I write regarding the editorial in the October 1, 2018 SB entitled “What must I do…?” The main doctrine that the editorial intends to teach is that obedience is necessary and possible for the child of God. With this doctrine, I am in full agreement. However, I take issue with the editorial for going beyond the truth that obedience is necessary for the child of God, and teaching instead that obedience is necessary for the child of God unto salvation. By doing so, the editorial teaches salvation by man’s obedient working, rather than salvation entirely apart from man’s obedient working, that is, salvation by faith alone.
I would like to point out three places where the editorial develops the idea that obedience is not merely necessary, but that it is necessary unto salvation. First, on page 7, the editorial poses the question, “And then, [is it altogether improper for preachers], in the end, to go so far as to declare that if a man would be saved, there is that which he must do?” The editorial answers that it is biblical and Reformed for a preacher to declare that if a man would be saved, there is that which he must do. The editorial here teaches a relationship between man’s salvation and man’s obedient doing. The relationship, according to the editorial, is that man’s salvation depends upon his obedient doing. “If a man would be saved, there is that which he must do.” This statement says much more than that man’s obedience is necessary. It says that man’s obedience is necessary unto salvation.
In response, I ask the editors: Does any gift or blessing of salvation that we receive from God depend on our obedient working in order to receive it?
Second, on page 8, the editorial asserts that the Canons of Dordt
confessed and taught that if a man with his household was to be saved and consciously enter into the kingdom, placing himself with his family under the rule of Christ as his Lord and Savior, he was called, he was required, to respond obediently to the call and command of the gospel—‘Repent and believe, that thou mightest be saved with thy house.’ Covenantal salvation is to be found in no other way.
Here again, the editorial teaches a relationship between man’s salvation—his consciously entering the kingdom—and man’s obedient responding to the command of the gospel. The relationship, according to the editorial, is that man’s obedient responding obtains his salvation and entrance into the kingdom. “If a man with his household was to be saved and consciously enter into the kingdom…he was called…to respond obediently….” This statement says much more than that man’s obedience is necessary. It says that man’s obedience is necessary unto salvation.
In response, I ask the editors: In order to enter into or inherit the kingdom of heaven, is there some obedient work that we must do?
In the preceding two points, I recognize that the editorial is talking about faith. Man’s obedient doing on page 7 and man’s obedient responding on page 8 are faith. I fully agree that God grants salvation to his people through faith. The problem is that the editorial treats faith as a work of obedience. It consistently refers to faith as “obedience.” It develops the idea that faith is an obedient doing and an obedient responding to a command, which makes faith a work. In reality, faith is not a good work of obedience, but the opposite of working. Even faith’s activity of believing—knowing and trusting God—is not working, but the opposite of working. Faith is the opposite of working because faith is the instrument through which I receive Jesus Christ alone and all his benefits. See Romans 4:1-5 where Paul develops this distinction between believing as one thing and working as an entirely different thing. When the editorial makes faith a work, it teaches salvation by works, rather than salvation by faith and by grace.
Third, on page 8, the editorial offers its exegesis of Acts 2:37, 38 and Acts 16:30, 31. In these two passages, distressed sinners ask Christ’s apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” and “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” The editorial apparently understands the apostles’ answers—repent, be baptized, and believe—to mean that this repenting, being baptized, and believing were good works of obedience unto salvation. As the editorial puts it, “There was something they were called to do. And they did it.” In my judgment, this explanation completely reverses the actual answers of Christ’s apostles. In both passages, the distressed sinners were asking what they should do. The premise of their questions was that there was some work they could do to be saved from sin and death: “What must I do to be saved?” When the apostles answered, they did not affirm the premise of the question. They were not saying, “You are correct, there is a work for you to do that will save you, and here is the work: repent, be baptized, and believe.” Rather, when Paul answered, he did not talk about good works of obedience at all. He called the people to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, which is the very opposite of working. When Peter answered, he called people to repentance as the fruit and evidence of faith, and to baptism as the sign and seal of the only ground of their salvation in the blood of Christ. By these answers, the apostles were denying the premise of the questions. In effect, the apostles answered, “What must you do to be saved? Nothing! There is nothing you can do or must do to be saved, because Jesus Christ has done it all. Therefore, disregard all of your obeying and working and instead believe in Jesus.” The editorial’s treatment of these passages continues the same earlier error of making man’s obedience necessary unto salvation. For salvation, “there was something they were called to do. And they did it.”
