Purpose of this series
Since it has been some time since I have written an article for this series, it is worthwhile to remember the main point of these articles. (If you want to catch up or remember more thoroughly, the series may be found in these issues of the SB: November 15, 2020, p. 93; December 15, 2020, p. 132; February 15, 2021, p. 236; April 1, 2021, p. 302; June 2021, p. 400.) The main point of these articles has been to show God’s graciousness to us in His good use of our synods in recent years. God has used the synod to steer us clear of two ditches.
God used Synod 2018 to keep us from walking in a ditch that would make works part of the instrument of salvation along with faith. When faith is functioning as an instrument, “faith is therefore not a work, but a relinquishment of all work, an unqualified trust in God who gives life to the dead….”1 This faith “constitutes a contrast to the works of the law…in the fact that the latter [works of the law] can neither be the material nor the instrumental cause of justification.”2 In judging the case before her, Synod 2018 said works were being made part of the cause of our salvation along with faith. This error the PRC is committed to avoiding. God used Synod 2019, 2020 (and now 2021) to keep us from falling into another ditch. This ditch denies the order of sequence (Calvin) in which God applies the benefits of Christ to us. It also denies any proper use of “in the way of.” There were those who argued that if a minister preaches that there is a God-worked activity of a believer prior to the experience of a particular blessing from God, then that minister necessarily makes that activity the ground or instrument of that blessing. In other words, if, in reference to David in Psalm 32:5, one says that David experienced renewed forgiveness after he confessed his sin with Bathsheba, this makes forgiveness conditional upon David’s confession and represents salvation by man. Synod 2019/2020 and now 2021 rejected this notion. To quote Synod 2020, “The fact that an activity of the believer may occur temporally prior to the experience of a blessing from God does not automatically make such an activity a condition or prerequisite for earning, gaining, or meriting the blessing from God.”3 And Synod 2021: “The fundamental error that underlies the protest is that denies that any God-worked activity of the believer can be prior to the experience of a particular blessing from God.”4 The PRC rejects this error also.
In recent months it has become clear that Andy Lanning is teaching this second error that has come to synod now three years in a row. In the “Malachi 3:7 edition” of Sword and Shield, Lanning clearly states a position in conflict with Synod 2020 and 2021. Lanning expresses this in the opening words of this edition of the magazine when he states what he believes is the issue between him and the PRC: “This special edition of Sword and Shield takes the field to fight in the present-day controversy over whether man’s activity of drawing near to God precedes God’s activity of drawing near to man in man’s conscious experience of covenant fellowship with God” (Aug. 15, p. 3). Later in the magazine Lanning makes clear that he denies that there is any sense in which a God-worked activity of ours precedes an activity of God in our experience of salvation. “It is wrong to say that ‘there is a vitally important sense in which, in our salvation, our drawing nigh to God precedes God’s drawing nigh to us’” (29).5
But what does Lanning mean by “man’s activity of drawing near to God” in the first quotation above? And what does he mean by “our drawing nigh to God” in the second quotation above? Does he mean man’s activity apart from God’s working that activity in the man? Does he mean man’s activity, the presence or absence of which has a certain power over God to allow or deny Him His continued work of salvation? If that is what Lanning means, then there is no disagreement between him and the PRC on this point. And, if this is what he means by “man’s activity,” he is setting up a straw man. The PRC’s teaching is that this activity of man is God-worked through and through. That activity is a necessary part of God’s own unchangeable order of application of Christ’s benefits to His people, and will come to pass according to His decree and powerful working. Yet God works that activity in a man so that he performs that activity consciously and willingly.
The fact is, though, that Lanning does not mean by “man’s activity of drawing near to God” an activity man performs in his own strength, or an activity of man the presence or absence of which has a certain power over God. Lanning’s issue is with the order of application. Lanning means to say that no God-worked activity of man may occur in our experience of salvation temporally prior to any experience of God’s activity, regardless of how one speaks of man’s Godworked activity. We know this because of what he writes as his explanation of James 4:8. James 4:8 says, “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.” Lanning’s explanation of this is that “The believer who draws nigh to God experiences that God has already drawn nigh to him. The believer’s drawing nigh to God in no way (AL’s words, emphasis mine CG) precedes God’s drawing nigh to him, but follows God’s drawing nigh to him in the Word of the gospel.” And again, “The believer who turns to God experiences that God has already come to the believer” (29).
So, there is no way in which we experience God’s forgiving grace after we draw nigh in faith. There is no sense in which the believer experiences the light of God’s countenance shining upon him after he confesses his sins and lays hold on Christ. Rather, the child of God only realizes that God has already come to Him and pardoned him before he confessed. And the child of God only realizes that God has already given him the light of His countenance before he confessed. Once more, in the words of Lanning, “The believer’s drawing nigh to God in no way precedes God’s drawing nigh to him, but follows God’s drawing nigh to him in the Word of the gospel.” And, “The believer who turns to God experiences that God has already come to the believer” (29).
David was a believer. David was a believer who turned to God after his sin with Bathsheba. After turning in faith, David experienced more than that God had already come to him in the past in the mouth of Nathan the prophet. God did come back to David in the mouth of Nathan the prophet. What grace to David that God came to him to confront him with the reality of the sin he had been so long excusing! What fatherly love to take the word like a hammer to stone and break David’s hardened heart! There was a sense in which God powerfully came to David in his experience in the mouth of Nathan the prophet. In fact, there was a sense in which God never left David in David’s experience. God was with David in David’s unrepentant state with His heavy hand: “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer” (Ps 32:3-4). That heavy hand was unpleasant, but it was God with David.
