The regenerate work not only passively but actively. [I]n this connection we teach that there are two things to be observed: First, that the regenerate, in choosing and doing good, work not only passively but actively. For they are moved by God that they may do themselves what they do. For Augustine rightly adduces the saying that “God is said to be our helper. But no one can be helped unless he does something.” The Manichaeans robbed man of all activity and made him like a stone or a block of wood. [The next paragraph will include the second observation.]
The regenerate work actively
In this paragraph, the SHC makes explicit what is clearly implied in what it has already taught concerning free will. The confession has rejected the teaching of free will. This is the teaching that the fallen sinner retains some good after the Fall. At the very least, he retains the ability to will and choose that which is pleasing to God. This was the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in the days of the Reformation. It is still the teaching of Roman Catholicism. Sadly, this false teaching is widespread in what is today considered to be evangelical Christianity. What must never be forgotten is that behind Rome’s teaching of meritorious good works is the teaching that man has in himself the ability to do that which is good, at the very least to choose the good. That is the teaching of free will. That teaching of Rome was repudiated by the Reformers.
Over against the God-dishonoring heresy of free will, the Reformers taught that God works in us both to will and to do the good. This is the teaching defended by the SHC in this paragraph. This teaching is also reflected in the experience of the child of God. Every child of God knows that any willing and doing of that which is good does not originate in himself but is due to the work of God’s grace in him.
The result of this work of God’s grace—the infallible fruit of grace—is that the Christian does actively will and do that which is good. The fruit of grace is that the regenerate “are moved by God that they may do themselves what they do.” God does not will and do for them but in them. As the result of the work of the Holy Spirit “the regenerate, in choosing and doing good, work not only passively but actively.” That they actively will and do the good is the consequence of God’s work of grace within them.
In this paragraph, the SHC makes plain that good works are not to be viewed only ever as fruit and nothing but fruit—fruit that in a sort of automatic and mysterious way simply appears in the life of the regenerate. It is certainly true that good works are fruit. In many places the Scriptures teach that our willing and doing that which pleases God is the fruit of His work of grace in us. The very first psalm describes the Christian as “a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth fruit in his season.” “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life,” Solomon says in Proverbs 11:30. In Romans 7:4 the apostle Paul teaches that Christians are married to the risen Christ “that we should bring forth fruit unto God.” In more than one place, Holy Scripture speaks of the holy life of the sanctified believer as the “fruit of the Spirit,” as for example in Galatians 5:22 and Ephesians 5:9.
That good works are fruit underscores the grace of God that is the source of the holy life of the believer. A dead tree does not produce fruit. Only a living tree, cared for and carefully pruned by the husbandman produces fruit. The Canons of Dordt, III/IV, Article 11 teaches that by the work of regeneration the Holy Spirit “infuses new qualities into the will,” with the result that “He renders it good, obedient, and pliable.” And further, that He “actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.”
But fruit is not the only way in which Scripture speaks of good works. Good works are not only fruit, certainly not fruit that in some automatic and mysterious way appears in the life of the believer like apples or pears on a fruit tree. To speak of good works only as fruit overlooks the important teaching of Scripture that the child of God consciously wills and does that which pleases God. Apple trees and pear trees do not consciously produce apples and pears. The biblical description that captures this aspect of good works is Scripture’s teaching that good works are a sacrifice—a sacrifice of thankfulness. Just as the Old Testament Israelite brought his sacrifice to the temple and offered it up to God, so does the Christian offer up to God that which he wills and does in obedience to God’s law.
The comparison of good works to sacrifices is found throughout the Bible. It is a frequent description of good works in the book of Psalms. In Psalm 4:5 the psalmist exhorts God’s people, “Offer the sacrifices of righteousness.” And in Psalm 116:17, he pledges, “I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving.” The apostle exhorts New Testament believers to “present [their] bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1). Believers are admonished in Hebrews 13:15, 16: “By him, therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name. But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” In this passage, the two biblical descriptions of good works are brought together. We are called to “offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually,” which is “the fruit of our lips.” Good works are the Christian’s willing sacrifice of thankfulness to God.
Appeal to Augustine
That Christians are “moved by God that they may do themselves what they do,” is the point of the SHC’s reference to the early church father Augustine: “For Augustine rightly adduces the saying that ‘God is said to be our helper. But no one can be helped unless he does something.’” The reference to Augustine in this and again in the next paragraph, indicate that the Reformers were well-versed in the early church fathers. They taught nothing new, but rather what had been taught in the New Testament church from the beginning. Additionally, the frequent appeal to Augustine points out that in so many ways the Reformation was a recovery of the teaching of Augustine. The foundation of the Reformation was laid in the clear teaching of sacred Scripture, particularly the writings of the apostle Paul. But the first tier of bricks laid on that foundation were bricks fired in the writings of Augustine. Time and again the Reformers appealed to the bishop from North Africa. The Reformation was, in large measure, only a recovery of the theology of Augustine, which had been abandoned by the Roman Catholic Church.