In response, I remind us that Herman Hoeksema exegeted Acts 16:30, 31 much differently than the October 1 editorial. Hoeksema said that Paul’s answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” was: “Nothing!” See his sermon “The Calling of the Philippian Jailer” on SermonAudio at https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=4612137350. Therefore, I ask the editors: Does the Standard Bearer agree with Herman Hoeksema’s exegesis of Acts 16:30, 31, and does the Standard Bearer agree with Hoeksema’s theology expressed in that exegesis?
Once again, I am in full agreement that good works are possible for the child of God by the work of God’s Spirit in our hearts. I also wholeheartedly confess that obedience is necessary for the child of God. With the Canons, I repudiate the idea that the children of God are “stocks and blocks.” However, I object to the editorial’s explanation of why obedience is necessary. The editorial should have developed that obedience is necessary as the inevitable result of Christ renewing us by his Holy Spirit after his own image, as the required fruit of gratitude for salvation, as the goal of our salvation in the glory of God, as the evidence of our true faith, or as the means God uses to gain others to Christ (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 32, QA 86). Instead, I believe the editorial went beyond these necessities of obedience to teach that obedience is necessary unto salvation. In so doing, has it not taught a doctrine of salvation by man’s obedient working, rather than salvation by faith alone in Christ alone?
Warmly in Christ,
Rev. Andy Lanning
Brother A. Lanning:
First a correction. Your letter addresses “Editors” and asks for the judgment of the SB. That is incorrect. For the content of the editorial being challenged, I take ownership. This means that the response that follows is mine also, not anyone else’s. Let that be established first.
Now to your letter.
In light of the issues raised and challenged, doctrinal matters that have become a matter of no little discussion and dispute in our circles, allowance is made for the length of your letter. And because of the importance of what must be established, namely, what language is conformable to biblical and confessional orthodoxy and what language is not, I will give a lengthier reply than normal, this being the first of two installments.
Your letter makes plain that the issue between us comes down to this—may we, when we speak of faith as a response to the call of the gospel, speak of it in terms of that which one is called ‘to do,’ in fact, that which one must do, if he will be saved?
To boil it down to simplest terms, you object to my calling faith (believing) “a doing” and then speaking of it in terms of an obedience, because, you claim, this would mean faith has been turned into a work (a good work); and this would imply teaching faith has merit and, therefore, teaching that salvation in the end depends on the work of a man.
So, conditional theology after all. A form of Arminianism.
To that line of reasoning I take exception. I used neither the words “works” nor “depends upon.” It is my conviction that to refer to faith (believing) and to repentance as a ‘doing’ and in terms of an ‘obedience’ in connection with one being saved does not turn either into a work (something meritorious) on which a man’s salvation then depends.
In your words “[T]he editorial [in question] teaches that if a man desires to be saved, he first must perform some obedient activity. By teaching this, the editorial teaches salvation by man’s work, rather than salvation entirely apart from man’s work, that is, salvation by faith alone” (paragraph 1). “If a man desires to be saved…” You then state that my article teaches “he first must perform [something].”
Leaving aside for the moment the accuracy of your claim that my article taught that one “first must perform some obedient activity,” my question is, how should or could that statement be properly ended? This way, perhaps: if a man desires to be saved, he must do nothing?! Or perhaps: there is nothing he is called to do?! That would be proper? That defines orthodoxy? Faith is ‘doing nothing’? What about ‘believing’? It is an activity, you concede. Such, I say, is not a ‘doing nothing.’
