Justified in Christ by Scott Oliphint

“If our churches are going to be renewed and become what God has called them to be, then individual members of the church must be taught to build their lives on the foundation of the truth that they are justified before God by faith, not on the basis of their own performance, but by claiming the righteousness of Christ as the only ground for acceptance. That means that they must see clearly the holiness of God, the depth of their sin, and the sufficiency of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. It is this doctrine of justification by faith through grace which must be embraced, not just at the beginning of the Christian life, but every day we live.”

– J. Stafford Carson in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for us in Justification, edited by K. Scott Oliphint (Christian Focus: 2007), p. 191.

BoT > Session 3 > Derek Thomas

Session 3 – (Wed. 9:00 AM)
“Union with Christ: The Architectonic Principle of Holiness in Calvin’s Institutes”
Derek Thomas

GRANTHAM, PA – Even if a word like “architectonic” was too big for 9 AM, one of the great anticipations of the conference for me was to learn more about John Calvin and his theology (part of my preparation for this conference was the Humble Calvinism series we started in January). Derek Thomas is a man well qualified to teach on Calvin. Thomas originates from Whales Wales but now ministers in Jackson, MS as professor of systematic and practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and Minister of Teaching at First Presbyterian Church. Recently we looked at Thomas’ excellent book, Calvin’s Teaching on Job (Christian Focus).

Thomas is very familiar with the Banner of Truth Conference, first attending in 1974. He began his address with kind compliments and thankfulness for the past 30+ years.

Thomas was encouraged to make one theologian his lifelong hobby. In seminary he discovered Calvin when studying Calvin’s Institutes. No one should graduate from seminary without studying them, he said.

Thomas’ messages for the conference would center in book three of the Institutes and especially upon a small section published by itself as the Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life (still in print). This small book has enjoyed, Thomas said, “a life of it’s own.” [The content of this small book can be found in the third book of the Institutes (3.6-3.10 or pp. 1:684-725 in the McNeill/Battles edition).]

Thomas began by reading the sixth chapter of Romans and a short reading from the Institutes. Coming out of Book 2, where Calvin explained the person and work of Christ, he goes on in Book 3 to explain how this is applied to the Christian. Calvin begins Book 3 by writing:

“How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only-begotten Son – not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men? First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us” (3.1.1, p. 1:537).

This quote provides the critical bridge between Book 2 (the work of Christ, His Cross and the Resurrection) into Book 3 (the application of grace to the sinner). Without union to Christ, the application the work of Christ does not happen.

History of the Institutes

The Institutes first appeared in 1536 as a small book but would grow through many editions until the final French edition in 1560. The plan of the original Institutes was different than the final. The first edition followed the structure of a catechism. But in 1559 the Institutes would be remodeled to follow the outline of the Apostle’s Creed – following a Trinitarian design of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some other significant changes include the moving of predestination from the opening chapters of the doctrine of God, into Book 3 being placed under the application of the Holy Spirit — because as Calvin says, “Election is the secret of God’s people.” Once you are born again, then predestination makes sense (similar to how predestination fits into the flow of Romans). Another change was that Calvin’s teaching on the Christian life formerly was a conclusion to his teaching on the church, but in the final edition is a subsection of Book 3 as can be seen from the third book’s title: “The way in which we receive the grace of Christ: What benefits come to us from is, and what effects follow.”

So if you look at the headings of Book 3, Calvin begins with a section on the Holy Spirit and then addresses faith, regeneration, repentance and justification. This is no proper ordo salutis! But Calvin is not attempting here to write an ordo salutis. Calvin is in a place where salvation by faith alone is charged as antinomian by his Roman Catholic critics. Therefore, Calvin first sets up sanctification to remove the ground of his opponents before jumping into justification. In other words, justification by faith alone does not undermine sanctification.

For Calvin, regeneration is not a one-time event that happens in the past. Rather, regeneration is an ongoing process of renewal in our sanctification. [The example of the Christian’s continued repentance for sin throughout life is an act of regeneration. Calvin writes, “in a word, I interpret repentance as regeneration, whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God that had been disfigured and all but obliterated through Adam’s transgression” (3.3.9, p. 1:601)]. It is important to know how Calvin uses the term “regeneration.”

Union with Christ

Union to Christ is the key truth of the application of His work. This union is a multifaceted and multidimensional truth. There is a mystical union with Christ brought about by the Holy Spirit where we are brought into spiritual union with Christ. But this union also incorporates Christ and believers whereby we share communion also in human nature, body and soul together. Christ identifies with believers in both a spiritual and physical union. Calvin’s eschatology includes an existence after glorification where we will have physical bodies and be in an incarnate union with Christ. Christ is the firstborn, elder brother in the family we are adopted: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). We are engrafted into Christ and we draw from the sap and vitality of Christ (Rom. 11:17). We put on Christ and grow into One Body with Him (Gal. 3:27-28).

