Book Review: The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theology

Studying classic Reformed theology is one of the most important things that Reformed ministers and students can take up. Yet contrary to popular misconceptions, Medieval theology was not simply a black void that the Protestant Reformed filled with light. Classic Reformed theology was catholic in that it drew critically from the entire Christian tradition. While the Reformation brought real and vital theological developments, we cannot understand classic Reformed thought without establishing a broader theological context. This includes studying post-Reformation Lutheran and Roman Catholic theology. Building these contexts enriches our understanding of historic Reformed theology. Understanding classic Reformed thought in its historical development and contexts is vital for developing and evaluating strands of Reformed thinking today. Reformed orthodoxy provides Reformed pastors and students with a model of taking what Christ has taught his church through the ages and filtering it through Scripture.

The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theology finally brings all of these strands of thought into a single introductory volume. This makes this volume an ideal starting place for any who want to understand various strands of early modern theology better. It also includes fruitful reflection that will stimulate the most seasoned scholars in this field. One of the primary advantages of this book is that it places post-Reformation Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic orthodoxy side by side through a multitude of voices representing all three of these traditions. This makes this Handbook a unique resource that illustrates the differences and crossover between strands of early modern theology. 

This book is fairly comprehensive in scope. The first three chapters set a broad context for post-Reformation theology. The second major division of the book treats the overarching contours of Early Modern Roman Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, and “other Christian” theologies. The first three of these sections includes general introductions to each movement. The third and final division of the work shows the interaction between these theological traditions and other movements, including Judaism, Islam, Enlightenment thought, and others. The book concludes with several chapters treating the interaction between theology and the rise of new philosophies and approaches to science and natural law. The last chapter highlights the effects of these movements on eighteenth century theological developments. Taken as a whole, this material sketches well the rise, development, and transformation of theology in its Early Modern contexts.

The Oxford Handbook leaves the development of particular theological questions open for further investigation. This includes every theological locus in each tradition treated as well as related areas, such as exegesis and philosophy. With some notable exceptions, the question of the relationship between theology and piety in various branches of thought is left largely underdeveloped. This reflects the limited scope of this book as an introduction to its subject rather than marking a deficiency in the work. The seed thoughts presented for further development in such areas will enable students and scholars to pursue their own studies more fruitfully. The only area that this reviewer would have liked to have seen more development of is the influence of medieval thought on early modern theology. While medieval theology and philosophy permeates many of the chapters, more direct interaction with medieval trends would have been helpful.

This reviewer has anticipated reviewing this book above most of others. While this work touches cross confessional traditions, students of Reformed Orthodoxy in particular cannot afford to be without this book. It is a scholarly benchmark that provides us with most of the tools that we need to engage in serious study. Its chapters contain an almost complete library of relevant issues to early modern theology across confessional lines. While it is appropriate and necessary to retain and teach the distinctive features of our own confessional traditions, we cannot appreciate the nuanced depths of these traditions without setting the context more broadly than we often do. This book will greatly help students, pastors, and scholars as they continue to plumb the depths of our catholic Christian heritage. This is likely the single most important resource available to date to help us do so.

39 Articles—Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude (6)

By Henry Jansma

If we don’t want to make a mistake in asking if an article that describes the perfection of Christ is even necessary, we must recall the narrative nature of the Thirty-Nine Articles. Article 15 has been implied previously in Article 2. Article 9 explained our depth of our sinful nature and how that original sin continues to infect the regenerate believer. Article 11 sets out our justification in Christ’s merit alone. Articles 12-14 explained the nature of our good works. Sin, in its very nature, is blinding, so we don’t detect its presence. Cranmer’s pastoral and theological genius we see here is to reorient the believer in Christ alone in whom all our hope is found and to remind us that the presence of sin that remains must be put to death every day.
 
XV—Of Christ Alone Without Sin

Christ in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things, sin only except, from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh, and in his spirit. He came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world, and sin, as Saint John saith, was not in him. But all we the rest, although baptized, and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things; and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
 
The article we have is nearly identical to Cranmer’s 1553 original. It is important to note the contrast with the article that precedes it. The believer not only is unable to go beyond God’s requirements, but he cannot even reach those requirements. The original title makes this point clearly: “No one is without sin, but Christ alone.” The Latin says it simply: a quo prorsus erat immunis, tum in carne tum in spiritu, “from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh and in his spirit.” Notice the four doctrines concerning Christ that Cranmer lists here.
 
