Reflections on The Baptist Confession of Faith 1689: Part 3 ~ God’s Decrees

Today we continue our new series on Gospel Convergence; each week I will reflect on a chapter of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.  I would encourage you to pick up a copy of the confession and read along with me.

What’s a Decree?

Starr Meade’s helpful family devotional based on the Shorter Catechism answers this question.  In a simplified rehearsal, the answer to the question of ‘What are the decrees of God?’ is ‘The decrees of God are His eternal plan based on the purpose of His will, by which, for His own glory, He has foreordained everything that happens.’ (Training Hearts, Teaching Minds, pg. 28).  Monday’s devotional then explains it this way:

God had a purpose for everything He made.  He has a purpose for everything that happens: God’s purpose is to glorify Himself.  Before He began to create, God planned how every single thing He would create would fit together and how all of it together would bring Him glory.  To be certain that everything would happen just as He planned it, He foreordained, or gave orders in advance, for everything that would ever happen.  We call these orders God’s decrees. (pg. 28)

All Things

The Confession unequivocally states that God decrees all things.  Chapter three opens with these words:

God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things whatsoever comes to pass (pg. 35)

It is quite a claim, but a claim which is clearly supported in Scripture.  God himself proclaims, through the prophet Isaiah, “I am God, there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Is. 46:9-10).  The testimony is no different in the New Testament, as the Apostle Paul writes ‘him who works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Eph. 1:11).

Although God does decree all things, the Confession is careful to note that this in no way means God is the author of sin; nor does it do any violence to the will, liberty or contingency of the creature (pg. 35).  Further, although God foreknows all things his decrees are in no way based on what he knows.  Rather, he foreknows things because he decrees them.  The Confession reads:

Although God may knoweth whatsoever may or can come to pass, upon all supposed conditions, yet hath He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. (pg. 35)

This is amply illustrated in Romans 9:

For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (vv. 9-18)

Special Things

A reference to Romans 9 brings us nicely to the second assertion that the Confession broadly makes in this chapter, namely that God decrees special things also.  Primarily this is displayed in God’s decrees of salvation.  As the Confession puts it:

3. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated, or foreordained to eternal life through Christ Jesus, to the praise of his glorious grace; others being left to act in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of His glorious justice. (pg. 36)

There is immediately a sentiment which jars with me here: angels predestined to eternal life through Christ Jesus?  Surely not, after all Peter tells us the angels long to look into, know, experience the gospel (1 Peter 1:12).  It seems the authors of the Confession based their phraseology on 1 Timothy 5:21 where Paul writes of ‘elect angels’.  This is the only place in Scripture that angels are ever called elect.  While it is 1689 - Finalfrequently used in salvific terms in the New Testament, it appears this reference is to angels who were given a specific task (of judging it seems) by God.  For fuller discussions of this see the commentators Knight, Mounce and Towner.

The concern of the Confession, however, is not this debate about elect angels but to affirm the beauties of God displayed in the decrees of salvation.  God is glorified through his decrees of salvation because it evidences his grace and love; there was nothing in humanity which demanded or caused God’s action in salvation.  Also evidenced is his great power; the number of those elect is certain, definite, cannot be increased, nor diminished.  Indeed, he will keep them.  This was all of God’s goodness as the means through which all of this was achieved was the death of his own Son.

The vitriol which so often accompanies any discussion of predestination, election and decrees of salvation was in no way desired by the Confession.  Rather, the out-workings and consequences of these doctrines were envisaged very differently:

7. The doctrine of the high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election; so shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence and admiration of God, and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel. (pg. 37-38)

The application of these special decrees was to be assurance, worship, meekness and obedience.

Doxology

I can think of no more fitting conclusion to this reflection than Jude’s doxology:

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever.  Amen.  (vv. 24-25)

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Reflections on The Baptist Confession of Faith 1689: Part 2 ~ God and the Trinity

Today we have the second instalment of our new series on Gospel Convergence; each week I will reflect on a chapter of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. I would encourage you to pick up a copy of the confession and read along with me.

Describing God

I have to admit that I am not a huge fan of C.S. Lewis’ books such as Mere Christianity and Miracles. However, that being said I think he has done a wonderful job of describing God in his Chronicles of Narnia series as he describes Aslan. As I read this week’s chapter of the Confession I found it difficult to think about writing anything other than what was written in the Confession as it attempts describing God. Attempting to offer a description of God is incredibly difficult: there are always characteristics that are left out, some characteristics are difficult to convey in human language and the reality is that he is beyond our description. The Confession itself concedes that God’s ‘essence cannot be comprehended by any but Himself’ (pg. 32).1689 - Final

One

The first statement begins with the assertion that there is only one God, and that that God is one; ‘The Lord our God is but one only living and true God’ (pg. 32). This is clearly based on perhaps the most pervasive verse on Scripture with regard to who God is: ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the Lord is one’ (Deut. 6:4). The significance of this verse will become clear when we reflect on the Trinity below.

Good, but not safe!

The Confession proceeds to list numerous characteristics. Inevitably there are some characteristics of God which are omitted, and some termed in a manner in which I (and I presume others) would not term them. The Confession describes God with the following terms: infinite, perfection, spirit, invisible, without body, without parts, immortal, dwelling in light, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, holy, wise, free, glory, loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, good, truth, forgiving, just, terrible, judge, hater of sin, and will not clear the guilty (pg. 32).

What we can observe in this list is that God is good, but not safe. He is good in that he forgives sin, but he is not safe in that he will not clear the guilty. He is good in that he is long-suffering, but he is not safe in that he is a hater of sin. Whenever Aslan appears in the Narnia books the children know he is good, but they also know he is certainly not safe. They are terrified of him, and yet they feel secure with him; they know he could eradicate them with one small swipe of his paw, and yet they are happy in his presence. This is the picture we should have of God in our mind – as Christians we should feel secure and happy with him, and yet we should be terrified at his awesome power and righteous hatred of sin.

