The final question of the April 27, 2011 episode of the Office Hours podcast by Westminster Seminary California, “Ask the Profs,” provided a good summary of the Reformed concept of the means of grace. Precisely at the 22 minute mark, the question was raised by a listener and the helpful answer was provided by Dr. John Fesko. Below I have appropriated some of his summary with a little of my own reflection on the topic in light of the teaching of Scripture.
“Means of grace” was originally a medieval Roman Catholic technical term for the sacraments, teaching that they are the means by which we receive the grace of God. Baptism was the means by which the infused righteousness of Christ was received, and the Lord’s Supper was the means by which the physical body and blood of Christ were received for eternal life.
The Reformers reformed the doctrines, but retained the terminology. First, they emphasized the centrality and priority of the Word of God preached by which God’s grace was received by those who believe, and condemnation received by those who do not believe. The sacraments were likewise means which confirm the grace received by those who believe the Word or condemnation by those who do not believe.
Contrary to Romanism, Reformed theology teaches justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ which is receied by faith alone; thus baptism does not convey the grace by merely submitting to the rite regardless of the recipient’s spiritual condition. Furthermore, Reformed theology agrees with Rome that Christ is present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper, but they disagree on how he is present–Reformed theology teaches that Christ is present via the Holy Spirit, not physically. Thus the efficacy of both sacraments is the work of the Spirit, and not the magical work of a human priest. The benefits of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross are given by the gracious work of the Spirit alone and received by faith alone.
It is interesting to note that Scripture clearly presents the dual truth that grace is received by the believer in the sacramental means of grace, while condemnation is received by the unbeliever who presumes to participate in the sacraments. Consider the following passages:
One may legitimately argue against the use of this passage, due to its questionable manuscript evidence, nevertheless Mark 16:16 emphasizes the necessity of faith for the efficacy of baptism: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” This shows how the believer who is baptized receives the grace by faith, but the one who is baptized but never finally comes to faith in Christ will be condemned.
First Corinthians 10:16 shows the blessings received by those who believe the Word and partake in faith in terms of communion or participation in the body and blood of Christ: “the cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” The following chapter then shows how condemnation is received by those who partake of the Supper unworthily: “Whoever therefore eats the bread or drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27).
Thus we see that the Reformed concept of the means of grace is centered around the centrality of the Word of God preached and received through faith alone by the grace of God the Holy Spirit alone. This grace is signified and sealed to the one who believes in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but condmenation comes to the one who does not believe, even if he is baptized or partakes of the Lord’s Supper.
The following is best read aloud in a booming announcer voice
Allow me to introduce you to the book I’ve been anticipating most for the past year–The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial That Captivated America (2011, Steerforth Press–Distributed by Random House. Foreword by Ft. Worth native Bob Schieffer of CBS News). Perhaps you’ll recall how last year I went on and on about a book about J. Frank Norris‘ murder trial. Well, that caterpillar quickly entered its cocoon and the butterfly is soon to be released! July 12 is the scheduled date for Pastor David Stokes’ thorough narrative non-fiction work on one of the most colorful fundamentalists of the early 20th century.
A rising star in the Southern Baptist Convention, J. Frank Norris resolved to spread God’s Word in a populist and sensationalist manner–taking on every villain, real or perceived, that crossed his path–doing battle royal in the most public manner as he could to make a big name, not only for himself, but also for the Savior whose cause he strove to promote. Norris’ tactics however, epitomized the very definition of “misadventure.” A burr in the saddle of local Fort Worth, Texas powerful elites, a sworn enemy of the “liquor interests” and self-appointed defender of the faith against the liberalizing tendencies at his alma mater, Baylor University, almost all agree that J. Frank Norris generated more heat than light. The growing crescendo of sensational exploits on these and other fronts would culminate in devastating tragedy and make headlines across the country when Norris shot an infuriated opponent to his death.
The murder trial of J. Frank Norris in the 1920′s was literally the “OJ Trial” of that generation. A relentless media circus hung on every detail of the trial as they kept the country buying paper after paper to learn the fate of this ambitious religious ringleader. You’ll never believe that a story like this is true. You simply have to read it for yourself!