Calvin expands on this union with Christ and its significance to sanctification.

1. Basis of holiness. Christ possessed a spiritual wealth to give to the needy and He prays to His Father that this spiritual wealth would be to the believer’s sanctification. This profound truth is reflected in the prayer of Jesus, “And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:19). On this passage, Calvin writes in his commentary on John,

“It is, because he consecrated himself to the Father, that his holiness might come to us; for as the blessing on the first-fruits is spread over the whole harvest, so the Spirit of God cleanses us by the holiness of Christ and makes us partakers of it. Nor is this done by imputation only, for in that respect he is said to have been made to us righteousness; but he is likewise said to have been made to us sanctification, (1 Cor. 1:30) because he has, so to speak, presented us to his Father in his own person, that we may be renewed to true holiness by his Spirit.”

Thus, our union with Christ achieved both justification and sanctification for believers. Our sanctification is the result of Christ’s sanctification and it is His perfect sanctification now being worked out in our own lives! This is the union. So how are we saved? Calvin says, not by Christ but rather in Christ. A most common phrase of Paul is to be “in Christ” and this “in Christ” is the key to our justification and the key to our sanctification. Our holiness is His holiness, our righteousness is His righteousness.

Our union with Christ as the basis of holiness is evident in the beginning lines of First Corinthians. “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor. 1:2). The Corinthians have two zip codes – one zip code that places them in this world where they are attacked and tempted, but a second zip code that sets them in heaven because they are united with Christ. In this union with Christ we have a divine nature in this world, which means we can put off all vices of the flesh (2 Pet. 1:4).

2. Means of holiness. The Holy Spirit is the applier of the works of Christ. It’s the same Spirit that indwelt Christ in His Incarnate life. See the references to the “Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9, 1 Pet. 1:11). The Holy Spirit is the bond uniting us to Christ. None know Christ more intimately nor has experienced more fellowship with Christ than the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ.

So where is Christ now? Christ is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father, but we are still united with Him. In the Lord’s Supper there is a deep mystery here. Calvin speaks of the Holy Spirit drawing us into fellowship with Christ as the Spirit draws our affections towards Him. Our hearts are lifted into communion with the Body and Blood of Christ. The Spirit comes to us because of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

To signify the Spirit being poured over the Body from its Head (Christ), Calvin builds from the image of Psalm 133: “It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!” (v. 2). Christ is our Head. He pours His Spirit over Himself and the oil of the Holy Spirit runs down from the Head over the rest of His Body the Church. Sanctification from the Spirit of Christ flows from our union with Christ.

3. Shape of holiness. The Christian receives all the fullness of Christ in all of His accomplishments (justification, sanctification, glorification, etc.). Grace reigns through righteousness. “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2). As Calvin writes, “Medicine does not foster the disease it destroys” . We have died to sin and the claims of sin have been fully met (Rom. 6:10, 23). “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6). The body of sin has been destroyed. Sin was manifested in the body and now righteousness must be manifest in the body, too. The believer has been freed from sin, freed from guilt and the power of sin. The bondage has been broken.

Being freed from sin’s bondage is no mere speculation for Calvin. For Calvin, communion with the death of Christ energizes the imperatives that follow. The imperatives – like “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” — come after the indicatives (Rom. 6:11). The template of holiness is union/communion with the death/resurrection with Christ. Calvin sounds so Pauline. This is why when we have a hard time understanding the Pauline texts, Calvin is most helpful. He thinks so much like Paul.

So what does it mean to commune with Christ? Communion with Christ functions in our lives and is manifested in the perpetual death/resurrection cycle of life. The cross is the way to victory and death is the way to life. Don’t be surprised that to know life and joy we must first experience death and crucifixion. Christ is the one who blazes the trail for the Christian and we follow Him (Heb. 5:9).

So reckon yourselves dead and look to heaven where Christ is. The Christian life is not about the imitation of Christ. WWJD is not a sufficient ethic for the Christian life. We act in the Spirit of Christ, not to the details of Christ’s life.

The same Spirit that indwelt Christ is the same Spirit that molds us and takes us along the path of crucifixion and resurrection on our path to glory. Don’t be surprised if that is an increasingly difficult path as we die to self, die to the world, die to the devil, and live more for Christ and His glory.


Related: For more posts and pictures from the 2007 Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference check out the complete TSS conference index.

Review: John Brown of Haddington

My review of The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington was published today at takeupandread.com. Brown’s theology is best remembered under the title A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion. Read more here: takeupandread.com.


