Three Ways the Glory of Christ Comforts the Downcast Soul

This is John Owen’s description of how contemplating the glory of Christ brings comfort to the soul troubled with depressive feelings. I’ve underlined some key sentences.

It is a woeful kind of life, when men scramble for poor perishing reliefs in their distresses. This is the universal remedy and cure, – the only balsam for all our diseases. Whatever presseth, urgeth, perplexeth, if we can but retreat in our minds unto a view of this glory, and a due consideration of our own interest therein, comfort and supportment will be administered unto us. Wicked men, in their distress (which sometimes overtake even them also), are like “a troubled sea, that cannot rest.” Others are heartless, and despond, – not without secret repinings at the wise disposals of Divine Providence, especially when thee look on the better condition (as they suppose) of others. And the best of us all are apt to wax faint and weary when these things press upon us in an unusual manner, or under their long continuance, without a prospect of relief. This is the stronghold which such prisoners of hope are to turn themselves unto. In this contemplation of the glory of Christ they will find rest unto their own souls. For, –

Our troubles are slight compared to the glory of Christ

1. It will herein, and in the discharge of this duty, be made evident how slight and inconsiderable all these things are from whence our troubles and distresses do arise. For they all grow on this root of an over-valuation of temporal things. And unless we can arrive unto a fixed judgement that all things here below are transitory and perishing, reaching only unto the outward man, or the body, (perhaps unto the killing of it), – that the best of them have nothing that is truly substantial or abiding in them, – that there are other things, wherein we have an assured interest, that are incomparably better than they, and above them, – it is impossible but that we must spend our lives in fears, sorrows, and distractions. One real view of the glory of Christ, and of our own concernment therein, will give us a full relief in this matter. For what are all the things of this life? What is the good or evil of them in comparison of an interest in this transcendent glory? When we have due apprehensions hereof, – when our minds are possessed with thoughts of it, – when our affections reach out after its enjoyments, – let pain, and sickness, and sorrows, and fears, and dangers, and death, say what they will. we shall have in readiness wherewith to combat with them and overcome them; and that on this consideration, that they are all outward, transitory, and passing away, whereas our minds are fixed on those things which are eternal, and filled with incomprehensible glory.

Our troubles are stilled by the glory of Christ.

2. The minds of men are apt by their troubles to be cast into disorder, to be tossed up and down, and disquieted with various affections and passions. So the Psalmist found it in himself in the time of his distress; whence he calls himself unto that account, ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted in me?” And, indeed, the mind on all such occasions is its own greatest troubler. It is apt to let loose its passions of fear and sorrow, which act themselves in innumerable perplexing thoughts, until it is carried utterly out of its own power. But in this state a due contemplation of the glory of Christ will restore and compose the mind, bring it into a sedate, quiet frame, wherein faith will be able to say unto the winds and waves of distempered passions, “Peace, be still;” and they shall obey it.

Our troubles are overwhelmed by increasing awareness of God’s love.

3. It is the way and means of conveying a sense of God’s love unto our souls; which is that alone where ultimately we find rest in the midst of all the troubles of this life; as the apostle declares, Rom. 5: 2-5. It is the Spirit of God who alone communicates a sense of this love unto our souls; it is “shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost.” Howbeit, there are ways and means to be used on our part, whereby we may be disposed and made meet to receive these communications of divine love. Among these the principal is the contemplation of the glory of Christ insisted on, and of God the Father in him. It is the season, it is the way and means, at which and whereby the Holy Ghost will give a sense of the love of God unto us, causing us thereon to “rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” This will be made evident in the ensuing Discourse. This will lift the minds and hearts of believers above all the troubles of this life, and is the sovereign antidote that will expel all the poison that is in them; which otherwise might perplex and enslave their souls.

(from the preface of John Owen’s Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, in Works 1:278)

Grant What Thou Dost Command: Augustine (Confessions)

Grant what Thou dost command, and command what Thou wilt. Thou dost command continence. And when I knew it, as it is said, that no one could be continent unless God gave it, even this was a point of wisdom, to know whose gift it was.

Confessions 10:29 (Sheed’s translation)

A Prayer That Sparked a Battle

Augustine wrote this prayer around 400 AD. “Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will!”[1] When Pelagius read these words, he understood correctly that Augustine was implying that humans are incapable of obeying God’s commands unless God first grants them the ability to do so. Pelagius strongly disagreed. He believed the very fact that God would command something implies that we must have the ability to obey it. We don’t need God’s grace to help us obey; we simply exercise free will and make the decision to do it or not. How does one obey God? This is where they disagreed.