First, there is the true humanity of Christ, Christ in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things. This is a reference to article 2 and Chalcedon. Jesus was sinless because as a human being, he was perfectly obedient to the will of his heavenly Father. As article 2 affirms, we must not think that because he was the Son of God, that this obedience was natural to him. As Hebrews 5:8 tells us, it is through the suffering that he was called to endure, in other words, the Lord Jesus still had to strive in his human life in his obedience. The clearest example was in the Garden of Gethsemane when he had to submit his natural human desire to live to the will of his Father so that he should die for our sins, “Not my will, but your will be done” (Mark 14:36). We must not make light of his struggle to submit to his heavenly Father’s will. The Scripture tells us that he sweated blood in those hours. But submit he did. Every believer should be thankful for the active obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ. He remained sinless even as he became sin for us on the cross.  
 
Second, there is the sinlessness of Christ, Sin only except, from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh, and in his spirit. When taken with the preceding, we can see that there is an allusion here to the Virgin Mary. When we take what is said here and compare it to the points in the Book of Common Prayer where the Virgin Mary occurs, Anglican theology is profoundly biblical, following the New Testament concerning Mary, that there is no suggestion that she was a sinless woman. Mary was a sinner just like everyone else who had ever lived. The sinlessness of her son had nothing to do with her at all.
 
Third is the sacrifice of Christ; He came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by the sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world, and sin, as Saint John saith, was not in him. The article states that the purpose of Christ is to fulfill the office of Mediator, quoting 1 John 3:5 to reinforce this point, “You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him, there is no sin.” John makes an important point that the article wants to highlight. Our sins are taken away not in the same sense that we become sinless as the Lord Jesus was in his earthly life, but in the sense that we are joined to him as our Mediator, in union with Christ we no longer stand in fear with sin blocking our access to God. We continue sinning, but our confidence in union with him remains eternal. The “old Adam” may shape the devices and desires of our hearts, we may leave undone those things which we ought to have done and done those things which we ought not to have done, but before the throne of God, we stand in the “new Adam,” the perfect Mediator. 
 
Fourth is the consequence of the last, the sinfulness of us all, But all we the rest, although baptized, and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things; and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. This statement echoes article 9 in describing how our condition remains one where we are still prone to sin so that without Christ, judgment on the Last Day should still fill us with dread. The continuance of sin in the believer is the important doctrine to learn when faced with today’s neo/post/evangelicalism that has forgotten Christ’s office of Mediator extends through his entire life. As Christian believers, we are not called to do what Jesus did, or what we might think he would do if he were alive today. We are saved by God’s grace alone; the Lord Jesus certainly was not. His life was lived for a different purpose. He is our Savior and Lord, not a person who gained a deeper awareness of God that he shared with us by his example. For a minister to say, “Be more like Jesus,” is the most oppressive and least pastorally sensitive remark he could make! There is a chasm of difference between us because we are still sinners and we must continue to depend upon our union with him for the grace to help in our times of need (Heb. 4:16). The only way believers can grow to be more like the Lord Jesus is to deepen our understanding and awareness through Word and sacrament in how unlike him we truly remain and therefore run to submit to him all the more (Gal. 2:20).
 
For previous articles in this series, see:
  1. Introduction
  2. One God in Trinity, Trinity in Unity (Art. 1)
  3. The Incarnation and Atonement (Art. 2)
  4. The Work of Christ (Arts. 3-4)
  5. The Holy Spirit (Art. 5)
  6. The Rule of Faith: Part 1 (Art. 6)
  7. The Rule of Faith: Part 2 (Art. 7)
  8. The Rule of Faith: Part 3 (Art. 8)
  9. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 1 (Art. 9)
  10. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 2 (Art. 10)
  11. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 3 (Art. 11)
  12. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 4 (Art. 12)
  13. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 5 (Arts. 13-14)


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Bite-Size Bunyan (3): A Few Sighs from Hell

By Bob McKelvey

The purpose of this series (#1, #2), “Bite-Size Bunyan,” is to share John Bunyan’s writings in summary form. Most Christians know such works as The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), The Holy War (1682), and Grace Abounding (1666), but what about the foundational Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded (1659) or the antithesis to The Pilgrim’s Progress called The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680)? My hope (in different installations and not all at once!) is to make these publications more accessible.