However, there was an altogether other, unique, and real sense in which God truly drew nigh to David in David’s experience after God worked David’s repentance. David himself says so, “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (Ps. 32:5 emphasis added). David says this not as a misguided fanatic who is incapable of reading his own experience properly. He writes as one inspired by the Holy Spirit to describe His God-given experience with flawless accuracy. With reference to David’s experience of sin and repentance in Psalms 32 and 51, and to the experience of Peter, the Canons of Dordt interpret David’s words forthrightly, “By such enormous sins, however, they very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences, and sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until, on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them.”6 Though David was in a legal state of justification throughout the whole process, there was a real and fresh application of that justification by faith7 to David’s conscience in regard to this particular sin after he repented.8 This was a distinct act of God to declare David forgiven upon his confession. This forgiveness was accompanied with the light of God’s countenance upon David. Before this, David experienced terrible guilt for his sin even though in the coming Messiah that sin was legally gone. After David’s confession and embracing of Christ, he no longer felt the heavy hand of God upon him.
Lanning’s teaching is that upon confession David experienced no salvation of God actually drawing near to Him. If there was, this would mean that David’s experience was conditioned upon his drawing nigh to God. It would mean man is first in salvation. Instead, after returning to God in faith, David only experienced the realization that God had already forgiven him in the past.
Lanning will not allow David to have the experience David by inspiration tells us he had. And the sole reason Lanning will not allow David this experience as a real distinct act of God upon David’s life is that Lanning denies the order of the application of salvation. He believes that if this order is maintained, then automatically the activity of man is a prerequisite and condition that makes salvation dependent upon man. There can be no other reason. It is not because David explains his returning as the ground for his experience. It is not because David explains his returning as works of the law, which works function as the ground for or instrument through which God’s favor comes upon David. It is not because David makes his faith by which he laid hold of Christ in returning a work. It is solely because Lanning believes that “the believer’s drawing nigh to God in no way precedes God’s drawing nigh to him” (29). In no way precedes.
There are many implications of such a novel view.9 I am going to highlight only one. Imagine you tell your child to go clean up his room. The child does not do it, but instead goes outside to play with his friends. You confront your child, and he feels the weight of the guilt of his sin. He confesses that sin, repents of it under your direction, and asks you to forgive him. What do you tell this child? Apparently, you may only tell this child, “You were already forgiven. There is no sense in which you are forgiven after confessing your sin. And if I would tell you you are forgiven now, then it would make the forgiveness conditioned on your repentance because your repentance came first. Because my discipline of you is to be in line with God’s discipline of us (Deut 8:5; Heb 12:6, 7), I must teach you that, in our relationship to God, God’s activity never follows man’s activity; so I will not tell you that you are forgiven right now by me and by God, but only that you were forgiven in the past.”
Perhaps you do not take the position to its logical conclusion and instead you tell the child, “I forgive you, child, right now, and God forgives you right now, too,” as you ought to do. The child comes in for a hug; what do you do? You must push the child away and say, “No.” After all, the child has drawn nigh to you and to hug him now would be you drawing nigh to him after he confessed. In order to teach the child that there is no sense in which our returning to God precedes God’s returning to us, you must say instead, “I will not hug you child. The closeness you desire was there already when I confronted you about your sin and told you I loved you before you confessed.”
There is no doubt that the love of God, the forgiving grace of God in the gospel, leads us to repentance as much as the heavy hand of God does. “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions” (Ps. 51:1). So too, the love of our earthly father leads us to confess as much as does his fatherly displeasure. And this too must be preached. But this does not deny that there is a real, unique, actual act of God’s love, and therefore of parents, drawing nigh to us after we return by faith and in the way of repentance. Anything else guts the covenant of its essence: a relationship of fellowship and friendship with God. And anything else, if taken to its logical conclusion, guts our parenting of its essence: a relationship of fellowship and friendship in the Spirit of God.
Someone once said that the God-given presence of eyes to examine food, fingertips with sensation to touch it, the nose to first smell it, and taste on our tongue to judge it before it goes down the throat, is God’s commendation of watchful criticism. More important is the injunction, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God.” For those who are under the influence, be warned of the errors contained in Lanning’s teaching. Examine, and do not swallow! And for all, let us read carefully the decisions of Synod 2019, 2020, and 2021 as well as the vital decision of Synod 2018. And for all of it, give thanks to God.
1 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), 211. 2 Bavinck, Dogmatics, Vol. 4, 222. 3 Acts of Synod 2020, 81-82. Emphasis in the original. As the Acts states, synod here adopted the work of Classis East at her January, 2020 meeting (see top of p. 79). 4 Acts of Synod 2021, 119. 5 The quotation within the quotation that Lanning judges to be wrong is from Prof. D. Engelsma 6 Fifth Head, Article 5. The end of the previous article references the sins of David and Peter as the biblical proof of “such enormous falls” that some of God’s people experience. 7 Even in repenting, which is wrapped up with faith in returning, it is only the faith that is laying hold of Christ. 8 It does not matter whether one holds the position that the act of justification is repeated throughout one’s lifetime, or the position that the one-time act of justification is applied repeatedly throughout one’s lifetime. “I deny that the difference between the two doctrinal positions is fundamental” (Prof. D. Engelsma, Gospel Truth of Justification, 240). The issue here is whether or not the declaration is repeated or applied really and truly after God works a return. 9 In your own mind draw out the implications for elder work, church discipline, and preaching to name but a few.