But behind this disagreement, Augustine and Pelagius had another disagreement. They had different opinions about the nature of humanity. Augustine argued that ever since Adam ate the fruit in the garden, that humanity was locked in corruption. It’s not just Adam that fell; we all fell in Adam. So Augustine says, “The sin which they committed was so great that it impaired all human nature—in this sense, that the nature has been transmitted to posterity with a propensity to sin and a necessity to die.”[2] A propensity to sin and a necessity to die (both corruption and guilt). So Augustine referred to humans such as himself as “a lump of perdition.” You are a lump of perdition, a lump of lostness. “And there is nothing that a lump of perdition – people like you and me – can do for our own salvation. We need God to do it all. That was the center of Augustine’s thought.”[3] So according to Augustine, Adam doomed humanity. When Adam fell, we all fell. “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all” (New England Primer). And only God can recover the shattered pieces.

On the other hand, Pelagius said that when Adam fell, only Adam fell. But after Adam he said we are all still free to make our own decisions, whether we will obey God or not. Then Augustine and Pelagius had a pamphlet battle. They wrote all sorts of pamphlets back and forth, arguing against the other. Eventually, very early in the fifth century several church councils were called and found Pelagius to be denying the clear teaching of Scripture.[4] But even though the teaching of Pelagius was officially condemned, it never actually disappeared. The church in every generation has suffered from some form of it. In fact, in the thousand years between Augustine and Martin Luther, the official theology of the church had drifted somewhat away from Augustine and toward Pelagius.

Martin Luther comes on the scene around 1500, over one thousand years after the Pelagius’ teaching had been rejected. Luther’s theological discussion was with the Roman Catholic Church. The church argued that grace could be infused to people as they performed certain actions like going to mass and participating in the eucharist. In other words people could simply exercise free will to do good and thereby earn the grace of God. But Luther denied that humans are capable of freely choosing any works good enough to earn God’s grace.

So the will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it wills and goes where God wills….If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it.[5]

Martin Luther insisted when it comes to salvation, we don’t make the first move. Our will doesn’t choose its own rider. Rather, God gives the gift of faith so that we might believe. If anyone does what God commands, it is because his grace and his grace alone has enabled us to do it. So the debate between Augustine and Pelagius was resurrected between Luther and the Roman Catholic Church. Luther was simply saying loud and clear what Augustine had said long before (see Diarmaid MacCulloch, All Things Made New, 4). Other pastors and theologians began to agree with Luther’s “grace alone” slogan, and John Calvin systematized these classic Reformation insights in what we know as the Institutes of the Christian Religion.[6]

From this history we draw two significant doctrinal truths.

Original Sin

The first of these two truths is called original sin.[7] The doctrine of original sin says the sin of Adam and Eve touched every future member of the human race. Simply put, we are all infected, corrupted and guilty.[8] Sin is a precondition of human life. We’re born this way, with the whole cluster of psychological, relational and spiritual sicknesses that result from the original infection. Original sin means, among other things, means that we are spiritually sick: that no one is looking to submit their life to God. You may know people who do a sort of scavenger hunt through world religions, but interpreting that kind of thing through the lens of original sin, we might consider whether even those searchings are aimed at self-improvement rather than self-abandonment to God. “Any of the original light of the original creation that remains in fallen humanness is [as John Calvin put it]…so ‘choked with dense ignorance…that it cannot come forth effectively.’ The seemingly virtuous traits that we observe in unredeemed lives are, [Calvin] says, ‘so sullied that before God they lose all favor,’ so that anything in them ‘that appears praiseworthy must be considered worthless.’”[9] Humans are corrupted from conception. That’s original sin. It is a bleak picture of humanity. We’re not all as bad as we could possibly be, but we are all broken to the core.

Monergism

The second doctrinal truth is called monergism. Monergism. The word comes from monos- meaning one or alone (as in monogamy) and –ergism, meaning ability or working, somewhat like energy. The meaning of monergism is that God alone initiates with people, he moves unilaterally in the hearts of people who aren’t seeking him, and causes them to seek him. Paul reminds the church in Rome that “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). If that’s true, if no one seeks for God, then how is it that some people end up finding him? Only by accidentally bumping into him on a dark path? No. Paul says, for anyone who knows God, the way they came to know him is that God turned the lights on. They were sitting in a dark room and happy to be in the dark, not looking for a light switch. Not seeking God. But God completely of his own initiative turned the lights on. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). And that is monergism—God alone working. And where is this in the Bible? The place where Martin Luther discovered the truth of “grace alone” for himself over 500 years ago was in Romans 5:12-21.


[1] Augustine, Confessions 10:29 (Pine-Coffin translation, 233). Could be translated, “Give what you command; command what you will” (Latourette, History of Christianity, vol 1, 180). According to Latourette, it was these words that sparked the reaction from Pelagius, though no source is cited for this assertion.

[2] Augustine, City of God (New York: Image Books, 1958), 279. “No one was to be born of them who was less a sinner than they were. Such was the greatness of the guilt that the punishment so impaired human nature that what was originally a penal condition [punishment] for the first parents who sinned became a natural consequence in all of their descendants,” 252.

[3] A summary of Augustine’s thought by Diarmaid MacCulloch, All Things Made New, 4.

[4] The Councils of Carthage, 412 and 418 AD, Latourette, History of Christianity, vol. 1, 180.

[5] Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will. Cited in Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 76.

[6] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 74, 120, 166.

[7] In a portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe, David McCullough says that she “discarded the doctrine of original sin” as part of a move away from her “harsh Calvinist heritage.” She came to believe that “neither man nor nature was necessarily corrupt. Hers was a faith of love and Christian charity” (Brave Companions, 49). This characterization of original sin as a “harsh” doctrine is typical. 

[8] Corruption and guilt are the two aspects of original sin. “Corruption and guilt present the problems that the gifts of sanctification and justification graciously address,” Cornelius Platinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, 29. 

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis BattlesII: 2, 12, 270. As well as II: 3, 4, 294. These specific citations comes from Richard Mouw, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction, 60.

The Immorality of Unbelief

Walter McMillian was a black man found guilty of murder by an all-white jury despite a mountain of obvious evidence and eyewitness testimony of his innocence.[1] The jury had “made up their hearts” about his guilt before they had “made up their minds.” Racial prejudice induced blindness to compelling evidence. 

The arguments, beliefs, and memories that capture our minds are often a matter not of pure reasoning, but of affections and the will. In You Are What You Love James Smith suggests this is because even more deeply than being reasoning creatures, we are worshiping creatures. And we tend to find rational justification for that which we worship. But the love/affection comes first, the reasoning is subsequent.

“Memories are often sadly dependent on our wills.”[2] We believe what we want to believe, and likewise, we don’t believe what we don’t want to believe. Proving the proverb, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”

Unbelief and skepticism, two shades of the same thing, are never evidential, but moral. Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), the British author of Brave New World, who coincidently died the same day as JFK and C. S. Lewis, within a few hours of each other, was an atheist and said quite transparently, “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don’t know because we don’t want to know…Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their book that the world should be meaningless.”[3]

Unbelief is not evidential, but moral. Paul says in Romans 1 that God’s “invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…[they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.” They rejected plain evidence of God in nature, without excuse, because they chose to worship the creature rather than the creator. An immoral exchange.

Huxley is right, “No philosophy is completely disinterested.” Not to believe in Jesus at its root is a rejection of God, the Creator. So at last we come to it. Unbelief is (im)moral.


[1] The Walter McMillian story is told by his defense lawyer Bryan Stevenson in the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

[2] Ryle, Expository Thoughts on John, vol. 2, 20.

[3] Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means: An Enquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Methods employed for their Realization (1937), 270. I first read this quote in Fool’s Talk by Os Guiness, in the chapter, “The Anatomy of Unbelief.” I heard this quote from Tom Mercer in his sermon on Romans 10:14-21 (Feb 24, 2019). Interestingly, J. C. Ryle says the same thing, “They do not believe what they do not like to believe” (Expository Thoughts on John, 21).

The Provision Paradox and the Promises of God

God promises his children that he will provide for them like a good father provides for his children. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount not to be anxious, not even about basic necessities like what to wear and what to eat. Then Jesus offers a word of reassurance, “But seek first the kingdom of God, and all these thing will be added to you” (Matt 6:33). This sounds like an absolute promise of provision from God, just like so many other similar promises throughout scripture.

But here is the provision paradox: Although God promises to provide, still God’s children have often gone hungry and have not been provided for. God promises provision, yet his children experience privation at times.

David says he’s never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging for bread (Ps 37:25). We might feel incredulous, sensing his naivete, because we’ve all seen people of God at times forsaken, forgotten, hungry.

God promises provision, yet we experience privation. How do we resolve this paradox?