Our third “bite” concerns Bunyan’s work, A Few Sighs from Hell: Or, The Groans of the Damned Soul (1658), on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) and possibly based on an earlier series of sermons. Bunyan here not only warns us of the dangers of hell but also points us to glories of heaven through the free grace of God in Christ Jesus. He, to save sinners, was reckoned as “the greatest sinner and rebel in the world” on behalf of sinners. The Bible is “full of consolation” to any “poor soul” who will “close in with Jesus Christ” and “be conducted safe to glory” according to the sure promises of God.

Bunyan relates his views on parables, which while not “realities,” point to “wonderful realities.” Likewise, in this fictional account of a rich man and a beggar, there exists a mix of symbolic and realistic elements regarding this life and the one to come. So, realities such as death, burial, heaven, and hell are directly communicated in the midst of the story. So, Bunyan finds biblical truth related in both a symbolic and didactic manner. Such thinking paved the way for his allegories to come.

Likewise, we learn of Bunyan’s doctrine of hell as that intermediate state entered by the soul at death by those who reject Christ. Sinners truly suffers this state prior to the Second Coming and last resurrection (when soul and body are reunited) leading to final condemnation. Hell, according to Bunyan, is real, tangible, eternal, and irreversible.

We also find Bunyan expressing his views on the Scriptures, which he once saw as a “dead letter, a little ink and paper” but now regarded as the inspired “truths of God” according to 2 Timothy 3:16. This is especially highlighted by Bunyan in relation to Jesus’ emphasis in the parable on the necessity for “Moses and the prophets” over against miraculous signs when it comes to salvation.

While discussing the rich man and miserable beggar, we encounter a class-conscious Bunyan defending the poor without advocating social activism. The rich, claims Bunyan, “are most ready to be puffed up with pride, stoutness, cares of this world, in which things they spend most of their time in lusts, drunkenness, wantonness, idleness, together with the other works of the flesh.” Such exposure of economic inequity around the time of Oliver Crowell’s death and just before the Restoration may have contributed to Bunyan’s arrest in 1660 by the very well-to-do criticized here. While the parable, in the end, is not about money but about heart attachments, Christians today must beware of the dangers of wealth and how easily we can succumb to the comforts and pleasures this world offers.

In the end, all men, rich or poor, must seek their good things in the life to come, lest they miss heaven for the “little pleasure and profit” of this “dunghill-world.” Thus, to be rich is not necessarily to be ungodly or to be poor is to be godly/redeemed. So, the rich man symbolizes all the ungodly and the beggar Lazarus shows us the “poor contemptible” saints of God who “beg earnestly for heavenly food” with their sores possibly denoting “the many troubles, temptations, persecutions, and afflictions” they experience. While Bunyan may have strayed into spiritualizing here, he rightly emphasizes the fact that Christians must seek their good things in the life to come. 

In a manner like Jonathan Edwards’s later sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), Bunyan in this book warns people of hell in a vivid and urgent fashion as he depicts it as an ever-present reality hanging over the heads of sinners. Both writers appeal to Psalm 73 where we read that the wicked are “in a moment . . .utterly consumed with terrors.” So, Bunyan asks, is it “not better to leave sin, and to close in with Christ Jesus, . . . , than to live a little while in this world in pleasures and feeding thy lusts, in neglecting the welfare of thy soul, and refusing to be justified by Jesus; and in a moment to drop down to hell and to cry?”

This plea reminds me of Bunyan’s Grace Abounding (1666) testimony of a heavenly voice related to his “soul”: “Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or have thy sins and go to hell?” This sobering question aptly serves as a summary for the entire book and a fitting one to leave with you: “Well?”

