person to embrace. —R. C. Sproul, 1–2 Peter: Be All the More Diligent to Make Your Calling and Election Sure (Crossway, 2011), 120–121.
The Christian life is a transformed life. The final paragraph of this excerpt describes that transformation perfectly.
Hebrews 12:14 haunts me when I meet people who claim to be Christians but whose lives do not agree: “Sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.” Second Timothy 2:19 says that the Lord knows them that are His. And who are they? Those that name the name of Christ and depart from iniquity. Titus 1:16 says, “They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient, and worthless for any good deeds.” Profession means nothing without obedience, without righteousness, without holiness, without departing from iniquity. Once, I actually heard a pastor preach, “Isn’t it wonderful that you can come to Jesus Christ and you don’t have to change anything on the inside or the outside?” . . . Of course we can come to Jesus just as we are, but if we come away from conversion just as we were, how can we call it conversion? Second Corinthians 5:17 sums it up well: “Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” Being righteous does not mean that we never sin. First John 1:9 says Christians are constantly confessing their sin. That certainly indicates that we do sin. But it is sin that we deal with sooner or later. We confess it, we turn from it, we repent of it, we despise it. We do not love it. “If any one loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). James puts it this way, “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” There will be a whole new approach to life. We will have sin, yes, but when sin appears we will hate it as Paul did in Romans 7. We will hunger and thirst for that which is right. We will seek to obey; we will seek to love our brother and hate the evil system of the world. That’s the way it is, if true salvation exists. You cannot prove that you are a Christian by waltzing down the same old path. Having made a decision, having walked an aisle, having gone into an inquiry room, or having read through a little book was never the biblical criterion for salvation. . . . if a person does not come to Jesus Christ shattered to the very depths of his being and mourning over his sinfulness, with a hunger and thirst after righteousness more than anything else, there is a possibility that that person is not a Christian. —John MacArthur, Kingdom Living: Here and Now (Moody, 1980), 10–12 (emphasis added).
We must never believe that we are saved by any good works. We are saved by the work of Christ alone, applied to us through faith. At the same time, an obedient life is a necessary result of genuine saving faith (James 2:17). Therefore, while Christ alone is the ground of assurance, our sole source of hope and object of trust, we can have no assurance if our faith is not demonstrated in our lives (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Assurance is a gift of God, not enjoyed by a disobedient believer. Read what Peter says. Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge; and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness; and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, Christian love (2 Peter 1:5–7). What is the purpose of such a virtuous life, such true spiritual character? For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these qualities is blind or shortsighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins. Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble (2 Peter 1:8–10). The point is not that we are gaining salvation or even keeping salvation. Those great realities are bound up eternally with the sovereignty of God. Peter’s point is that we may enjoy the sense of assurance, confidence, security that should accompany our entrance into the kingdom. —John MacArthur, Kingdom Living: Here and Now (Moody, 1980), 10–13.
In the coming year, I’ll make another attempt to restart the blog. I intend to begin by blogging through several works of J. C. Ryle, beginning with what is probably his most-read, Holiness. Here is a taste:
He that wishes to attain right views about Christian holiness, must begin by examining the vast and solemn subject of sin. He must dig down very low if he would build high. A mistake here is most mischievous. Wrong views about holiness are generally traceable to wrong views about human corruption. . . . The plain truth is that a right knowledge of sin lies at the root of all saving Christianity. Without it such doctrines as justification, conversion, sanctification, are ‘words and names’ which convey no meaning to the mind. The first thing, therefore, that God does when He makes anyone a new creature in Christ, is to send light into his heart, and show him that he is a guilty sinner. The material creation in Genesis began with ‘light,’ and so also does the spiritual creation. God ‘shines into our hearts’ by the work of the Holy Ghost, and then spiritual life begins. (2 Cor. 4:6).—Dim or indistinct views of sin are the origin of most of the errors, heresies, and false doctrines of the present day. If a man does not realize the dangerous nature of his soul’s disease, you cannot wonder if he is content with false or imperfect remedies. I believe that one of the chief wants of the Church in the nineteenth century has been, and is, clearer, fuller teaching about sin. . . . I say, then, that ‘sin,’ speaking generally, is, as the Ninth Article of our Church declares, ‘the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that is naturally engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone (quam longissime is the Latin) from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth alway against the spirit; and, therefore, in every person born into the world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.’ Sin, in short, is that vast moral disease which affects the whole human race, of every rank, and class, and name, and nation, and people, and tongue; a disease from which there never was but one born of woman that was free. Need I say that one was Christ Jesus the Lord? —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 1–2.