I found the Banner of Truth autobiography/biography very useful in my research. The Life of John Brown (1856/2004) was edited by his son William Brown (the same man who slightly abridged Richard Baxter’s Reformed Pastor now published by the Banner of Truth). It provides useful historical information about Brown’s extraordinary life and several rich letters and meditation essays written by John Brown. If the life of John Brown interests you, I recommend this volume (ISBN: 0851518575).


“Like pangs of death”: Letting go of legalism

“Like pangs of death”: Letting go of legalism
by Tony Reinke

What is “legalism?” Legalism is an attempt to please God through self-righteous obedience, a counterfeit replacement to the merits and works of the perfect Son. You can be legalistic by not drinking alcohol and thinking God is more pleased with you and you can become legalistic by drinking alcohol and thinking God is more pleased with you. Legalism is not merely defined by specific rules or strictness. Legalism is all about seeking to please God with self efforts and we do that in our ‘looseness’ just as easily as our strictness. That’s the gist of a short post I wrote (“Understanding Legalism”) last September.

This past winter I heard two separate public statements to the effect that if you read a lot of Puritan literature you will grow legalistic. Certainly there is a danger in all Christian literature to do what I did before I was a Christian — highlight all the passages of books and Scripture that give a command, seek to obey and appease God in the end. That’s legalism and it doesn’t matter what you read, our hearts fall into this legalism naturally.

The criticism of the Puritans however is overall unfounded simply on the basis of the Cross-centered focus of the Puritans. You cannot exalt in the sufficient work of the Son without striking legalism at the root.

But this criticism is also unfounded because the Puritans attacked legalism directly.

This weekend I was reading through an excellent systematic theology written by John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787). On the covenant of works, Brown launched into a lengthy paragraph on the nature of legalism and why all unregenerate sinners – and even converted Christians – are lured by legalism. Listen carefully to his arguments.

“All men by nature, and even believers, in so far as they are unrenewed, desire to be under the covenant of works, and to obtain happiness by their own righteousness, or the condition of it. 1. It is natural to men, and hence men of every form or religion, station, office, education, or manner of life, agree in it (Romans 9:31,32; 10:3; Jonah 1:16; Matthew 19:16; John 6:28; Acts 2:37; Luke 15:19). 2. Our own working or suffering, in order to obtain happiness from God, is exceedingly suited to the pride of our corrupt nature, and makes us to look on God as our debtor (Romans 10:3; 7:9,13; John 5:45; Isaiah 58:3). It is like pangs of death to quit our hold of the law (Romans 7:4,9; Galatians 2:19). 3. Men’s ignorance of the extensive and high demands of the broken law, and of their own utter inability to keep it, — or their care to abridge their apprehensions of them, and to enlarge their conceit of their own ability, mightily promote their desire to be under it (Romans 7:9-13; 10:3; Galatians 4:21). 4. Men have naturally a peculiar enmity against God and his gracious method of redemption, — against Jesus Christ and his whole mediation, particularly his sacrificing work; and hence love to oppose the honor of it be cleaving to legal methods of obtaining happiness (Romans 8:7; John 15:24; Romans 10:3; 9:32; 5:21; Galatians 2:21; 5:2,4).”

The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington [Reformation Heritage Books: 2002] p. 212 (updated spellings and formatting).

Not only were the Puritans aware of the dangers of legalism, they understood legalism to be a false understanding of the appeasement of God. That is, they rightly understood legalism to be a false gospel. And what’s more, the Puritans were fully aware of the battle waging in the soul of the Christian that “it is like pangs of death to quit our hold of the law.” We must die to the Law, not because the Law is bad, but because all sinners are naturally inclined to think appeasing God is possible through Legal obedience. We think that we will find life in obedience to the Law when in fact the Law is really only eternally useful after it kills us in our self-righteousness. “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (Romans 7:10).

The Puritans were fully aware of the heart’s addiction to self-righteousness and they responded by attacking legalism directly and indirectly (by rejoicing in the perfect work of Jesus Christ). To conclude that Puritan literature births legalism is very clearly a broad statement without foundation.

Calvinism and the redemption of counseling

David Powlison
Calvinism and the redemption of counseling

“Most of the Christian counseling world is not Calvinistic. Most often, ‘Christian counseling’ consists of lightly reworked versions of secular theories and practices, embedded in a professional fee-for-service structure indistinguishable from the mental health system. Though practitioners of a Christianized psychotherapy sincerely profess Christian faith, they too-often ignore basic implications of biblical faith … Wise Calvinism is the hope of counseling. Practical Calvinism! The varied wisdoms necessary for curing what needs curing come into their own via a world view and modus operandi that operates in terms of the Lord of heaven and earth. Theocentricity, coram Deo, the Five Points [of Calvinism], the solas, and the rest will prove to be the redemption of counseling.”

