Under this head of doctrine we have considered the errors that Synod rejected—the Remonstrants turned the perseverance into a covenant of works—so now we turn to what Synod confessed positively about how Christ graciously preserves his people through their pilgrimage in this world. Make no mistake, according to Scripture as understood and confessed by the Reformed churches, this Christian life is a pilgrimage. This image or metaphor is important and though it might seem self-evident it needs to be reinforced in our age when varieties of Christian triumphalism seem to abound. Consider the popularity of the so-called “health and wealth” gospel. Benny Hinn is an outrageous charlatan and fraud but he remains a very popular and influential con man. Joel Osteen is merely a more mainstream packaging of the same lust for worldly success. Triumphalism comes in other forms too. Christian perfectionism—the doctrine that it is possible to achieve “entire sanctification” in this life—remains a widely held view of the Christian life.
The Reformed understanding of Romans chapter 7 (see below) is rather different and we see it reflected right at the beginning of the Reformed response to the Remonstrant revision of the doctrine of the Christian life. Remember, the Remonstrants were unhappy with the Augustinian and Reformed view of the Christian life. They wanted more sanctification and they agreed with the Romanist critics of the Reformation that the Protestant doctrine of salvation (including sanctification) by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) was inadequate.
The first thing the Reformed said about perseverance was that Christians are fallen, sinful people who are regenerated by the Holy Spirit:
Those people whom God according to his purpose calls into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord and regenerates by the Holy Spirit, he also sets free from the reign and slavery of sin, though in this life not entirely from the flesh and from the body of sin (Canons of Dort, 5.1).*
Christians believe because they have been called efficaciously by the Holy Spirit through the external call of the gospel, i.e., through the preaching of the Gospel. That is good news. We did not come to faith because we freely chose to respond or because we freely met the conditions of the New Covenant (in the Remonstrant view) but because God sovereignly gave us new life and true faith.
Not only have we been given new life but we have been called into fellowship with the Son of God. By grace alone, through faith alone, the Spirit has united us to Christ, with whom we now have a living communion with the risen Christ. The Reformed faith is not cold orthodoxy. It is a vital doctrine and a vital relationship with Christ.
Synod here also captures two complementary truths: because we are no longer under the covenant of works, i.e., under the law (Rom 3:19) the reign of sin has been broken. This truth, however, is not a springboard for perfectionism. The reign or dominion of sin has been broken but its reality remains.
This is Paul’s teaching in Romans 6. By grace we have been united to Christ. When Christ died it is as if we died with him. He died to sin, as it were. In Christ, by virtue of our union with him, we died to sin. This great reality must change our attitude toward sin. The reigning power of sin has been broken. We, who are united to Christ, ought to live in light of that great reality. Nevertheless, Romans 7 follows Romans 6. In chapter 7 we see that even for Paul the continuing reality of sin in this pilgrim life.
Thus, so did Synod:
Hence daily sins of weakness arise, and blemishes cling to even the best works of God’s people, giving them continual cause to humble themselves before God, to flee for refuge to Christ crucified, to put the flesh to death more and more by the Spirit of supplication and by holy exercises of godliness, and to strain toward the goal of perfection, until they are freed from this body of death and reign with the Lamb of God in heaven (Canons of Dort, 5.2).
This is the Reformed understanding of Romans 7. This is the doctrine that the Reformed churches confess in Heidelberg Catechism 60: “although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil…”.
We are often tempted by the idea that we might be able to present to God our good works as part of our salvation. We are, as my colleague Mike Horton reminds us, wired for the covenant of works. We need to be reminded continually that Jesus fulfilled the covenant of works for all his people because they could not and would not do it themselves. All our good works are stained with sin. None of them, in themselves, are fit to present to God. Further, when we do good works we are not doing anything extra but only what we already owed: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10; ESV).
Our continual struggle with sin is not the exception, it is the norm. The very idea that struggle with sin is unusual is a lie of the Evil One to make the Christian lose hope, to try to put him on a works footing before God, and thus to lose hope and give up. To paraphrase an old television ad: “Silly Christian, grace is for sinners.”
Christ—not our good works— is our refuge. The biblical plan, synod’s plan, for the Christian life is a constant acknowledgement of our sinfulness (our propensity to sin) and our actual sins and a constant fleeing to Christ for his free acceptance, to his righteousness for our cover and protection. This is exactly what the Evil One wants us to forget. He wants us to think about our sins and to imagine that somehow, at sometime (perhaps at the last day) we will finally be on a works footing. So, with all the lies from the pit of hell, it leads us away from Christ and to ourselves and thus to despair.
The secret of the Christian life is no secret: it is the gospel. Only in Christ and only in light of the good news, that Christ loved and loves sinners, can Christians go about the business of the Christian life, namely the putting to death of the old life (mortification) and being made alive in the new (vivification). The holy exercises of godliness are prayer (including confession of sin) and the due use of the ordinary means of grace: hearing gospel sermons and coming to the Lord’s Table. As we make these holy exercises we grow. The Lord has promised to use them.
He has not promised us a “victorious Christian life” but he has promised to be with us during the pilgrimage. Here is yet another reason why it is so important to get our metaphors right. We are in combat but the experiential victory will not be ours until Christ returns or we die to sin finally when we die bodily (Heidelberg 42). Christ has won the victory for us but if Paul is to be believed (and he is!) we are realizing it only gradually and sometimes imperceptibly in this life. So, we are immeasurably grateful to God for his free grace to needy sinners.
- The Christian’s Continual Struggle With Sin (1) (Feb 20, 2018)
- The Christian’s Continual Struggle With Sin (2) (Feb 21, 2018)
- The Christian’s Continual Struggle With Sin (3) (Feb 22, 2018)
- The Christian’s Continual Struggle With Sin (4) (Feb 23, 2018)
The Canons of Dort as translated and published by the United Reformed Churches in North America, 2018.
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido.