All things considered, she really looks quite good for her age

On Saturday mornings I try to meet with a group of men reading through the church fathers. This past week we read 2 Clement- an ancient Christian sermon. While not the thrust of the sermon, there is a bit of robust ecclesiology:

So then, brothers, if we do the will of God our Father we will belong to the first church, the spiritual one, which was created before the sun and the moon. . . the Books and the Apostles declare that the church not only exists now, but has been in existence from the beginning. For she was spiritual, as was also Jesus, but was revealed in the last days in order that she might save us.

In the mornings I read from the fathers just for myself. Currently I am working through Origen’s work on Song of Solomon. This week he too got to talking about my mom:

For you must please not think that she is called the Bride or the Church only from the time when the Savior came in the flesh: she is so called from the beginning of the human race and from the very beginning of the human race and from the very foundation of the world—indeed, if I may look for the origin of this high mystery under Paul’s guidance, even before the foundation of the world.

Clement goes on to say that no one can know the marvels God has prepared “for his chosen ones.” Origen immediately quotes from Paul’s overflowing sentence on election and predestination in Ephesians 1. This mixture of an eternal mother and predestination plays out in rather fascinating ways today.

The Orthodox Church believes in an eternal church, but not predestination—man must be free to choose. Plenty of evangelicals believe in predestination, but not an eternal church—Israel and the church must never meet. Speaking broadly, it is only orthodox Reformed congregations that would hold to the teachings of the fathers. Because God has eternally chosen all who will believe, that assembly has existed forever.

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Wilhelmus á Brakel on Election and Assurance Part 4- Sanctification

The third characteristic of the truly elect and, therefore, of those who should have assurance of their eternal salvation is sanctification.

If you then perceive within yourself a hatred, repulsion, and sorrow concerning both the secret sins of your heart, as well as your sinful deeds, and if you find an inner delight and love for a godly spiritual frame and the practice of all virtues in the fear, love, and the obedience of God, as being His will; if you perceive within yourself the warfare between flesh and spirit so that sin does not have dominion over you, that is, that you are not governed by your evil will; if sin meets with an internal resistance of your will, being restrained and often driven away by the fear of God; if you perceive within yourself the inclination to pray, wrestle for peace of conscience, and experience the nearness of the Lord; if, either privately or in the presence of men, you desire to let your heart, thoughts, words, and deeds be governed by the will of God; if, I say, these things be in you, then you are a partaker of the spiritual life and the principle of sanctification is in you. This is not the result of your natural disposition, but a gracious gift of God issuing forth from election. Thus, you may conclude your election from this spiritual condition.

Perhaps á Brakel could have done better by expositing 2 Peter 1:5-10, his point is nevertheless made. Hearkening back to the previous two marks, it should be recognized that the force of this argument is only fully appreciated by one who has accepted the biblical teaching regarding total depravity and the spiritual death of the sinner.

The soul that is saved seeks a greater experience of that salvation.

The thought that guides á Brakel’s entire discussion of assurance is that that election is personal.

Why is the gospel proclaimed to you? Why are you called, drawn, and quickened? Why do you know Jesus and receive Him by faith? Wherefore may you have some delight in communion with God and are desirous to fear His name? Does not all of this issue forth from his eternal counsel to save you? Lose yourself in holy amazement and confess with Hagar, “Have I also here looked after Him that seeth me?” (Gen. 16:13), and with the Psalmist, “What is man, that Thou art mindful of Him?” (Psa. 8:4).

Wilhelmus á Brakel on Election and Assurance Part 2: How Can I know I am saved? Are you called?

In a previous post we discussed Wilhelmus á Brakel’s assertion that “assurance of salvation” is something that children of God can and should have. Yet this assurance does not come from believing in assurance. That quote was concluded with these words, “Rather, one obtains this assurance from the Word of God wherein is found a clear description of those who are elect. If these characteristics are discerned within, he may draw the conclusion that he is one of the elect.”

On their own, these words could lead to disastrous consequences. Assurance is important, but it needs to be handled carefully. Having a false assurance could be more dangerous than not having assurance at all. Or, it is more dangerous to know the wrong thing than to not know. Assurance is not a Scripture scavenger hunt. The person who is seeking assurance should not be given a check-list. Not even a biblical one. The mention of “description” and “characteristics” might lead one to believe that assurance is not much more than a grocery list. Assurance of salvation must not be reduced to legalism.

Wilhelmus á Brakel deftly avoids this trap in offering three indications of salvation. Their potency lies in the fact that they are indications that do not point to the seeker of assurance or to themselves but to the Lord Himself.