I respond: certainly, believing has nothing to do with making oneself worthy of salvation. And, by believing one does nothing to contribute to one’s salvation. But it is not ‘doing nothing.’ Faith itself is not ‘nothing,’ and the act of ‘believing’ is not ‘doing nothing.’ It is an activity of the mind, of the understanding, of the will and is, therefore, a ‘doing something.’ Such is orthodox, confessional, and biblical.
On what I base that conviction I will demonstrate as we proceed.
Perhaps for some the problem starts already with how you cast my position, “[I]f a man desires to be saved, first he must perform…”? Sounds almost Arminian. A man desiring to be saved? And something he must do (perform?) first? A pious soul might say, “Surely no man can of himself desire to be saved. And that ‘first’? Is not God always first?”
But we are not speaking of the spiritually dead. Rather we speak of those who sincerely desire to be saved, or, to use my own language, “If a man would be saved….” In other words, we are speaking of the regenerated, those in whom God has worked first. And of such men and women, born-again by the Spirit of Christ, it can be said, they desire to be saved. As Scripture declares, “Whosoever will…” (Rev. 22:17).
In other words, we are not speaking of man doing something first, but of a man in whom God has done something first, and the decisive ‘something’ at that, and then that man responding to the gospel in proper fashion.
And while we are on the subject, notice, that in the text referred to, men are called to come to Christ in order to quench their thirst for the water that is uniquely spiritual. That they so desire, that they thirst for spiritual water indicates they already have a spiritual life. And yet they are called to come. And what is that coming but another way of describing faith, believing? And surely one’s coming involves a ‘doing.’
And let it be noted, the phrase you attribute to my perspective and statements, namely, “he first must perform some obedient activity,” is not an accurate portrayal.
Rather this: “If a man desires to be saved (in sincerity, which would be due to the inward working of the Spirit), there is that which he is called to do to be saved (that is—if he will be saved).” One is not called first to perform something (a phrase pregnant with unsavory connotations—works!), but one is called to a specific response—namely, that of repentance and faith. “Repent and believe,” is how Scripture puts it again and again. And repenting, I say again, is what we are called to do.
So I say once again, the statements “One must believe (on the Lord Jesus Christ) to be saved,” or, “If you will be saved, you must believe!” are orthodox statements.
But ‘saved’ in what sense? That’s the great question.
From one perspective, those of whom we are speaking are already saved, being born-again by an irresistible grace on the basis of what Christ purchased centuries ago. And yet Scripture says “He that believeth shall be saved.” Not “has been saved,” but “shall be.” I had a catechism student once ask me about that text, in light of my emphasizing in class that salvation is worked according to God’s sovereign election, not waiting upon man’s so-called free-will. “But, Reverend, doesn’t the Bible say our believing comes before we are actually saved?” And he quoted that phrase and a number of others like it.
Answer? The text is speaking of salvation in the sense of knowing one is saved, laying hold of the assurance that the most righteous Lord would even be willing to receive and forgive the likes of me! Or if you will, it is by believing, taking God’s gospel at its word, that one is saved and may have the certainty of his own personal salvation (“shall be” for time and eternity). But until one believes, one cannot know that.
Now, one might reply, what about elect infants, saved in infancy? Surely, no believing as an obedience is required of them.
True. But elect infants are in a unique category as those who have simply been granted the faculty of faith. We are talking about unbelieving adults. And such, we maintain, are required actively to believe for their salvation, which believing also has gracious implications for one’s family.
This is why, in connection with the Philippian jailer, I made explicit reference to the jailer with his household. If a man with his household is to be saved, and he is to know that the salvation that is promised to those who believe is extended covenantally (to one’s household) he must believe on the Lord Jesus. Could the Philippian jailer, apart from believing, apart from faith, possibly know that if he believed (casting all his trust in Jehovah God) that God’s salvation would extend to his family as well? Of course not. It is by faith, and according to one’s faith, that such is known, namely, that the salvation that God extends to me through my believing, will extend to my household as well. And thus one with his household consciously enters the kingdom.
As one in whom the Holy Spirit was working, the jailer was in the kingdom already (because the kingdom life was in him), but he could not know that, be assured of that, apart from his faith. I say again, until one cries out “I believe!” one cannot know such things hold for oneself personally. By faith one consciously “enters in” (is given to see the kingdom) and knows that by grace he has been “brought in.”
And this, brother, has bearing on your third paragraph as well.
You ask whether I am not maintaining that “there [is] that which [one] must do in order to obtain the desired salvation?” You ask rhetorically, “Isn’t man’s obedience, rather, the fruit—and only the fruit—of God’s salvation of him?”
To which I reply, the language I use in no way disputes that one’s obedience (of faith) is wholly the fruit of God’s salvation of him. Of course it is. After all, from what does this faith, as it obeys the gospel call, arise? From what but God Triune’s sovereign work of regeneration in a man, which new life is the seed in which every aspect of salvation and spiritual activity is found and from which it arises. One can do and does do nothing to obtain that salvation. It is “received.”
But how does one come to know (appropriate) that the salvation spoken of in the gospel is for oneself—“For me, yes, even for one such as myself, who was before a blasphemer and injurious to the body of Christ?” How else but by responding in obedience to the gospel call to believe? Thus one comes to know that God through His Son is merciful beyond understanding.
I say again, “If a man would be saved, there is that which he must do.” Which is to say, there is that which he is called to do. For until a man responds to the truth and call of the gospel by believing it, confessing it, he is not, and cannot be saved. Understood properly, a perfectly orthodox statement. “Repent and believe, or perish!”
As for the use of the term “obedience” when it comes to one responding to the gospel in faith, I am convinced not only that we may speak of faith in terms of being an obedience (convinced as I am that such is confessionally Reformed), but that we must speak of it in such terms—not only in those terms, to be sure, but still as one way of describing faith as it responds to the gospel, a manner that must not be forbidden or neglected.
You indicate you are of the persuasion that we may not, we must not use such terms and language, for that would imply/teach that something depends on man when it comes to one’s salvation (cf. your third paragraph and following ones as well). And who can deny that to teach or even imply such would not be truly, consistently Reformed?
I will come back to the charge that my language teaches a salvation now depending on something a man is called to do a bit later.
In support of the orthodoxy of the language I use, I would remind you and our readers that we as Protestant Reformed are known as the great critics of the “well-meant offer” of the gospel. Invariably, in our vigorous objection to the well-meant offer, we have insisted on referring to the gospel call as a ‘command.’ The promiscuous gospel call to all and sundry not a free (well-meant) offer, but a command! Our writings, beginning with H. Hoeksema, are replete with such insistence.
The confessions label it as such.
“The command to repent and believe…ought to be declared and published to all nations, to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel” (Canons of Dordt, II, Art. 5).
Scripture uses such language. “[God] now commandeth all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30).
I realize you do not disagree with referring to the call of the gospel as a command or, as others label it, a divine summons. My problem and puzzlement is that, having acknowledged that, you would then consider it to be grievous error to refer to the believing response to that command as “obedience.
This raises a question. If one is not to speak of one who has responded in faith to the gospel call as having obeyed its summons, what word, what description, is acceptable? Or is that part of the problem? You would grant that one may speak of one who believes as one who has obeyed the gospel summons, but one may not speak of faith, or of believing, itself as an obedience, for that would turn faith into some kind of work.
At this point, I am not convinced that there is an essential difference between the two.
I state forthrightly once again, there is that which every person who comes under gospel preaching and the call to repent and believe is called to do (in obedience to that call), namely, to repent and believe.
Are all able to?
But the inability of anyone of himself to do what is required by the gospel call (namely, to acknowledge oneself to be a damnworthy sinner standing in the need of grace and to cast oneself completely on the mercy of God by pleading upon the righteousness of Christ and His atoning death alone) does not, first of all, forbid confronting one and all with the gospel and its command to repent and believe.
With this, of course, you, brother Lanning, would not disagree.