Ryle lists twelve propositions for the purpose of defining the nature of sanctification. Among them, “Sanctification . . . is the only sure mark of God’s election.”
The names and number of the elect are a secret thing, no doubt, which God has wisely kept in His own power, and not revealed to man. It is not given to us in this world to study the pages of the book of life, and see if our names are there. But if there is one thing clearly and plainly laid down about election, it is this—that elect men and women may be known and distinguished by holy lives. It is expressly written that they are ‘elect through sanctification—chosen unto salvation through sanctification—predestinated to be conformed to the image of God’s Son—and chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world that they should be holy.’—Hence, when St. Paul saw the working ‘faith’ and labouring ‘love’ and patient ‘hope’ of the Thessalonian believers, he says, ‘I know your election of God.’ (1 Peter 1:2; 2 Thess. 2:13; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:4; 1 Thess. 1:3, 4). He that boasts of being one of God’s elect, while he is wilfully and habitually living in sin, is only deceiving himself, and talking wicked blasphemy. —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 25–26.
I grant freely that it costs little to be a mere outward Christian. A man has only got to attend a place of worship twice on Sunday, and to be tolerably moral during the week, and he has gone as far as thousands around him ever go in religion. All this is cheap and easy work: it entails no self-denial or self-sacrifice. If this is saving Christianity, and will take us to heaven when we die, we must alter the description of the way of life, and write, ‘Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to heaven!’ —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 94—95
Jesus never said following him would be easy. Instead, he promised us a cross to bear, suffering, and a battle to the death. The path of a disciple is a hard road, and we are warned to count the cost—which will be considered in coming posts.
Many of us were raised in godly homes and good churches, or if not, have since found homes in living, Bible-teaching congregations. I hope you have. Those are good things. They are privileges, gifts from God for which we should give thanks. But those privileges do not save. We can live our entire lives in the best of Christian environments, and still be lost. For this reason, we are reminded to “remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32).
It is a solemn warning, when we think of the persons to whom it was first given. The Lord Jesus was speaking to His disciples: He was not addressing the scribes and Pharisees, who hated Him, but Peter, James, and John, and many others who loved Him; yet even to them He thinks it good to address a caution. . . . It is a solemn warning, when we consider the manner in which it was given. . . . He speaks as if we were all in danger of forgetting the subject; He stirs up our lazy memories; He bids us keep the case before our minds. He cries, ‘Remember Lot’s wife.’ . . . When Abraham first received the promises, it is probable Lot’s wife was there. When he built his altar by his tent between Hai and Bethel, it is probable she was there. When her husband was taken captive by Chedorlaomer, and delivered by God’s interference, she was there. When Melchizedek, king of Salem, came forth to meet Abraham with bread and wine, she was there. When the angels came to Sodom and warned her husband to flee, she saw them; when they took them by the hand and led them out of the city, she was one of those whom they helped to escape. . . . these were no small privileges. Yet what good effect had all these privileges on the heart of Lot’s wife? None at all. Notwithstanding all her opportunities and means of grace—notwithstanding all her special warnings and messages from heaven, she lived and died graceless, godless, impenitent, and unbelieving. The eyes of her understanding were never opened; her conscience was never really aroused and quickened; her will was never really brought into a state of obedience to God; her affections were never really set upon things above. The form of religion which she had was kept up for fashion’s sake and not from feeling: it was a cloak worn for the sake of pleasing her company, but not from any sense of its value. She did as others did around her in Lot’s house: she conformed to her husband’s ways: she made no opposition to his religion: she allowed herself to be passively towed along in his wake: but all this time her heart was wrong in the sight of