 


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Justification and Sanctification (1)

By Patrick Ramsey

Obadiah Sedgwick (c. 1600-1658) was a noted puritan preacher and a member of the Westminster Assembly from 1643 to 1649. Some of his works have been recently reprinted, including The Anatomy of Secret Sins and The Doubting Believer. His work on covenant theology entitled, The Bowels of Tender Mercy Sealed in the Everlasting Covenant, hasn’t seen the light of day, although it is now available on Google Books. In this rather lengthy book, Sedgwick tackles the relationship between justification and sanctification (see pp. 488-493). My goal is to present some of what he says on this topic in three articles.  
 
In expounding the stated doctrine that God promises to sanctify and justify his people, Sedgwick first lists six differences between these “two distinct or several gifts [see also WLC 77].”
  1. Justification is a change of the state—the person transitions from a state of “death and wrath” to a state of “life and love”—whereas sanctification is a change of heart—he who was unholy is now made holy.
  2. Justification is concerned with the guilt of sin and delivers us from condemnation, whereas sanctification deals with the “filth of sin” and delivers us from the dominion of sin.
  3. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to us in justification and depends upon the merit of Christ, but in sanctification “there is grace infused into us, by which we made conformable unto the image of Christ,” and depends upon the Spirit of Christ.
  4. “The matter of justification,” that is, Christ’s personal righteousness by which we are justified, is perfect, whereas the “matter of our sanctification,” that is, our own personal righteousness, is imperfect. This difference demonstrates the need for the imputation of the righteousness of Christ in justification.  Only perfect righteousness is able to stand before the just judgment of God.
  5. There is no difference among believers with respect to justification since all “are justified alike.” One Christian is not more justified than another because they all have the full remission of their sins and they all have the same righteousness imputed to them. However, there is a difference regarding sanctification as “some are stronger and higher, and some are weaker and lower in grace.”
  6. The remaining sin in the believer does not affect his justification but “there is something of sin remaining in the sanctified person, which is contrary to that grace which is wrought in us by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:17).”
 
After stating the differences between justification and sanctification, Sedgwick proceeds to discuss the connection or unity between them. He notes “a four-fold conjunction of these two great gifts of God unto his people.”
  1. The promises of justification and sanctification are joined at the hip. They are often mentioned in Scripture side by side (Jer. 33:8; Micah 7:19; Heb. 8:10, 12).
  2. Every person who is effectually called receives both gifts. Everyone is justified and sanctified; everyone partakes of mercy and grace (2 Cor. 5:17; 1 Cor. 6:11; 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:7).
  3. True Christians desire both gifts. They want to be free from the guilt and pollution of their sins, even as David cried out for pardon (Ps. 51:1) and for sanctifying grace (Ps. 51:10).
  4. Both gifts are found in Jesus, the head of his church and the mediator of the covenant (Eph. 5:23, 26; Titus 2:19; 1 Pet. 2:24).
 
In the next article, we will consider two more points regarding the relationship between justification and sanctification. And then in the final article we will, in good puritan fashion, look at three uses of this doctrine.


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Justification & Sanctification (2)

By Patrick Ramsey

In my previous article, I summarized two points Obadiah Sedgwick (c. 1600-1658) made concerning his stated doctrine that God promises to sanctify and justify his people. He addressed a third point (I had mistakenly said there were two more points in the last article) and then discussed three uses. In this article, I will look at his third point.
 
The third point is the reasons God promises “these two great Gifts of holiness and forgiveness; to sanctifie his people as well as to justifie them.” There are six of them.
 
The first is that we need both gifts in order to be saved. We cannot be saved unless we are justified (Rom. 8:30; Mark 16:16); and we cannot be saved unless we are sanctified (John 3:5; Heb. 12:14). Sedgwick notes that we tend to think that we only need to have our sins forgiven in order to be saved. However, when we think or act that way “we are deceived; for as forgiveness is necessary, so is holiness necessary to our salvation; as no unpardoned person, so no unsanctified person shall be saved.”
 