  1. God often uses ordinary means for the fulfillment of the promise. If a man doesn’t work neither should he eat (2 These 3:10). Ordinarily, working will lead to eating. This is a proverbial perspective on how God fulfills his promise. It doesn’t turn his promise into a proverb, but rather explains one way the promise finds fulfillment. We should remember however, that even when we have our “daily bread,” it is still only sufficient for today. In other words, it is not an ultimate provision, only immediate. Any provision, even the best provision, that we may have in this life is all anticipatory, a dim precursor to the full experience that awaits God’s people with him in paradise. Which leads to the second point of resolution.
  2. God will ultimately fulfill his promises of provision in the new world. Jesus reminds his followers they are citizens of a new kingdom, which outlasts this temporary mode of living (Matt 6:19-21). This is both a worldview as well as a present comfort. There will not be hunger or pain or privation there. So when God’s people endure famine leading to death in the present world, they enter into a world of eternal satisfaction, fullness and pleasure. These promises find their ultimate fulfillment not in this age, but in the age to come.

    The great men and women of faith in the Bible believed in this delayed fulfillment. Abraham “was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God… These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb 11:10, 13).

Spiritual Pride vs. Gospel Humility

Satan’s subtlety is at its height when he seduces people into spiritual pride. The deceitfulness of the human heart is evident in no one thing so much as it is in spiritual pride and self-righteousness. The ‘holier than thou’ attitude. In The Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards points out that spiritual pride is antithetical to the humility demanded by the gospel.

Spiritual pride may arise when I compare myself to others; but gospel humility is the result of comparing myself to all that God demands. Do you think you more frequently assess your spiritual health by comparison to others or by comparison to God?

“A rebellious people…who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.’ These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all the day”

Isaiah 65:5

First, for some context. In The Religious Affections, Edwards labors to demonstrate his thesis that “True religion, in great part, consists of holy affections” (23). His biblical basis for this insight is 1 Peter 1:8, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and fully of glory.”

Edwards gives 12 signs that are uncertain, they don’t confirm whether religious affections are genuine or that they are not. He then proceeds to give 12 signs that are distinguishing marks of genuine religious affections, or “truly gracious and holy affections.”

The sixth of these twelve certain signs is this: “Gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation” (237). By “evangelical holiness,” he means, “a sense that a Christian has of his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, with an answerable frame of heart.” Evangelical is a reference to the gospel, which says we are sinful. And humiliation is the frame of heart, the humility that comes with the confession of our sinfulness. So “evangelical humiliation” is the same thing as “gospel humility.”

Edwards points out however, that a distinction must be made between evangelical humiliation and “legal humiliation” which makes the confession of sin (legal agreement) but does not have “the answerable frame of heart.” They are not actually humbled by who they are. Thus, legal humiliation is actually spiritual pride. Edwards insightfully distinguishes between spiritual and legal humiliation (see the chart below). Which better describes the condition of your heart?

Spiritual pride (“legal humiliation”)gospel humility (“evangelical humiliation”)
Arises from the common influence of the Spirit, assisting natural principles, especially the unregenerate conscience Arises from the special influences of the Spirit, implementing and exercising supernatural and divine principles
Arises from the mind’s being assisted to a greater sense of the things of religion as to their natural properties and qualities, and particularly of the natural perfections of God, such as his greatness and terrible majestyArises from a sense of the transcendent beauty of divine things in their moral qualities
Convinces men they are exceedingly sinful/guilty… but they do not see their own odiousness on account of sinThey have a sense of the hateful nature of sin by a discovery of the beauty of God’s holiness and moral perfection
They are made sensible that they are little and nothing, etc…but they have not an answerable frame of heart consisting in a disposition to abase themselves, and exalt God aloneThey have a self-abasing disposition that arises when evangelical humiliation overcoming the heart and changing its inclination, by a discovery of God’s holy beauty
The conscience is convinced…but the will is not bowed nor the inclination alteredThere is spiritual understanding, the will is bowed and the inclination altered
They are brought to despair of helping themselvesThey are brought voluntarily to deny and renounce themselves
They are subdued and forced to the groundThey are brought sweetly to yield, and freely and with delight to prostrate themselves at the feet of God
Legal humiliation has in it no spiritual good, nothing of the nature of true virtueEvangelical humiliation is that wherein the excellent beauty of Christian grace does very much consist.
Men may be legally humbled and yet have no humilityConsists in such humility as becomes a creature in itself exceeding sinful. It is a man’s mean esteem of himself, as in himself nothing… attended with a mortification of a disposition to exalt himself, and a free renunciation of his own glory
They that are destitute of evangelical humiliation have no true religionThis is a great and most essential thing in true religion

John Owen’s Defense of Limited Atonement

John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ is a thorough explanation of what has been called limited atonement. Or you might say Death of Death is a book-length refutation of universal atonement, the position that Jesus died for all people. One implication of universal atonement would be that Jesus died for many people who will never be saved, meaning that Jesus was ineffective in his purpose and his work.