God. The world was in her heart, and her heart was in the world. In this state she lived, and in this state she died. . . . Learn, then, that the mere possession of religious privileges will save no one’s soul. You may have spiritual advantages of every description; you may live in the full sunshine of the richest opportunities and means of grace; you may enjoy the best of preaching and the choicest instruction; you may dwell in the midst of light, knowledge, holiness, and good company. All this may be, and yet you yourself may remain unconverted, and at last be lost for ever. . . . It is all a mistake. It is an entire delusion. It requires something more than privileges to save souls. Joab was David’s captain; Gehazi was Elisha’s servant; Demas was Paul’s companion; Judas Iscariot was Christ’s disciple; and Lot had a worldly, unbelieving wife. These all died in their sins. They went down to the pit in spite of knowledge, warnings, and opportunities; and they all teach us that it is not privileges alone that men need. They need the grace of the Holy Ghost. Let us value religious privileges, but let us not rest entirely upon them. Let us desire to have the benefit of them in all our movements in life, but let us not put them in the place of Christ. Let us use them thankfully, if God grants them to us, but let us take care that they produce some fruit in our heart and life. If they do not do good, they often do positive harm: they sear the conscience, they increase responsibility, they aggravate condemnation. The same fire which melts the wax hardens the clay; the same sun which makes the living tree grow, dries up the dead tree, and prepares it for burning. Nothing so hardens the heart of man as a barren familiarity with sacred things. Once more I say, it is not privileges alone which make people Christians, but the grace of the Holy Ghost. Without that no man will ever be saved. I ask the members of Evangelical congregations, in the present day, to mark well what I am saying. You go to Mr. A’s, or Mr. B’s church: you think him an excellent preacher; you delight in his sermons; you cannot hear anyone else with the same comfort; you have learned many things since you attended his ministry; you consider it a great privilege to be one of his hearers! All this is very good. It is a privilege. . . . I ask the children of religious parents to mark well what I am saying. It is the highest privilege to be the child of a godly father and mother, and to be brought up in the midst of many prayers. It is a blessed thing indeed to be taught the Gospel from our earliest infancy, and to hear of sin, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and holiness, and heaven, from the first moment we can remember anything. . . .I pray God that all professing Christians, in these days, may lay these things to heart. May we never forget that privileges alone cannot save us. Light and knowledge, and faithful preaching, and abundant means of grace, and the company of holy people are all great blessings and advantages. Happy are they that have them! But, after all, there is one thing without which privileges are useless: that one thing is the grace of the Holy Ghost. Lot’s wife had many privileges: but Lot’s wife had no grace. —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 219–224.
One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” Luke 23:39–43
If not for the declaration of Christ, “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise,” we might rightly wonder if the thief on the cross had truly been born again. But by examining his words, we can see the elements of the true saving faith that all genuine believers possess.
See then, for one thing, how strong was the faith of this man. He called Jesus ‘Lord.’ He declared his belief that He would have a ‘kingdom.’ He believed that He was able to give him eternal life and glory, and in this belief prayed to Him. . . . See, for another thing, what a right sense of sin the thief had. He says to his companion, ‘We receive the due reward of our deeds.’ He acknowledges his own ungodliness, and the justice of his punishment. He makes no attempt to justify himself, or excuse his wickedness. He speaks like a man humbled and self-abased by the remembrance of past iniquities. This is what all God’s children feel. They are ready to allow they are poor, hell-deserving sinners. They can say with their hearts as well as with their lips, ‘We have left undone the things that we ought to have done, and we have done those things that we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.’ —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 251ndash;253.