The second reason we need to be justified and sanctified is because we stand in need of both gifts. These two gifts address the two-fold problem of all sinners: the guilt of sin and the pollution of sin. The former binds us over to wrath and curse, is comparable to debt and renders us in need of mercy. The latter stains and defiles us, is comparable to a disease and renders us in need of grace. Consequently, we need pardoning mercy and sanctifying mercy to fully address our sinful condition. In the words of an 18th century Anglican, we need the death of Christ to “be of sin the double cure” and cleanse us “from its guilt and power.” This double need of ours is analogous to the double need of a “sick Malefactor [criminal]” who needs to be pardoned and cured.
 
The third reason is that both gifts are necessary for God to accomplish his goal of having an everlasting communion or fellowship with his people (1 John 1:3). There are two obstacles that keep sinners from communing with God: “enmity” and “inconformity.” True fellowship cannot exist between two enemies and a holy God cannot dwell in the midst of unholy sinners. Indeed, “the heart of man is so sinfull, that God cannot endure us, being of purer eyes than to behold sin.” Communion with God, therefore, requires the removal of the enmity and the inconformity by means of the twin gifts of justification and sanctification.
 
The fourth reason is that we need to be sanctified in order to glorify God. God is able to glorify himself towards us but we are not able to glorify him if we are unholy. We can’t glorify God in our hearts “for what glory can God have by an unbelieving, impenitent, hardened, sensual, ignorant, proud, ungodly heart?” And we can’t glorify God in our actions “for they are as our hearts are; the fruit is as the tree is, etc. What can a dead or a sick man do for service?”
 
The fifth reason is so that we might have comfort and peace. Justification alone would bring us “small comfort and peace” because the domination of sin would “make our life uncomfortable.”
 
Finally, Christians are children of God and they should be like their Father in heaven. Sedgwick wrote, “Are not the people of the Covenant his children? And would you have the holy Father to be the Father of unholy children? Is this to be born of the Spirit (John 3:6)?”
 
In the next and final installment of this series, I will look at Sedgwick’s three uses of this doctrine.


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Patrick Gillespie on the Necessity of Christ’s Two Natures

By Ryan McGraw

As the previous two posts demonstrated (see here and here), Patrick Gillespie taught that Christ fulfilled the terms of the Covenant of Redemption in order to establish the gracious character of the Covenant of Grace. While God requires faith as the condition of entering the Covenant of Grace, Christ supplied this condition by purchasing the Holy Spirit for his elect to grant them saving faith (Ark of the Covenant, 309, 404, 415). Christ is the sum of the Covenant of Grace and he is the chief promise of that covenant. Yet it was only possible for Christ to procure the redemption of the elect as their prophet, priest, and king because he was God and man in two distinct natures and one person. In chapter 11 of his work, Gillespie summarizes briefly why Christ had to be God and man in two distinct natures and one person forever. This material is virtually a mirror image of Westminster Larger Catechism 38-40 and, as such, helps explain the context of the Catechism’s teaching on the necessity of Christ’s two natures. While I will not refer to these Catechism question in detail in this post, I recommend that readers look through them in light of Gillespie’s summary in order to help them meditate on Christ’s glory more effectively. This material provides an important component of how Christ fulfilled the Covenant of Redemption and how we could be the Mediator of the Covenant of Grace.
 
Gillespie argued that Christ’s taking our nature was his great qualification for office (186). In doing so, he combined arguments for the necessity of his deity, of his humanity, and of their union in his divine person. He first argued that Christ must be God. The union of the divine and human natures in Christ made all of his suffering meritorious. Citing Ps. 89:19. WLC 38 similarly notes that Christ’s deity gave “worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience, and intercession.” Even though the divine nature could do none of these things by itself, only a divine person could remedy evils committed against the infinite majesty of God (186). Gillespie added that God alone could overcome the enemies that Christ wrestled with. The WLC 38 also adds that Christ in his divine nature alone could on behalf of the elect “conquer all their enemies.” Only one with infinite glory could procure the goods in view as well, such as satisfying God’s justice and procuring his favor (WLC 38).
 