But second, neither does man’s inability of himself to repent and believe mean that none who sit under the preaching of the gospel are able to repent and believe. There are those who are able (having been ‘enabled’, as I pointed out in the October 1 editorial), namely, those in whom the Spirit has determined to work, granting them newness of heart, spiritual life, which is the soil and seed of the activity of heartfelt repentance and faith. Those who have been born-again (cf. Canons, III/IV, Arts. 12, 13).
I reiterate, it is of such whom we speak when we speak of men ‘doing’ what the gospel summons calls (or commands) them to do, namely, to believe—and even to “repent and believe.”
In that connection, let us not overlook Romans 10:16 concerning the response of some to the gospel as it was first sent to the Jews, “But they have not all obeyed [!] the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed [!] our report?”
Surely it follows that of the remnant who did believe Isaiah’s report, it can and must be said that they obeyed the gospel with its call to repent and believe, believing that God would keep His promises whether it appeared that way or not.
Again, I maintain that to refer to faith as it responds to the call of the gospel as ‘a doing,’ as an obedience to the gospel summons (as something that a man must do, is necessary, if he will be saved), does not imply teaching that salvation depends on a man’s doing something first, as you allege. Rather, it sets forth the way in which a man comes to know, or, if you will, appropriates the salvation declared even for one’s damnworthy self (cf. Belgic Confession, Art. 22).
Further, in reply to your contention that my language by implication teaches that salvation now depends on something man must do, we point out that to teach that A is something that is necessary for B (for the enjoyment of B, let us say) does not necessarily mean the enjoyment of B depends on A. It can, in many instances, but not necessarily. In Reformed parlance, often this is not the case. All one is teaching is that activity A is a necessary element for the enjoyment of blessing B, and that by God’s own gracious determination. Not because the enjoyment of blessing B is caused by activity A, is merited by A, is the deserved result of A, or depends on A. But because they are two things God has determined to join together, and that most graciously.
This has confessional backing. Prayer as being necessary for Christians, one might say, for our very Christianity itself, comes to mind. This is Lord’s Day 45, where the Catechism pointedly asks, “Why is prayer necessary for Christians (since salvation is all of grace and everything has been sovereignly predetermined by God)?”
Answer? “Because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only [!] who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him…” For grace, mind you, and the Holy Spirit.
Are we to conclude that the Catechism is teaching that these great blessings desired depend on our praying? Of course not. And yet for all that, according to God’s good pleasure, prayer is a necessary element in the enjoyment of grace and the operations of the Holy Spirit. Something that is certainly confessional, exhorting us that we must be, we better be, a praying people.
And we could make the same point, confessionally and biblically sound, when it comes to attending to preaching as the God-ordained means of grace. Two things God has graciously joined together, preaching and hearing it by faith to one’s salvation (apart from which preaching a man cannot be saved). Not B (salvation with its enjoyment) depending on A (actively attending to gospel preaching), but, A as a necessary element if B is to be enjoyed and appropriated as one’s own.
We say again, to use the word must when it comes to faith as it relates to our salvation does not mean one is teaching salvation depends on self. That is an improper leap.
Further, such does not make faith a prerequisite for entering the kingdom (along the lines of making one’s believing a condition for entering into the covenant). Rather, this is to make faith a requirement (a necessary element) if one is to know the kingdom is his, along with its covenantal promises. Apart from believing in sincerity, one has no right to claim such.
So much for the first part of my response. Next installment we will look at the passages giving rise to this dispute—my interpretation and exegesis of the two passages that have much to do with what constitutes acceptable and orthodox terminology. You make reference to H. Hoeksema’s sermon on Acts 16:30, 31 as proof for the validity of your criticisms and contentions.
Next issue I will give my assessment of his interpretation of the Philippian jailer’s question and of the apostolic response, bringing into consideration the perspective of a few others on what constitutes orthodox Reformed language, and what we ought not fear saying.
Yours for the cause of God and truth,
Rev. Kenneth Koole