The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial That Captivated America is available for pre-order at the book’s new website. I’ll also be adding The Shooting Salvationist Blog to my blogroll so we may all keep up with it.
As my family experiences its first Easter together as regular attenders of a Reformed church, we are experiencing a distinct difference from the approach our former non-Reformed fundamentalist and evangelical churches have approached it. Following is a couple of paragraphs from an entry on Calvinism from the Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World, by the Gale Group, Inc. This should help us (and you) put the Reformed approach to holidays in general into historical context.
This morning our family is celebrating the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. May this Easter Sunday find you worshiping the risen Lord in your house of worship.
Another distinctive feature of Reformed Protestantism was its remarkably small number of official holidays. Calvin himself saw no need and no scriptural basis for any holiday other than Sunday, and Reformed Protestants usually celebrated extremely few of them. Their most austere churches,GenevaandScotland(or seventeenth-centuryNew England), observed none at all—not untilGeneva’s magistrates overruled their pastors and finally declared Christmas an official holiday in 1694. Such situations were, however, exceptional. The mainstream of established Calvinism, the Reformed churches ofZurich,Bern,France, theNetherlands, and thePalatinate, celebrated four holidays besides Sundays: Christmas, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost; the Dutch and thePalatinatealso added New Year’s Day. Keeping only a handful of holy days marked an enormous departure from Catholic practices, which in most places celebrated anywhere from forty to sixty holidays each year. Other mainstream Protestants were far less radical than Calvinists: Lutherans kept a large number of holy days, while the Church of England became a target for Puritan scorn by observing a total of twenty-seven holidays. Early Massachusetts went further and took the most extreme Calvinist position about the Christian calendar: not only did the colony ban all holidays, but its General Court briefly reformed the “pagan” names of the months as well, dating by “first month,” “second month,” and so forth.
Many Calvinists compensated for this paucity or absence of other holidays with a strict observance of Sunday, almost in an exact correlation.ScotlandbecameEurope’s most notorious example in 1579, when serious punishments were first threatened for Sabbath-breakers; by 1649, they had forbidden such practices as fishing on Sunday.Scotland’s extremely rigid taboos about Sabbath observance lasted far into modern times; it has been suggested that “Thou Shalt Not” made the best title for a history ofScotland, with its longest chapter called “Never on Sunday.” Another specifically Calvinist ritual was the special day of community fasting, proposed by pastors and decreed by secular authorities, usually intended to divert God’s wrath at times of extraordinary danger. We find fast days observed as early as the 1560s by the beleaguered churches of theLow CountriesorFrance, and later in seventeenth-centuryNew England; they remained a feature of Genevan life until the nineteenth century.
“And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people” (Acts 12:4 KJV—emphasis mine).
Is Easter a valid translation of pascha in Acts 12:4? It is according to Nick Sayers in his video and companion two-part article, “Why We Should Not Passover Easter.” Sayers points to the presence of early forms of the word Easter in pre-KJV translations of the New Testament. He shows how from Tyndale’s use of ester and esterlambe (haven’t taken the time to check the spelling) and his coining of the English word “Passover” there is a transitional pattern in the intervening translations of the New Testament between Tyndale’s and King James’. Sayers’ ultimate point is that, if you look at Acts 12:4 in context, it would be clear that Herod had the Jewish Passover in mind, but that the KJV translators retained Easter as their translation of pascha because they believed Luke’s pointing out that the events in the passage took place during the days of unleavened bread that his use of the word pascha was also an allusion to the supposed apostolic practice of an annual commemoration of Christ’s resurrection, which in the seventeenth as well as the twenty-first centuries, is called Easter. Ironically, Sayers links to a Trinitarian Bible Society article on Easter in the KJV which states unequivocally that there was no apostolic annual commemoration of Christ’s resurrection, only the weekly Lord’s Day.
There is much I find compelling about the presentation in this video, yet I still have some lingering doubts. I do agree with modern version proponents that “Passover” is still the better translation of pascha in Acts 12:4, but given some of the information in Sayers’ video, coupled with the fact that the Venerable Bede is the uncorroborated source of the claim that the word Easter is derived from an ancient pagan goddess, I can see how it may have been that the KJV translators had some decent reasons for wanting to retain the use of the word Easter, if only once, in their version.