So, even without the spoken promise of eternal life, we can see three proofs of saving faith: knowledge of who Jesus is, trust in his ability to save, and repentance.
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. Matthew 16:15–18
The church is built on the solid rock of Christ. What is the foundation on which your faith is built?
The Lord Jesus Christ tells us, ‘Upon this rock will I build my Church.’ What did the Lord Jesus Christ mean when He spoke of this foundation? Did He mean the Apostle Peter, to whom He was speaking? I think assuredly not. I can see no reason, if He meant Peter, why He did not say, ‘Upon thee’ will I build my Church. If He had meant Peter, He would surely have said, I will build my Church on thee, as plainly as He said, ‘to thee will I give the keys.’—No, it was not the person of the Apostle Peter, but the good confession which the Apostle had just made! It was not Peter, the erring, unstable man, but the mighty truth which the Father had revealed to Peter. It was the truth concerning Jesus Christ Himself which was the rock. It was Christ’s Mediatorship, and Christ’s Messiahship. It was the blessed truth that Jesus was the promised Saviour, the true Surety, the real Intercessor between God and man. This was the rock, and this the foundation, upon which the Church of Christ was to be built. . . Look to your foundation, if you would know whether or not you are a member of the one true Church. It is a point that may be known to yourself. Your public worship we can see; but we cannot see whether you are personally built upon the rock. Your attendance at the Lord’s table we can see; but we cannot see whether you are joined to Christ, and one with Christ, and Christ in you. Take heed that you make no mistake about your own personal salvation. See that your own soul is upon the rock. Without this, all else is nothing. Without this, you will never stand in the day of judgment. Better a thousand times in that day to be found in a cottage ‘upon the rock,’ than in a palace upon the sand! —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 293–294.
To make justification in any way contingent on works would be no less than heresy. But to deny that works have any necessary connection to faith would be a great error, as well. Reading the book of Revelation, J. C. Ryle notes that “in every epistle [to the seven churches] the Lord Jesus says, I know thy works” (2:2, 9, 13, 19; 3:1, 8, 15). This cannot be insignificant.
That repeated expression is very striking. It is not for nothing that we read these words seven times over. To one Church the Lord Jesus says, I know thy labour and patience—to another, thy tribulation and poverty—to a third, thy charity, and service, and faith. But to all, He uses the words I now dwell on: ‘I know thy works.’ It is not, ‘I know thy profession—thy desires—thy resolutions—thy wishes,’—but thy works. ‘I know thy works.’ The works of a professing Christian are of great importance. They cannot save your soul. They cannot justify you. They cannot wipe out your sins. They cannot deliver you from the wrath of God. But it does not follow because they cannot save you, that they are of no importance. Take heed and beware of such a notion. The man who thinks so is fearfully deceived. I often think I could willingly die for the doctrine of justification by faith without the deeds of the law. But I must earnestly contend, as a general principle, that a man’s works are the evidence of a man’s religion. If you call yourself a Christian, you must show it in your daily ways and daily behaviour. Call to mind that the faith of Abraham and of Rahab was proved by their works (James 2:21–25). Remember it avails you and me nothing to profess we know God, if in works we deny Him (Titus 1:16). Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, ‘Every tree is known by its own fruit’ (Luke 6:44). But whatever the works of a professing Christian may be, Jesus says, ‘I know them!’ ‘His eyes are in every place, beholding the evil and the good’ (Prov. 15:3). . . . The darkness is no darkness with Him. All things are open and manifest before Him. He says to every one, ‘I know thy works.’ (a) The Lord Jesus knows the works of all impenitent and unbelieving souls, and will one day punish them. . . . (b) The Lord Jesus knows the works of His own people, and weighs them. ‘By Him actions are weighed’ (1 Sam. 2:3). He knows the why and the wherefore of the deeds of all believers. He sees their motives in every step they take. . . . (c) The Lord Jesus knows the works of all His own people, and will one day reward them. . . . If you love the Lord Jesus and follow Him, you may be sure your work and labour shall not be in vain in the Lord. . . . But it is all very wonderful. I can well understand the righteous in the day of judgment saying, ‘Lord, when saw we Thee an hungered and fed Thee, or thirsty and gave Thee drink? When saw we Thee a stranger, and took Thee in? or naked, and clothed Thee? Or when saw we Thee sick or in prison, and came unto Thee?’ (Matt. 25:37–39). It may well seem incredible and impossible that they can have done anything worth naming in the great day! Yet so it is. Let all believers take the comfort of it. The Lord says, ‘I know thy works.’ It ought to humble you. But it ought not to make you afraid. —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 310–311, 313.