Below is a collection of 31 passages that Owen gives in Book II, chapter 3 refuting such a position. Here’s his main thesis followed by proofs from three classes of Scripture: 1) the intention of God and Christ, 2) the actual accomplishment of Christ, and 3) the persons for whom Christ died. [Page numbers given below refer to The Works of John Owen, vol. 10.]

“Our thesis as before declared, whereof this is the sum: Jesus Christ, according to the counsel and will of his Father, did offer himself upon the cross, to the procurement of those things before recounted; and maketh continual intercession with this intent and purpose, that all the good things so procured by his death might be actually and infallibly bestowed on and applied to all and every one for whom he died, according to the will and counsel of God” (208). Let us now see what the Scripture saith…

I. The Intention of God and Christ

For the first, those which hold out the counsel, purpose, mind, intention, and will of God and our Saviour in this work.

  1. Matthew 18:11, “The Son of man is come to save that which was lost” (cf. Lk 19:10)
  2. Matthew 1:21, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”
  3. 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” –not to open a door…not to make a way passable…but actually to save them
  4. Hebrews 2:14-15, “…that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death…” Than which words nothing can more clearly set forth the entire end of that whole dispensation of the incarnation and offering of Jesus Christ
  5. Ephesians 5:25-27, “Christ loved the church and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word;” along with Titus 2:14, “He game himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify unto himself a peculiar people.” “I think nothing can be clearer than these two places” (98)
  6. John 17:19, “For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth,” “not the whole world” (cf. vv. 6, 9)
  7. Galatians 1:4, “he gave himself for our sins that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father”
  8. 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” “Now if the Lord did not purpose what is not fulfilled…then he made Christ sin for no more than do in the effect become actually righteousness in him” (211)

Argument Summary: From all which we draw this argument: That which the Father and the Son intended to accomplish in and towards all those for whom Christ died, by his death that is most certainly effected…. Christ died for all and only those in and towards whom all these things recounted are effected. (211)

II. The Accomplishment of Christ’s Sacrifice

The second rank contains those places which lay down the actual accomplishment and effect of this oblation.

  1. Hebrews 9:12, 14, “By his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us…. The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” “Two things are here ascribed to the blood of Christ;–one referring to God, ‘it obtains eternal redemption;’ the other respecting us, ‘purgeth our conscience from dead works.’”
  2. 1 Peter 2:4 (cf. Isaiah 53:5, 6, 10-12), “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and life to righteousness”
  3. Colossians 1:21, 22, “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight
  4. John 6:33, where our life is ascribed to the death of Christ, “He came down from heaven to give life to the world” (as also 2 Tim 1:10 and Romans 5:6-10).

Argument Summary: I shall take from the whole this general argument: –If the death and oblation of Jesus Christ doth sanctify all them for whom it was a sacrifice…. –then died he only for those that are in the event sanctified, pursed, redeemed, justified, etc.; But that all are not thus sanctified, freed, etc is most apparent: and therefore, they cannot be said to be the proper object of the death of Christ. (214)

III. The Persons for Whom Christ Died

Many places there are that point out the persons for whom Christ died (214)

  1. In some places they are called many
    1. Matthew 26:28, “blood of the new testimony is shed for many
    2. Isaiah 53:11, “my righteous servant shall justify many
    3. Mark 10:45, “give his life a ransom for many
    4. Hebrews 2:10, “to bring many sons to glory”
  2. And though perhaps many itself be not sufficient to restrain the object of Christ’s death unto some, in opposition to all, because many is sometimes placed absolutely for all, as Rom 5:19, yet these many being described in other places to be such as it is most certain all are not, so it is a full and evident restriction of it.
    1. John 10:15, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own [sheep]”
    2. John 11:52, “the children of God who are scattered abroad”
    3. Hebrews 2:11, “the children that God gave him”
    4. John 17:2, 6, 9, 11, “those who were given unto Jesus by his Father”
    5. Hebrews 13:20, the sheep whereof he was the “Shepherd, through the blood of the everlasting covenant”
    6. Romans 8:33, “God’s elect”
    7. Matthew 1:21 “his people”
    8. Luke 1:68, “he has visited and redeemed his people”
    9. Romans 11:2, “his people whom he foreknew”
    10. Acts 18:10, “I have many in this city who are my people”
    11. Hebrews 13:12, “to sanctify the people through his own blood”
    12. Acts 20:28, “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood”
    13. Ephesians 5:25, the church which Christ loved and gave himself up for
    14. Hebrews 9:28, “to bear the sins of many”
    15. Daniel 9:27, “he shall make a strong covenant with many”
  3. Those many being thus described, and set forth with such qualifications as by no means are common to all, but proper only to the elect, do most evidently appear to be all and only those that are chosen of God to obtain eternal life through the offering and blood-shedding of Jesus Christ. (214)