 The first characteristic is the calling. God calls internally and efficaciously only those whom He has chosen. This is a well-established truth. “Moreover whom He did predestinate, then He also called” (Rom. 8:30); “Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee” (Jer. 31:3). If, while bringing yourself into the omniscient presence of the Lord and examining yourself in truth, you may perceive that your mind has been illuminated to enable you to discern the spiritual dimension of the spiritual benefits of the covenant of grace; if you perceive within yourself a love and desire for spiritual frames within your soul such as the love and fear of God, willingness and obedience, spiritual liberty, and joy in the Lord; if you perceive within yourself a recurring stimulus, stirring you up to think upon God, to pray, to repent after backslidings, to walk in a way pleasing to God; and if you perceive that the nearness of the Lord is your life and His absence your grief—if all these things are to be found in you, then you may be assured of being called and drawn.

If assurance of salvation is to be found it must be found in the same place as salvation itself. The relation the Bible has with assurance is the same relation it has to salvation. No one has or ever will be saved by the Bible. Yet no one has or ever will be saved without the revelation the Bible offers (Rom. 10:13-17; 1 Peter 1:22-25). Similarly, we do not gain assurance of salvation from the Bible, but we do find it in the Bible’s revelation.

In this discussion of calling the objective and external witness of biblical truth is wonderfully balanced with the internal objective witness of the inner man. Both are needed. If assurance is to be had, the personal soul must have it. If assurance is to be had, there must be an identifiable “it” to have. “Calling” is the first objective subjective.

It is easy to point to Moses or Paul and make the claim that they had solid ground for assurance because the Lord came to them in a special way. But this is to give the subjective a greater role than it deserves. What does your assurance rest on: the Lord who calls, or the way the Lord calls?

 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6)

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God… (Romans 8:16)

This is the normal operation of the Lord. To seek assurance from a miraculous experience is just as misguided as seeking it in a list of do’s and don’ts. Has the Lord called you? Where is such assurance of his calling found? Read again the words of á Brakel and note terms like: presence of the Lord, illuminated, spiritual benefits, spiritual dimension, love and desire, spiritual frames, joy in the Lord, think upon God, pleasing to God, nearness of the Lord is your life and His absence your grief, etc.

Salvation is of the Lord. And so is assurance. Perhaps the secret to assurance is to know that it cannot be found in anything other people can identify in you. I cannot give you assurance of salvation. I cannot even tell you if you should have assurance of salvation. The only thing I can do is to tell you where you can find it: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved…For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:21, 39). Have you called out to the Lord for salvation? It is only because he called out to you first.

Wilhelmus á Brakel on Election and Assurance Part 1

It is thus the duty of every Christian to strive for assurance according to the exhortation of the apostle in 2 Peter 1:10, as this assurance is the fountain of much joy in God and results in much growth in sanctification. One does not obtain this assurance by ascending into heaven to examine the book of life for the purpose of ascertaining whether one’s name is to be found in it (Rom. 10:6-7). Neither is this assurance obtained by imagining oneself to be one of the elect, so that by the duration of this imagination one could consistently maintain this assurance, being of the opinion that it is a sin to be doubtful about it even though one lacks the least foundation for this assurance. Rather, one obtains this assurance from the Word of God wherein is found a clear description of those who are elect. If these characteristics are discerned within, he may draw the conclusion that he is one of the elect. (Christian’s Reasonable Service (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992), 247.)

Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 2 Peter 1:10

Assurance of salvation is something that I have had past struggles with. I know I am not alone in this. As I examine my life it is interesting to me that embracing God’s sovereignty has only increased my assurance. What is the place of assurance on the life of the Christian? Can a person be saved and not know it?

á Brakel begins with the assertion that assurance is indeed something that a believer should seek and have. What I appreciate about the Apostle Peter’s exhortation and á Brakel’s treatment is the recognition, however, that assurance is something the believers do struggle with. At places in the New Testament, we see the biblical authors more certain of the readers’ salvation than the readers themselves (cf. Luke 22:32; Heb. 6:9). We should not miss the fact that Peter’s encouragement demands that some of his readers were indeed unsure of their “calling and election.”

But if God’s election is eternal and sovereign, how can anyone be sure of it? Brakel gives two important ways not to gain assurance. We cannot wish to know God’s hidden decrees. One day the books will be opened. But God is not like Amazon. He does not offer a look inside. In any event, such a vision would be disastrous. Do we live by faith or by sight? Seeing God’s list would only serve to destroy our faith…the very instrument of our salvation.

Secondly, we are not to talk ourselves into assurance. Having the wrong faith is just as damning as having no faith. As the saying goes we are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. So we are not assured of being God’s elect by our declaration that we are elect.

So how can I know for certain I am one of God’s elect?

Wilhelmus à Brakel on Reprobation and Election and Reprobation explained as simply as I know how

 God will never damn anyone but for his sins. God does not prevent anyone from repentance, believing in Christ, and salvation. Man and his own free will are to be blamed for the fact that he lives and ungodly life, and it is therefore just when God punishes and damns him for his sins.
Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service vol. 1 “Eternal Predestination: Election and Reprobation”)

I really appreciated this chapter and Brakel’s treatment of the very difficult subject of reprobation. He seemed to try to keep the tension of the Biblical testimony. Like election to salvation, reprobation to condemnation is presented as an aspect of God’s eternally certain, absolutely free decision. Yet Brakel consistently maintains that man has only himself to blame for suffering eternal judgment.

Obviously election, reprobation, predestination, foreknowledge, etc. is an impossible sphere of study. There has never really been an agreed upon understanding and- this side of the end- there likely never will be. While I certainly have no delusion of being able to please everyone with a “solution;” I have nevertheless started to explain the dilemma with two statements:

 There is one thing that the saved will never say to God in eternity: “We did it!”

All praise for salvation will always go to God and to the Lamb eternally.

 There is one thing the damned will never say to God in eternity: “I wanted to be saved but you just wouldn’t let me.”

God loves His Son too much to not give to him even one soul that desires salvation.

I am aware that these two statements do not really do anything to explain the decrees of election or reprobation in the past, but merely address the result of those decrees in the future. But we often do not understand the present until we can look back on it in retrospect. These two statements attempt to do the same thing with election and reprobation.

How can you tell who is really elect?

What are we to make of election, falling away, and church membership? It is clear from the history of redemption that there have been unbelievers among the congregation of God’s people, and Scripture makes it clear there always will be (Mathew 13:24-30, 36-43). What are we to make of this? Is it our job to discern who in the church is really saved?

In commenting on 1 Peter 1:1-2—elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father—John Calvin writes, “…we are not curiously to inquire about the election of our brethren, but ought on the contrary to regard their calling, so that all who are admitted by faith into the church, are to be counted as the elect; for God thus separates them for the world, which is a sign of election.”

A few hundred years later, Herman Bavinck penned similar sentiments, “Certainly, there are bad branches on the vine, and there is chaff among the wheat; and in a large house, there are vessels of gold as well as vessels of earthenware (Matt. 3:12; 13:29; John 15:2; 2 Tim. 2:20). But we do not have the right and the power to separate the two: in the day of the harvest, God himself will do this. As long as—in the judgment of love—they walk in the way of the covenant, they are to be regarded and treated as allies. Though not of the covenant, they are in the covenant and will one day be judged accordingly.” (Reformed Dogmatics III, p. 232)

No one is perfect. Even saints sin. Do not judge people according to where you are in your spiritual walk; or where you think they should be in theirs. Is a person faithful to attend the assembly of believers on the Lord’s Day? Does he evidence a desire, however small, for spiritual things and growth in the Lord? Count him as a brother. Christ knows all those that are his and will not lose one of them. You are not privileged with such knowledge or ability.

Herman Bavinck on the Apalling Reality of Calvinism

The difference between Augustine and Pelagius, Calvin or Castellio, Gomarus and Arminius, is not that the latter were that much more gentle, loving, and tenderhearted than the former. On the contrary, it arises from the fact that the former accepted Scripture in its entirety, also including this doctrine [of reprobation]; that they were and always wanted to be theistic and recognize the will and hand of the Lord also in these disturbing facts of life; that they were not afraid to look reality in the eye even when it was appalling. Pelagianism scatters flowers over graves, turns death into an angel, regards sin as mere weakness, lectures on the uses of adversity, and considers this the best possible world. Calvinism has no use for such drivel. It refuses to be hoodwinked. It tolerates no such delusion, takes full account of the seriousness of life, champions the rights of the Lord of lords, and humbly bows in adoration before the inexplicable sovereign will of God Almighty. As a result it proves to be fundamentally more merciful than Pelagianism. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, II, p. 394)

Two of the names Bavinck mentioned were unfamiliar to me. Here is what I found about them:

Sebastian Castellio– Castellio worked under Calvin in Geneva for several years. Castellio opposed the execution of heretics and wrote a work endorsing the freedom of conscience, limited government, and separation of church and state. From the little I have been able to find out about him, I find Bavinck’s reference a bit curious.

Francis Gomarus– Today we speak of Calvinism and Arminianism in a way that leads some to think John Calvin and James Arminius opposed each other. Such was not the case. Calvin died when Arminius was 4 years old- so the two obviously never met. It was actually Gomarus who opposed Arminius and the teaching that man cooperated with God in his salvation. It was the controversy between Gomarus and Arminius that led to the Synod of Dort in 1618 and the classic statement of the “5 points of Calvinism”— nearly 55 years after Calvin’s death.