Gillespie turned next to Christ humanity by stating that “he must be God manifested in the flesh” (187). He had to do so in order to stand in our stead. This encompasses the whole of WLC 39. Christ had to die in order to make satisfaction for sin, which the divine nature could not do by itself (187). One who was one with us must impute his work to us. In justification particularly, Gillespie noted that “union is the ground of imputation.” He next added that we must receive the Spirit, “without which we cannot be sanctified.” At this point, readers should note that WLC 38 attaches this point to Christ’s deity rather than to his humanity. Based on some of the texts cited (e.g., Jn. 15:25, 16:7) the reasoning appears to have been that Christ gave the Spirit to the church based on his eternal relation to the Father and the Spirit. However, this point is not necessarily in conflict with Gillespie’s connection of giving the Spirit by virtue of Christ’s humanity. Gillespie argued that Christ could not give the Spirit to the church simply as God, since nothing can be added to that which is infinite (187). The Spirit proceeded from Christ because of their eternal relations to one another and Christ poured him forth as the God-man as a gift from the Father (see Acts 2:33). Gillespie then made an unconventional move by arguing that Christ must convey to us the adoption as sons by receiving it himself first (187. Citing Gal. 4:4-6). Most Reformed authors argued simply that Christ was the natural Son of God and that believers are adopted sons through union with him. The concern was that positing two kinds of sonship in Christ would threaten the unity of the person, who is the eternal Son of God. However, WLC 39 acknowledges that Christ had to be man “that we might receive the adoption as sons.” Gillespie then added that we must be able to receive an eternal inheritance from Christ by virtue of his humanity (188). All of these arguments hinge on the idea that the eternal Son of God must represent the elect as the Second Adam, which he could not do without true humanity.
 
The last part of Gillespie’s argument was that Christ must be God and man in one person (188. Citing Is. 7:14, etc.). He listed three reasons why this was the case. First, that the union between God and man might be accomplished first in his person. Second, that he might be equally distant and near to both parties. Third, that he might deal with God for man and that he might deal for God with man (189). This last observation reinforces the previous post regarding how the Covenant of Grace was made with Christ and with the elect in him (WLC 31). This statement mirrors WLC 40 almost exactly, which concludes that Christ needed to be God and man in one person, “that the proper works of each nature might be accepted of God for us, and relied on by us, as the works of the whole person.” In summary, Christ’s divine nature made salvation effective, Christ’s human nature made salvation possible, and the unity of both natures in one divine person made salvation secure.
 
This material illustrates how Soteriology is grounded in Christology. By virtue of the eternal Covenant of Redemption, Christ, “being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man, in two distinct natures, and one person, forever” (WSC 21). Under the Covenant of Grace, the benefits of Christ’s accomplished work as prophet, priest, and king, “both in his estate of humiliation and of exaltation” (WSC 23) accrue to his people through faith, which unites them to Christ in their effectual calling (WSC 30; WLC 66-67). Referring to prayer, WLC 181 illustrates the fruits of Christ’s work by reminding us that, “The sinfulness of man, and his distance from God by reason thereof, being so great, as that we can have no access into his presence without a mediator, and there being none in heaven and earth appointed to, or fit for, that glorious work but Christ alone, we are to pray in no other name but his only.” He was appointed to this work by virtue of the Covenant of Redemption so that we might have access to God through him in the Covenant of Grace. We should follow Gillespie’s persistent council throughout the Ark of the Covenant to receive Christ the Mediator through faith by the Spirit’s power.


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Book Giveaway: Petrus Van Maastricht

By Danny Hyde

Our friends at Reformation Heritage Books have given us two (2) copies of The Best Method of Preaching by Petrus Van Maastricht (1630-1706).

Enter here.



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Meet the Puritans is the Alliance’s voice of Puritan and Reformed Theology. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Meet the Puritans and the mission of the Alliance.

39 Articles—Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude (5)

Article 13 of the Thirty-Nine Articles is one of the three consecutive articles that set out human works in their relation to salvation in Christ. We saw last time how Article 12 deals with the significance of good works of believing Christians in light of the gospel. Article 13 continues now in the condemnation of a way of thinking of human status and capability before God. And Article 14 discusses Roman Catholic “works of supererogation.”