A Brief Summary of Covenant Theology: The Whole Story is a Single Story

Some good resources to start with if you want more after reading: 1) The Christ of the Covenants by O. Palmer Robertson, 2) Continuity and Discontinuity edited by John S. Feinberg

Over the past few weeks, I’ve discussed covenant theology with a number of people, and have found that even those who say they definitely hold to it actually have a hard time articulating what covenant theology is. I thought I’d put together a concise overview to help.

So then covenant theology sees the whole story of redemption as a single story. And the covenantal structure of redemptive history could be summarized this way:

The various covenants of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and the promises of them are distributed to the people of God.

1. The Various Covenants of the Old Testament

There are four main covenants that carry along the story of the OT, and a fifth is foretold. These covenants are distinct and yet unified. Each grows organically out of the one before it. The first promise of hope is that a seed of the women would crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). This promise offers hope, but gives very little content. The covenants then begin to gradually specify the content of that first word of hope.

The first covenant is the covenant with Noah (Gen 9:1-17). God promises to delay judgment on the whole earth. This covenant establishes the context in which subsequent covenants will unfold: delayed judgment. O. Palmer Robertson calls this the covenant of preservation.

The second covenant is the covenant with Abraham (Gen 15:1-21). The covenant of Genesis 15 enacts the composite promise of Gen 12:1-2: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.” This is a three-part promise: 1) land, people, blessing. The land is Canaan, the people are the offspring of Abraham, what will become the nation of Israel. The Lord calls this an everlasting covenant (Gen 17:7-8). Robertson calls this the covenant of promise.

The third covenant is the covenant with Moses (Ex 23; Deut 29). The promises of this covenant are the same as the promises of the covenant with Abraham. But the covenant with Moses introduces something new: the law. And this covenant is conditional. If Israel obeys the law, they will be blessed (Deut 28:1ff). If they disobey the law they will be cursed (Deut 28:15ff). Robertson calls this the covenant of law.

The fourth covenant is the covenant with David (2 Sam 7). This covenant reaffirms the promises of prior covenants, “I will appoint a place for my people Israel.” But God adds a particular promise for David, “Your throne shall be established forever.” The line of David will possess an eternal throne. Robertson calls this the covenant of kingdom.

The fifth covenant, the new covenant, is only foretold in the Old Testament ( Jer 31:31-34; cf. Jer 32:27-44; 50:4f; Ezek 16:60-63; 37:15-28). Robertson calls this the covenant of consummation (as it is fulfilled in Jesus Christ).

2. Fulfilled in Jesus Christ

Jesus enacts and fulfills this new covenant. But since covenantalism sees the new covenant fulfilled in Jesus as the covenant of consummation, this means that by fulfilling the new covenant, he is also fulfilling the previous covenants. So the general principle is this: Christ is the fulfillment of the whole covenant of redemption, which was expressed in various stages through the covenants of the OT.

  • And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Lk 24:27)
  • These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. (Lk 24: 44-45)
  • For all the promises of God find their Yes in him (2 Cor 1:20)

So that’s the general principle, but it then remains to be asked, in what sense does Jesus fulfill the covenant(s) and what are the implications of his fulfillment of them.

Jesus is the true Israel. A primary sense in which Jesus fulfills the covenant is that he is true Israel. Matthew presents him as the new Israel (e.g. Matt 2:15). And Paul makes it explicit, Jesus is the offspring of Abraham. “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Gal 2:16).

This is why the term “replacement theology” is inaccurate. The term usually refers to the idea that the church (made up of NT Christians) replaces Israel. But covenant theology does not believe this. Rather, Jesus fulfills Israel, and then Christians are those who find their identity in Jesus.

This means the true heir of the three-part promise to Abraham is Jesus himself. His people are all who follow him by faith. His land is the new heavens and new earth over which he will rule. And his blessing is being perfectly accepted by the Father (Matt 3:17). Ethnic Israel will not receive the land between the rivers (Gen 15:18), because this promise has been fulfilled by something even greater: Jesus receives all things as his inheritance. (However, in another sense it would be accurate to say, “Israel will receive the land between the rivers,” see below).