One thing that I appreciate most about the presentation in the video, is that it does a good job of demonstrating the flaws in Alexander Hislop’s claim that the word Easter comes from ancient Phoenician worship of Ishtar on phonetic grounds (“Easter sounds like Ishtar”). Another helpful expression of critical thinking skills is how Sayers points out early in his video that cultists are drawn to old wive’s tales like Hislop’s treatment of Easter in his widely read (among fundamentalists) book, The Two Babylons. A great take-away quote from Sayer is, “If you are a Bible believer, you believe the Bible; if you are superstitious, you will believe Hislop.” Amen!
I find myself hesitant to latch on to Sayers’ attempt to demonstrate that due to its etymology in the German word oster, Easter basically means “resurrection.” Until I see more authoritative evidence of this, I think it’s safest to say that this is just a little too good to be true, as much as I would like for it to be. If any of my readers have done some homework on this topic, and is able to correct or corroborate Sayers’ claims in his video and articles, please share your findings with me in the comments. My mind is open regarding these things, and I solicit your input.
I’m afraid, however, I’m drawn to this line of argumentation because I’m personally so eager to encourage those who think Easter really is an allusion to a pagan goddess to embrace the very real possibility that it actually springs from a Christian source of origin rather than pagan (see my post “Treating Easterphobia“). This just goes to show that I may not be quite as Reformed as I’d like to be. Help me, dear readers, and may you have an edifying Lord’s Day and a happy Easter.
The following is a fascinating Bible Dictionary entry of the biblical useage of the phrase “Sons of God,” with a special treatment on the various interpretations thereof in Genesis 6. The editor of this Bible Dictionary, John D. Davis, was a member of the faculty of the “Old Princeton.” B.B. Warfield himself even contributed a few of the entries in this dictionary as well. It’s written on a very accessible level for laymen to grasp, and now that I have an antiquarian copy of the 1903 Second edition, I’ll be consulting it in my own Bible study, and most likely, this will not be the last you read from it on this blog, as well.
Sons of God
A Dictionary of the Bible by John D. David, Ph.D. D.D., LL.D.
Professor of Oriental and Old Testament Literature in the Theological Seminary, Princeton, N. J.
1898, 1903 by The Trustees of the Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work.
Worshipers and beneficiaries of God…Such was its common Semitic meaning in early times. There is abundant reason to believe that this is its signification in the celebrated passage where it first appears in the Bible. “It came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all that they chose” (Gen. 6:1-2).
Three interpretations have been proposed. The Sons of God are:
- The great and noble of the earth, and the daughters of men are women of inferior rank (Samaritan version; Greek translation of Symmachus; Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan).
- Angels, who left their first estate and took wives from among the children of men (Book of Enoch, Philo, Josephus, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian).
- Pious men, worshipers of God, who were especially represented by the descendants of Seth. They were attracted by the beauty of women who did not belong to the godly line, married with them, and became secularized (Julius Africanus, Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, Jerome).
The first interpretation has no longer any advocates.
In favor of the second, it is asserted that the term denotes angels everywhere else in the O.T. (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; cf. a similar expression Ps. 29:1; 89:6; RV margin; but not Dan. 3:25); that the designation describes angels according to their nature, whereas the ordinary word for angels,mal’akim, messengers, refers to their official employment; and that this interpretation is confirmed by Jude 6 and 2 Pet. 2:4. But that the term relates to the nature of angels lacks proof; it is quite as natural that it should describe angels as worshipers of God. As to the passages in Jude and Peter, to cite them is begging the question, since exegetes point out other references, as Is. 24:21-23. And unless the title be restricted to the special form which it has in the passage under discussion, it is not true that the term denotes angels in all other places where it occurs in the O.T.
- The worshipers of the heathen deity Chemosh are called the people of Chemosh, and his sons and daughters (Num. 21:29; Jer. 48:46).
- When the men of Judah, professed worshipers of Jehovah, took heathen women to wife, Judah was said to have married the daughter of a strange god (Mal. 2:11).
- Moses was directed to say to Pharaoh: “Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son . . . . . Let my son go” (Ex. 4:22-23).
- “Ye are the children [or sons] of the Lord your God” (Deut. 14:1).