The language of article 13 and 14 may seem alien to us when they speak of “the School-authors,” “grace of congruity,” and “works of supererogation” (try saying, “supererogation” 5x fast!). But they are, in fact, the articles you hear each time you present the gospel to the unconverted: “But I am a good enough person, and God is a God of love. I am sure he will accept me” or “My grandma is up there, she’ll make sure I get in.” It is referenced in the brief eulogies we’ve all heard at their funeral and memorial services. A minister or a family member talks of how good the deceased was. Then they trail off vaguely into how they are “in God’s love now” or “in a better place.” Conclusion: the gospel is about weighing up the good and bad in your life. And being more good than bad makes you fit for heaven and being extra good or very religious (my grandma went to Mass every day!) will somehow or in some way see you through too.

XIII — Of Works Before Justification


Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin. 

To begin, to understand article 13 we need to start with what it meant at the time it was written. Article 13 rejects a form of preparation for conversion. It was a concept of preparation that sprang from the nominalist school of theologians (“as the School-authors say”). Thomas Aquinas had taught that God infused grace into a sinner apart from any merit or effort, and men and women then exercise the divine gift of love that will eventually lead to eternal life. But the medieval nominalists who came after went beyond Aquinas. They believed that God’s natural gifts of reason and conscience had not been destroyed by the Fall. Were there not countless examples of unbelievers who loved neighbor above the self? And what of Scriptures like Luke 11:9, “If you seek me, you will find me,” or James 4:8, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you”? With such concerns in mind, they reasoned that there was a prior step to salvation. Reasoning backward from Thomas they said that if God rewards good works done in a state of infused grace with eternal life as its just merit, could he not also reward good works done in a state of nature with an infusion of grace? The nominalist said, “Yes.” The man or woman who does his or her best in a state of nature receive grace as a fitting reward (deserve grace of congruity). Nominalists were convinced that God meant for people to acquire grace as “semi-merit” within a state of nature and to earn salvation as full merit within a state of grace by doing their best with their natural abilities. This theology taught that people could initiate their salvation.

The Reformers rightly rejected both Thomas’ notion of justification by merit and they rejected the nominalist notion of grace by semi-merit within a state of nature, calling the nominalists the “new Pelagians.” They insisted that God’s Word says that humanity is unable to move toward God, teaching that salvation is by His grace alone (Rom. 3:21-26). They understood that humanity by its very nature was dead in its trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-3) and that all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Isa. 64:6; ESV) before Him.

Article 13 warns us that grace of congruity turns the gospel on its head. It diminishes, if not evacuates, the mercy and grace of God. Instead of turning us toward Christ and the blessings that are ours in him, we are turned inward to ourselves. Article 13 underlines the default position of every fallen human heart.

XIV—Of Works of Supererogation


Voluntary Works besides, over, and above, God’s Commandments, which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.

This article is one of the few with direct quotations of Scripture. It cites Luke 17:10, “Christ saith plainly, ‘When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.’” It shows that we are still dealing with the medieval merit theology outlined in the article that precedes it. The logic was simple and deadly. If good works before justification merit God’s grace, then good works after justification that are more than God requires, merit more grace than I need. Therefore, additional prayers, observance of holy days, acts of self-denial, living under monastic rules, martyrdom, and an assortment of recommended works were considered “works of supererogation,” as acts above and beyond our duty to God. Works of supererogation secured, even more, salvation, and accrued salvific merit in an individual’s salvation. Just in case I (or a deceased family member in purgatory) may be in deficit of God’s grace, I can compensate. I do something extra to top up my righteousness for those moments when I feel failure or experience distance from God, or I make restitution in the name of a deceased family member for what I perceive to have been lacking in their devotion towards him.

Works of supererogation are the reasoning behind the sale of indulgences, still practiced by the Roman Catholic Church. With the appropriate amount of money, repentance is for sale, and any sin could be covered. 500 years ago works of supererogation were the touch paper that sparked the Reformation. Going from town to town in what is now Germany with all the grandeur of Rome behind him, John Tetzel you hear supererogation preached to the crowds: “Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, ‘Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance…Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory?’” And then came Tetzel’s catchy jingle: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!” With just a quarter of a florin, (today about the cost of a good hot meal for two at a diner in New Jersey) you could liberate your loved one from the flames of purgatory and into the “fatherland of paradise.” But as article 14 points out, “works…cannot be taught without arrogance and impiety”. So by the end of 1517, an Augustinian friar named Martin Luther had had enough. And the rest, as they say, is history.