God is so much bigger than our tiny minds can comprehend, and I think the confession captures this in some of its language. There are two phrases which appear on occasion before the terms listed above: ‘only hath’ and ‘most’. For example, God ‘only hath immortality’ – it is a characteristic which only he has and thus only he can experience. More than that, he is most wise and most free – he is wiser and freer than we. Therefore, in some ways it is silly attempting to describe God because he is beyond us, and yet I think the Confession makes an admirable attempt.

One’s Company Enough

The Confession proceeds to assert that one is company enough whenever it comes to God because he is self-sufficient, utterly sovereign and Trinity.

Self-Sufficient

The Confession words it this way:

God, having all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself, is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creature which He hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting His own glory in, by, unto, and upon them (pg. 33).

This is something that one of Job’s friends actually gets right. Eliphaz says ‘Can man be profitable to God? Surely he who is wise is profitable to himself.’ (Job 22:2). God doesn’t need anything, he is self-sufficient.

Utterly Sovereign

God has ‘most sovereign dominion’ (pg. 33) over all things, there is nothing beyond his control, there is nothing too strong for him to have mastery over, and there is nothing which has escaped his planning, knowledge and vision. The book of Daniel clearly teaches us this at a number of junctures:

[T]he Most High rules the Kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will…for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’ (Dan. 4:25, 35-36)

In other words, he is utterly sovereign.

Trinity

God is one, but he is three. This truth is evident from even a cursory reading of Scripture, there is one God but there are three distinct persons. That this is evident is then seen in the Trinitarian formulas used in the New Testament. Jesus himself sends the disciples into the world to baptise believers in ‘the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Mt. 28:19). There is one name, but three persons. Paul, in closing his second letter to the Corinthians, prays a blessing on the Corinthian church that ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all’ (2 Cor. 13:14). These three are equally referred to here.

Although the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are God and thus equal in power and eternality, they are not equal in all things. For example, the Spirit does the bidding of the Father and the Son. John’s Gospel speaks of both of them sending the Spirit (Jn. 15:26; c.f. Gal. 4:6).

The Confession then closes this chapter with the following lines which reflect the incomprehensibleness of our God:

One God, who is not to be divided in nature and being but distinguished by several peculiar, relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on Him. (pg. 34)

The Confession does not reveal who God is in his entirety; however it does begin to illuminate our minds to the vastness, beauty and complexity of the one true and living God. To see him revealed in his entirety we must turn to his own revelation, Scripture, and await the eschaton.

Reflections on The Baptist Confession of Faith 1689: Part 1 ~ Scripture

Today I begin a new series on Gospel Convergence; each week I will reflect on a chapter of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. I would encourage you to pick up a copy of the Confession and read along with me.

The Necessity, Contents and Authority of Scripture

I always find it comforting when a doctrinal statement begins with the Bible (but we will come onto why that is important later).

Initially the Confession sets out the necessity for Scripture. Even though 1689 - Finalcreation clearly displays God’s invisible attributes, such as eternal power and divine nature (Rom. 1:20), this is not enough to bring salvation. In fact, as Paul writes to the church in Rome, it only leaves humanity ‘without excuse’ (Rom. 1:20). Therefore, it is necessary to have some means of bringing humanity the knowledge required to bring salvation. Scripture is that means: ‘the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim. 3:15). Helpfully, the Confession then sets out the contents of this necessary means – the 66 books of the English Bible.

The authority of this book known as Scripture is then asserted to be found in its source. As the Confession puts it:

  1. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God. (pg. 28)

In other words, Scripture comes from God, and since it comes from God it is endued with the authority that comes from the omnipotent Sovereign. Peter writes this himself:

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:19-21)

Can I be sure?

How can I then be sure that the Confession is correct in its claims about the necessity, content and authority of Scripture?

According to the Confession there are many things which evidence that Scripture is from God, and therefore deserves our ‘high and reverent esteem’ (pg. 28). The things noted, among many other excellencies, are the: testimony of the church of God, heavenliness of the matter contained within, efficacy of the doctrine, majestic style, consent of all parts, scope of the whole and light it shines on salvation (pg. 28). However, even though these things are evidences, it is only really the Holy Spirit who can cause assurance in our hearts concerning the necessity, content and authority of Scripture. As the Confession reads, ‘yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit’ (pg.28).

Moreover, the process is the same with salvation. While Scripture contains clearly and explicitly all that is necessary for man’s salvation, faith and life it is only the Holy Spirit who can bring about a saving understanding of the contents of Scripture (pg. 29).

For All People

Another vital, yet almost incidental, point made by the Confession is that Scripture is for all people – as opposed to a few religiously qualified people. That being said, it is not naive in its assertion. Scripture itself acknowledges that parts of it are difficult to comprehend. Peter, in referencing Paul’s letters as Scripture, admits ‘[t]here are some things in them that are hard to understand’ (2 Peter 3:16). Therefore, the Confession reads:

  1. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them. (pg. 29-30)

These facts are further supported as the Confession proceeds to encourage serious, rigorous study of Scripture by urging that points of debate be settled by appealing to the sacred texts in their original languages; while, at the same time promoting the translation of Scripture into the common languages of all people so that the Word of God may dwell plentifully in them.

Beginning and Ending with the Bible

We end this reflection by referencing our opening comment. It is important for doctrinal statements to begin with Scripture, because in the end Scripture interprets Scripture and is the ultimate rule under which all of life is to be worked out.

In concluding I cannot better the words of the Confession:

  1. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.
  2. The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved. (pg. 31)

Surely we must love, know and obey Scripture in light of the above!