- “They have dealt corruptly with him, they are not his children.” (Deut. 32:5)
- “Is not he [the Lord] thy father?” (Deut. 32:6)
- “The Lord saw it, and abhorred them, because of the provocations of his sons and his daughters” (Deut. 32:19)
- “Ye are the sons of the living God” (Hos. 1:10).
- “When Israel was a child …I…called my son out of Egypt” (Hos. 10:1).
- “Bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the end of the earth; every one that is called by my name, and whom I have created for my glory” (Is. 43:6-7).
- The pious are the generation of God’s children (Ps. 73:15), and Ephraim is his dear son (Jer. 31:20).
Taking a broader survey, and examining Semitic literature other than Hebrew, one observes the same fact. Many a Babylonian styled himself the son of the god whom he worshiped and upon whom he relied for protection and care.
Furthermore, the opinion that the title in Gen. 6:2 means angels is not the earliest view, so far as the records go. The earliest attested interpretation, that of the Samaritan version, regarded the sons of God as men; and later when the angelic theory arose, it was the opinion of a particular school among the Jews, while the more influential party in religious matters still taught that the sons of God were men.
The interpretation that the sons of God in Gen. 6:2 were pious people, the worshipers of the true God, more especially that they were the godly descendants of Adam through Seth, whose genealogy is given in Gen. 5, is not only in accordance with Semitic, and particularly biblical, usage of the designation, as already shown, but it is consistent with the context. The sons of God are contrasted with the daughters of men, that is of other men. So Jeremiah says, “God did set signs in Israel and among men;” and the English version supplies the word other before men, in order to bring out the sense (Jer. 32:20). Likewise the psalmist says that the wicked “are not in trouble as men; neither are they plagued like men;” and again the English version supplies the word other (Ps. 73:5). After the same manner Gen. 6:1-2 may be read: “When mankind began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters of other men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all that they chose.” The meaning of the writer is that when men began to increase in number, the worshipers of God so far degenerated that in choosing wives for themselves they neglected character, and esteemed beauty of face and form above piety. The offspring of these marriages were perhaps stalwart and violent. Mixture of race in marriage often produces physical strength in the descendants, and lack of religion in the parents is apt to be reproduced in the children. The intermarriage of the sons of God and the daughters of men was offensive in the sight of God. Sentence was pronounced against the wrongdoers. The penalty is not denounced on angels, who were not only implicated, but were the chief sinners, if the sons of God were angels. The punishment is pronounced against man only. Man, not angels, had offended.
Sons of God everywhere in Scripture, from the earliest to the latest times, means the worshipers and beneficiaries of God, both among mortal in immortal beings. But the content of this idea did not remain the same through the ages. It became larger with increasing knowledge of the riches of God. It enlarged, for example, at the time when the Israelites were delivered from Egypt.
- God said: “I have seen the affliction of my people” (Ex. 3:7);
- and again: “Say unto Pharaoh, Israel is my son, my firstborn; who is as dear to me,” so the following words imply, “as Pharaoh’s firstborn is to him” (Ex. 4:22 with 23);
- and again: “I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God” (Ex. 4:7).
Heretofore the title had emphasized a filial relation of men to God, their dependence upon him for protection and care, and their duty of reverence and obedience. Now God formally accepts the obligations which implicitly devolve on him. The content of the title was further enlarged through the teaching of Jesus Christ. He took truths already known, shed light on them, and connected them with this designation.
- He exhibited the fact that God is an actual father and that his people are actual children of God. They are such by the new birth (John3:3,5-6,8; cf. Rev. 11:11),
- begotten of God (John 1:12-13; v.21; and so Eph. 2:5; Jas. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23),
- made partakers of the divine nature through the mediation of the indwelling Spirit (John6:48-51; 15:4-5; and so 1 John 3:9),
- and possessing a like character with God, resembling him in holiness, love and elevation above the illusions of earth (1 John 3:9; 4:7; 5:4),
- although falling far short of the divine character in this life (I John 1:8,10).
- They have been adopted as sons (Gal. 4:5), are taught by the Spirit to say Abba, Father (Gal. 6; Rom 8:15), and are led by the Spirit (Rom. 8:14).