A needed warning to those of us who are well-taught in the doctrines of grace:
I often fear much for those who hear the Gospel regularly, I fear lest you become so familiar with the sound of its doctrines, that insensibly you become dead to its power. I fear lest your religion should sink down into a little vague talk about your own weakness and corruption, and a few sentimental expressions about Christ, while real, practical fighting on Christ’s side is altogether neglected. Oh! beware of this state of mind. ‘Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.’ No victory—no crown! Fight and overcome! (James 1:22). —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 316.
Ryle reduces the character of saving faith to one fundamental question: Do you love Christ?
A true Christian . . . is not a person who only goes, as a matter of form, to a church or chapel on Sundays and lives all the rest of the week as if there was no God. Formality is not Christianity. Ignorant lipworship is not true religion. The Scripture speaketh expressly: ‘They are not all Israel which are of Israel’ (Rom. 4:6). The practical lesson of those words is clear and plain. All are not true Christians who are members of the visible Church of Christ. The true Christian is one whose religion is in his heart and life. It is felt by himself in his heart. It is seen by others in his conduct and life. He feels his sinfulness, guilt and badness, and repents. He sees Jesus Christ to be that Divine Saviour whom his soul needs, and commits himself to Him. He puts off the old man with his corrupt and carnal habits and puts on the new man. He lives a new and holy life, fighting habitually against the world, the flesh and the devil. Christ Himself is the corner-stone of his Christianity. Ask him in what he trusts for the forgiveness of his many sins, and he will tell you in the death of Christ.—Ask him in what righteousness he hopes to stand innocent at the judgment day, and he will tell you it is the righteousness of Christ.—Ask him by what pattern he tries to frame his life, and he will tell you that it is the example of Christ. But, beside all this, there is one thing in a true Christian which is eminently peculiar to him. That thing is love to Christ. Knowledge, faith, hope, reverence, obedience, are all marked features in a true Christian’s character. But his picture would be very imperfect if you omitted his ‘love’ to his Divine Master. He not only knows, trusts, and obeys. He goes further than this—he loves. . . . Hear what St. Paul says to the Corinthians: ‘If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema . . .’ (1 Cor. 16:22). . . . Hear what St. Paul says to the Ephesians, ‘Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity’ (Eph. 6:24). The Apostle is here sending his good wishes, and declaring his good will to all true Christians. Many of them, no doubt, he had never seen. Many of them in the early Churches, we may be very sure, were weak in faith, and knowledge, and self-denial. How, then, shall he describe them in sending his message? What words can he use which will not discourage the weaker brethren? He chooses a sweeping expression which exactly describes all true Christians under one common name. All had not attained to the same degree, whether in doctrine or practice. But all loved Christ in sincerity. Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ Himself says to the Jews, ‘If God were your Father, ye would love Me’ (John 8:42). . . . He lays down the broad principle that no man is a child of God who does not love God’s only begotten Son. No man has a right to call God ‘Father’ who does not love Christ. . . . Hear once more what our Lord Jesus Christ said to the Apostle Peter after He rose from the dead. Three times He asked him the question, ‘Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me’ (John 21:15–17). . . . He might have said:—‘Believest thou? Art thou converted? Are thou ready to confess Me? Wilt thou obey Me?’ He uses none of these expressions. He simply says, ‘lovest thou Me?’ This is the point, He would have us know, on which a man’s Christianity hinges. —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 322–324.