Jesus is also the descendant of David who sits on the throne forever. This is why the writers to the Hebrews interprets Psalm 110 and Psalm 8 as describing the reign of Jesus: “Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death” (Heb 2:8-9). He is the king who reigns. Though we don’t see it fully just yet, the day is coming when we most certainly will.

So Jesus is the true Israel and the true David, and we could show many other ways in which Jesus is fulfillment of OT covenants and promises. But then what are the implications of Jesus fulfilling these things?

3. Distributed to the People of God

The promises of the covenant are distributed to the people of God. Christians are not the heirs of the promise, but co-heirs. Christians get in on covenant promises only because they are “in Christ” who himself fulfilled the covenants.

So Paul identifies the people of God, those who receive the promises, as those who are in Christ. At the same time, he points out that many who are ethnic Jews should not even be called “Israel.” So not all Israel is Israel. And some who are not Israel actually are Israel. Confusing? It shouldn’t be. Paul is simply introducing a better principle for understanding the “Israel” category: it is a spiritual category, not an ethnic one. Consider the following:

  • Rom 2:28-29, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. [29] But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter”
  • Romans 9:6-7, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, [7] and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring… [8] This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise that are counted as offspring.”
  • Galatians 2:25-29, But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, [26] for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith… [29] And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

The promises are for the people of God, as they have always been. For instance, think about the promise of land, made to Abraham, then further specified under the Mosaic covenant. Paul envisions that promise as the future hope of all those who are in Christ (consider Rom 8:18-25).

So Miguel Echevarria says,

Paul envisions the inheritance to be the renewed earth. The apostle does not see a spiritualized existence as his future hope, for he looks forward to what his forefathers, such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had anticipated for centuries: a physical, eternal inheritance under the reign of the promised Messiah. This vision is not exclusive to Paul; it is the vision of the saints who came before him.

The Future Inheritance of the Land in Pauline Epistles

So, a covenantal understanding of the promise would agree with the statement, “In the future, Israel will receive the land between the rivers.” But would want to make these clarifications. First, not all Israel are Israel (Rom 9:6-8). Second, Some who are not Israel actually are Israel (Rom 2:25-29; Gal 2:26). Third, in addition to the land between the rivers, this newly defined “Israel” will also receive the whole world, the renewed earth.

Conclusion

Obviously much more could be said about each of these points, but my goal is just to provide a concise summary statement of covenantalism. The various-yet-unified covenants of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and the promises of those covenants are distributed to the people of God, that is, all those who are in Christ. The structure is built around Jesus, who in his life, death and resurrection is the culmination of God’s redemptive plan. The story of redemption is all about the work of God in Christ redeeming his people. The whole story is a single story.

Double Meaning of “Jew” and “Israel” in Romans

It is reasonably certain that Romans was written to the church in Rome in the context of Jews “re-entering” the congregations after having been exiled from them for a time under Claudius. Whether that is historically certain or not, it is clear from within the letter that Paul is consciously writing to a congregation composed of both ethnic Jews and ethnic Greeks. This concern about ethnicity is prominent throughout the book. For instance, when Paul says “all people” he follows up just to be clear, “both Jews and Greeks” (e.g. 3:9), so they don’t point fingers at the other group.

But while the ethnicities within the congregation is a prominent issue in Paul’s mind, at the same time he’s trying to transcend ethnic categories by constantly lumping them together, “both Jews and Greeks.” How many times does some form of this phrase occurs in Romans? Lots (I’m still working on a precise count…).

While Paul recognizes that ongoing ethnic distinctions are real, he is at the same time trying to deconstruct their understanding of what it means to be Jewish or to be Greek. For instance, the Greeks know more about the God of Israel than they are willing to admit (1:18-23), and they are more accountable to Israel’s God than they’d like to think (2:12-16). At the same time, Jews have less distinct privilege than they think (2:28-29), and they are living more like the Greeks than they’d like to admit (2:23-24).

These dynamics don’t eliminate ethnic distinctions, but they do highlight the fact that the theologically controlling categories are no longer ethnic, but rather spiritual. So Paul says, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical, [29] but a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (2:28-29).

Still, because Paul is writing to an ethnically mixed congregation, we see him using ethnic language to address these groups and their concerns, but then transcending ethnic language to instruct these groups with new doctrinal categories.