In this instance, Bullinger appeals to Augustine in order to support the teaching of the SHC that the regenerate work actively. This he concludes as an implication of the frequent notice in Scripture that God is the helper of His people. This teaching of Scripture, Augustine argues, implies that the regenerate work actively, for “no one can be helped unless he does something.”
Frequently, the Psalms refer to God as our helper in the battle against the enemies that beset the child of God. In Psalm 20:1, 2 we read, “The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob defend thee; send thee help from the sanctuary, and strengthen thee out of Zion.” And in Psalm 33:20 we read, “Our soul waiteth for the Lord: he is our help and our shield.” God is not the “help” of those who are inactive and passive, napping in their Lazy-Boy recliner. But He is the help of those who are engaged in the battle of faith against our three mortal enemies: the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh.
Some of the psalms likely refer to David’s victory over Goliath. That is a good example of how God is the Helper of His people. God did not merely assist David, so that David did his part and God did His part. Neither did God nor an angel fight against Goliath while David sat passively (inactive) on the sidelines watching God’s defeat of the Philistine giant. Rather, God helped David by working in him and through him. David selected five stones from the brook (I Sam. 17:40). David proclaimed to the giant, “I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied” (I Sam. 17:45). David took careful aim and slung the stone that struck the Philistine hero. David cut off his head. It was God who “helped” David, that is, used David and equipped David to defeat Goliath, so that I Samuel 17:50 can say, “So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him.”
A senseless stock and block
Over against the proper biblical teaching concerning the Holy Spirit’s work in regeneration is the false teaching that reduces man to “a stone or a block of wood.” The SHC attributes this wrong teaching to the Manichaeans. Manichaeanism was a teaching that arose in the early history of the New Testament church. It was a dualistic teaching, maintaining that good and evil have always existed, that they are both eternal, competing principles. Evil did not enter God’s good creation but was always present in the world. In addition, Manichaeanism was deterministic. The good and evil that human beings do, they do under the compulsion of that which has been predetermined. In the true sense of the word, it is a teaching that “robbed man of all activity and made him like a stone or a block of wood.”
The Canons of Dordt make reference to the same error in Canons III/IV, Article 16: “[S]o also this grace of regeneration does not treat men as senseless stocks and blocks, nor takes away their will and its properties, neither does violence thereto.” This was the caricature of the Reformed view promoted by the Arminians on account of the Reformed denial of free will and insistence on the total depravity of the sinner. The Reformed did not grant the error that the Arminians maliciously attributed to them. They did not say, “If we must choose between free will and the teaching that man is a stock and block, we choose the teaching that man is a stock and block.” They did no such thing! Rather, they vehemently denied the Arminian calumny and maintained the biblical truth concerning regeneration. “[T]he will thus renewed is not only actuated and influenced by God” but also “in consequence of this influence becomes itself active.” And therefore “man is himself rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received.”
Although the Reformed faith is often caricatured as reducing man to a stock or a block, this is in fact the teaching of antinomianism. The antinomian would not very often admit that this is his teaching. But this, nevertheless, is the result of the teaching of antinomianism. Antinomianism, among other things, rejects the biblical and confessional truth of regeneration. Fearful that any willing and doing on the part of man, even regenerated man, poses a threat to the gracious character of salvation, antinomianism effectively reduces man to a stock and block. God does not work in those who are regenerated to cause them to will and work. Instead, man is reduced to a stock and a block who is only acted upon—we might say a robot or automaton. Reluctantly, perhaps, the antinomian might say that regenerated man may be said to will and do. But he works only passively and not actively. And thus, it is supposed, the grace of God is safeguarded, and God receives all the glory for man’s willing and doing.
This paragraph of the SHC is a trumpet blast against the false teaching of antinomianism. Antinomianism does not preserve the grace and glory of God; it perverts God’s grace and robs Him of His glory. It denies the sovereignty of God’s grace that makes His people “willing in the day of His power,” to use the language of Psalm 110:3. The Reformed faith repudiates antinomianism in all its forms. In this case, it is the biblical teaching concerning regeneration that exposes this dreadful error.
The SHC is a clear reminder that the Reformed faith is the straight and narrow way into the kingdom, on either side of which there is a deep ditch. On one side, there is the deep ditch of legalism, works righteousness, and free will. But there is another ditch, equally as dangerous and as much a threat. That ditch is the ditch of antinomianism and hyper-Calvinism. Recognizing both ditches, may God preserve the Protestant Reformed Churches from falling into either ditch, keeping us on the right way that safely navigates between them both.