David Powlison in The Practical Calvinist (Mentor: 2002) pp. 497, 504.

Title: The Practical Calvinist: An Introduction to the Presbyterian and Reformed Heritage, In Honor of D. Clair Davis’ Thirty Years at Westminster Theological Seminary
Author: 29 contributors; edited by Peter A. Lillback
Reading level: 3.0/5.0 > Moderate
Boards: hardcover
Pages: 584
Volumes: 1
Dust jacket: no
Binding: glue
Paper: normal
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect text
Publisher: Christian Focus, Mentor
Year: 2002
Price USD: $37.99 / $27.99 at CBD
ISBNs: 1857928148


Click here to access previous posts in the Humble Calvinism index.


Book review: Calvin’s Teaching on Job by Derek Thomas

tsslogo.jpgBook review:
Calvin’s Teaching on Job by Derek Thomas

After recently completing N.T. Wright’s new book, Evil and the Justice of God, I came away with the sense that evil is at God’s ankles like a small poodle biting and pestering. While I learned some things, the conclusion that we should simply learn to forgive more (while being true) was also a bit unsatisfying. For one who believes in the total sovereignty of God, this picture of evil was incomplete.

But the question, ‘Why do the most godly suffer?,’ is a question every Christian comes face-to-face with and to which every pastor must give an answer. I’m finding that the answer to this question is found within another big problem – how do we interpret the book of Job?

So when Derek Thomas’ book, Calvin’s Teaching on Job: Proclaiming the Incomprehensible God, arrived in the mail, I was eager to dive deep. And Thomas did not disappoint. With incredible depth, Thomas leads the reader systematically through Calvin’s thoughts as he wrestled with the book of Job. Here you will find both encouragement to tackle the book of Job expositionally and also real-life answers to the most perplexing questions in the Christian life. It’s a book that I will come back to time and time again when my own soul and the souls of friends ask the question ‘Why?’

Maybe the most helpful point I learned was exegetical. Calvin teaches us to use Elihu to interpret the Jobian dialogues (see Job 32:1-37:24). “While Calvin is consistently critical of the advice of Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar, he is generally supportive of the contribution of Elihu” (226). Elihu best understood the sovereignty of God, the nature of justice, the separation between God and man and that God’s justice and power go alongside His goodness.

By favoring the advice and input of Elihu, Calvin takes from the dialogues several helpful principles: Trials are appointed by God’s providence to educate us, they are used by God to humble us, they bring our hidden sins to the surface, and they bring us to repentance. “Afflictions also drive us to desire more of God’s help, provoking us to return to him, by drawing us to him, taming us, and teaching us to pray.” Certainly, “the distribution of trials is not whimsical or arbitrary” (228).

The bottom line is that God is incomprehensible. His providence is beyond our understanding. We cannot see the big picture, but we can rest in a sovereign God who does!

“When bad things happen to the righteous, the Lord is involved in the deepest possible way. Far from removing God from such crises in the interest of rescuing him from the charge of sin’s authorship, Calvin regularly takes God further and further into the difficulty. He meets the ensuing theological and pastoral difficulties by resorting to God’s incomprehensibility” (375).

Although it was a doctoral dissertation, the book reads very well. The old English spelling of Calvin’s sermons on Job may be annoying but you will pick up on it as you read (to “… shewe vs hee is the iudge of the world we must learne to stande in awe of him”). Thomas is critical of Calvin when necessary. The book itself is over 60-percent footnotes (surely setting some record). The masses of footnotes are mostly direct references from Calvin, providing him an extensive first-hand voice while keeping the book clean and concise.

For 14 months between 1554 and 1555 John Calvin preached through the book of Job, leaving a wealth of expositional insights and pastoral applications for future expositors. Dr. Thomas has assembled these insights in a systematic format that will benefit the student seeking a guide to Calvin’s thought, the pastor seeking a guide to counseling, and for the preacher seeking an exegetical guide to interpret the book of Job. An excellent addition to the library of a Humble Calvinist.

Title: Calvin’s Teaching on Job: Proclaiming the Incomprehensible God
Author: Derek Thomas
Boards: hardcover
Pages: 416
Volumes: 1
Dust jacket: no
Binding: glue
Paper: normal
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: no
Text: perfect type
Publisher: Christian Focus Publications, Mentor
Year: 2004
Price USD: $25.99/$18.99 from CBD
ISBNs: 1857929225, 9781857929225


Click here to access previous posts in the Humble Calvinism index.