For this reason we see the words “Jew” and “Israel” functioning in two different ways in the letter to the Romans, sometimes identifying Israel as an ethnic entity, and other times as a spiritual reality. This is what’s going on in 2:28, where he says, “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly.” Which is like saying, “No one is a Jew who is merely a Jew.” But in two different senses of the word. The spiritual sense followed by the ethnic sense. “No one is a Jew (truly and spiritually) who is merely a Jew (ethnically).”

Thus when reading through Romans, it is incumbent upon the interpreter to assess which meaning of “Jew” or “Israel” Paul is referring to—spiritual or ethnic? This will significantly impact one’s conclusions about Paul’s theology, especially in Romans 9-11.

Are Humans Greater Than Angels?

The writers of the OT and NT never seem concerned to press that humans are greater than angels. There are various distinctions between humans and angels to be sure, but the concern never seems to be comparative.

Jonathan Edwards gave three reasons he understood humans to be greater than angels

  1. Angels were made to serve God by serving man, but man was made to serve God directly.
  2. Human grace, holiness, and love are greater virtues than angelic wisdom and strength.
  3. Believers are united to Christ in a way angels never will be.

His basic reason was this, “Men are a more ultimate end of the creation than the angels.” Edwards’ point is logical, but I’m not aware of a single place in Scripture where an author is concerned to make this point. (Miscellanies #103)

Actually, reflecting on the way the Bible speaks of angels, it seems obvious that in many ways angels are greater than humans.

  1. Angels are spirit, existing in a realm above us (Heb 1:14)
  2. Angels worship around the throne, they participate in heavenly realities beyond our currently experience
  3. Angels rescue humans (e.g. Lot, Peter), they have powers and abilities humans do not have

Moses portrays man as the pinnacle of God’s creative work, the bearers of his image (Gen 1). Yet angels are in a realm above us experiencing realities beyond us having powers that exceed ours.

Therefore, we should probably simply maintain that humans and angles hold distinct roles in the redemptive plan of God. Humans are the object of God’s redemptive plan, angels are the messengers and servants of the plan.

But to say in an absolute sense that angels are greater than humans, or that humans are greater than angels seems unwarranted in light of the Biblical evidence.

“Fake News” and False History from 1678

51504436We are constantly hearing these days about “fake news.” It’s nauseating how much human effort is being wasted on spinning lies to support positions. We wish that watching or reading the news didn’t demand so much incredulity just to avoid being made a fool. Who would want to repost or retweet the attention-grabbing links that hours later are proven to be deceitful propaganda? Evidently all too many are willing. Fake new goes viral. No matter that it was fake. No matter it keeps coming.

And yet “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9). Fake news, lies in support of a position, propaganda. This is nothing new. In his collection of essays about the Reformation era, All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy, Diarmaid MacCulloch tells a cautionary tale about an Irish pseudo-historian named Robert Ware (1639-1697). He was an intellectual from a long line of intellectuals. But he was a liar. A smart liar. And he was an ardent supporter of the emerging Anglican consensus in Dublin. And so he wrote non-historical history that bolstered the Anglican cause.

Robert Ware made up entire historical accounts, dialogues that never transpired, and conspiracy theories that lumped Protestant dissenters (i.e. Presbyterians) in with Roman Catholic conspirators. MacCulloch provides a couple examples.

In 1547 Archbishop Thomas Cranmer preached a pithy and dramatic sermon at the Coronation of King Edward VI, during the royal youth to renew the scriptural role of young King Josiah of Judah in his own kingdom. In the early 1560s, Queen Elizabeth I berated Dean Alexander Nowell in his own cathedral church of St Paul’s, for subversion of her Protestant religious settlement through his hill-judged gift to her of a presentation copy of the Book of Common Prayer, enriched with devotional pictures. Both events are still repeatedly to be met with in accounts of the English Reformation…but there is one problem: neither of them happened. They are fictions created by Robert Ware.

Robert Ware’s forgeries “pollute the historical pool of sources about English and Irish history.” And so a review of his story becomes a caution about “the preoccupations and temptations to which historians are prone, even in modern historiographical practice.”

The caution isn’t just for historians. It’s for all. Lies masquerading as facts are everywhere, meaning we should all have a healthy sense of incredulity. We should not rush to judgment for or against. In evaluating politically oriented news, we should always recognize that the author is “coming from somewhere,” some angle.

As someone who preaches and teaches regularly, I want to be careful in what information I pass along. If I’m presenting a story or anecdote from history or passing along some information as true, then I want to be reasonably sure that it is indeed true. Check original sources, be sure they are reliable sources, investigate any contrary opinions. If I pass along dubious information, does that not call into question my overall methodology and reliability?