According to J. C. Ryle, the most basic characteristic of saving faith is love for Christ. What does that love look like? Ryle lists several indicators of genuine love. Three are presented below: frequent thoughts of him, a desire to please him, and love for his people—the church.
(a) If we love a person, we like to think about him. We do not need to be reminded of him. We do not forget his name, or his appearance, or his character, or his opinions, or his tastes, or his position, or his occupation. He comes up before our mind’s eye many a time in the day. Though perhaps far distant, he is often present in our thoughts. Well, it is just so between the true Christian and Christ! Christ ‘dwells in his heart,’ and is thought of more or less every day (Eph. 3:17). The true Christian does not need to be reminded that he has a crucified Master. He often thinks of Him. He never forgets that He has a day, a cause, and a people, and that of His people he is one. Affection is the real secret of a good memory in religion. No worldly man can think much about Christ, unless Christ is pressed upon his notice, because he has no affection for Him. The true Christian has thoughts about Christ every day that he lives, for this one simple reason, that he loves Him. . . . (d) If we love a person, we like to please him. We are glad to consult his tastes and opinions, to act upon his advice, and do the things which he approves. We even deny ourselves to meet his wishes, abstain from things which we know he dislikes, and learn things to do which we are not naturally inclined, because we think it will give him pleasure. Well, it is just so between the true Christian and Christ! The true Christian studies to please Him, by being holy both in body and spirit. Show him anything in his daily practice that Christ hates, and he will give it up. Show him anything that Christ delights in, and he will follow after it. He does not murmur at Christ’s requirements as being too strict and severe, as the children of the world do. To him Christ’s commandments are not grievous and Christ’s burden is light. And why is all this? Simply because he loves Him. (e) If we love a person, we like his friends. We are favourably inclined to them, even before we know them. We are drawn to them by the common tie of common love to one and the same person. When we meet them we do not feel that we are altogether strangers. There is a bond of union between us. They love the person that we love, and that alone is an introduction. Well, it is just so between the true Christian and Christ! The true Christian regards all Christ’s friends as his friends, members of the same body, children of the same family, soldiers in the same army, travellers to the same home. When he meets them, he feels as if he had long known them. He is more at home with them in a few minutes than he is with many worldly people after an acquaintance of several years. And what is the secret of all this? It is simply affection to the same Saviour, and love to the same Lord. —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 329–331.
Remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. —Ephesians 2:12
The verse above describes every Christian who has, and will, ever live. Every Christian was a stranger, indeed, an enemy, of God, born outside “the covenant of promise,” and has, by grace, through regeneration by the Spirit, been brought into that covenant. We were once “separate from Christ”; many still are. Ryle dedicates a chapter to explaining what it means to be without Christ. First, he says, those without knowledge are without Christ. But bare knowledge does not constitute saving faith.
It is quite possible to know all about Christ, and yet not to put our trust in Him. There are multitudes who know every article of the Belief, and can tell you glibly that Christ was ‘born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.’ They learned it at school. They have it sticking fast in their memories. But they make no practical use of their knowledge. They put their trust in something which is not ‘Christ.’ They hope to go to heaven because they are moral and well-conducted—because they say their prayers and go to Church—because they have been baptized and go to the Lord’s Table. But as to a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ—a real, intelligent confidence in Christ’s blood and righteousness and intercession—these are things of which they know nothing at all. And of all such persons I can see but one true account. They are ‘without Christ.’ I am aware that many do not admit the truth of what I have just said. Some tell us that all baptized people are members of Christ by virtue of their baptism. Others tell us that where there is a head-knowledge, we have no right to question a person’s interest in Christ. To these views I have only one plain answer. The Bible forbids us to say that any man is joined to Christ until he believes. Baptism is no proof that we are joined to Christ. . . . Head-knowledge is no proof that we are joined to Christ. The devils know Christ well enough, but have no portion in Him. God knows, no doubt, who are His from all eternity. But man knows nothing of anyone’s justification until he believes. The grand question is, ‘Do we believe?’ It is written, ‘He that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.’ ‘He that believeth not shall be damned.’ (John 3:36; Mark 16:16.) If Bible words mean anything, to be without faith is to be ‘without Christ.’ —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 341–342.
Remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. —Ephesians 2:12
How serious a matter is it to be without Christ? Is it really to be with “no hope and without God”? Or are there other ways to God? One very popular view says, yes, there are.
J. C. Ryle takes the biblical view: Reconciliation with God is necessarily mediated, and there is but one mediator (1 Timothy 2:5).
To be without Christ is to be without God. The Apostle St. Paul told the Ephesians as much as this in plain words. He ends the famous sentence which begins, ‘Ye were without Christ,’ by saying, ‘Ye were without God in the world.’ And who that thinks can wonder? That man can have very low ideas of God who does not conceive Him a most pure, and holy, and glorious, and spiritual Being. That man must be very blind who does not see that human nature is corrupt, and sinful, and defiled. How then can such a worm as man draw near to God with comfort? How can he look up to Him with confidence and not feel afraid? How can he speak to Him, have dealings with Him, look forward to dwelling with Him, without dread and alarm? There must be a Mediator between God and man, and there is but One that can fill the office. That One is Christ. Who art thou that talkest of God’s mercy and God’s love separate from and independent of Christ? There is no such love and mercy recorded in Scripture. Know this day that God out of Christ is ‘a consuming fire.’ (Heb. 12:29.) Merciful He is, beyond all question: rich in mercy, plenteous in mercy. But His mercy is inseparably connected with the mediation of His beloved Son Jesus Christ. It must flow through Him as the appointed channel, or it cannot flow at all. It is written, ‘He that honoureth not the Son, honoureth not the Father which hath sent Him.’—‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: No man cometh unto the Father but by Me.’ (John 5:23; 14:6.) ‘Without Christ’ we are without God. —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), PP.
Remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. —Ephesians 2:12
What is the ground for assurance of salvation? Many would say it is the appearance of godliness in one’s life. Surely, the absence of the fruit of the Spirit indicates an absence of the Holy Spirit, and where the Spirit is absent, Christ is absent. But one may lead a very good and moral life without Christ, and consequently, without the Holy Spirit. Therefore, what may look very much like a Spirit-filled life may not indicate a genuine saving faith in Christ. There is but one ground for assurance: the atoning blood of Christ.
To be without Christ is to be without peace. Every man has a conscience within him, which must be satisfied before he can be truly happy. So long as this conscience is asleep or half dead, so long, no doubt, he gets along pretty well. But as soon as a man’s conscience wakes up, and he begins to think of past sins, and present failings, and future judgment, at once he finds out that he needs something to give him inward rest. But what can do it? Repenting, and praying, and Bible-reading, and church-going, and sacrament-receiving, and self-mortification may be tried, and tried in vain. They never yet took off the burden from anyone’s conscience. And yet peace must be had! There is only one thing can give peace to the conscience, and that is the blood of Jesus Christ sprinkled on it. A clear understanding that Christ’s death was an actual payment of our debt to God, and that the merit of that death is made over to man when he believes, is the grand secret of inward peace. It meets every craving of conscience. It answers every accusation. It calms every fear. It is written, ‘These things I have spoken unto you, that in Me ye might have peace.’ ‘He is our peace.’ ‘Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (John 16:33; Eph. 2:14; Rom. 5:1.) We have peace through the blood of His cross: peace like a deep mine—peace like an everflowing stream. But ‘without Christ’ we are without peace. —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), PP.