Friday, December 01, 2017

The Westminster Standard - I

In a radio discussion some time ago with William Lane Craig (A transcript can be found in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (Spring 2014, pp.62-78)), regarding the   Arminianism espoused by Craig,  and the Reformed faith,  we came to the differences between effectual calling, and the sense of calling defended by Craig. I believe he thought they were incidental. But there are big differences. Craig’s understanding of divine calling is only saving, that is, it only is able to bring new life to the sinner, if it is received by the human free will. As Craig puts it, ‘grace is not irresistible; it becomes efficacious only when it meets with an affirmative response from the human agent’.

He later stated about the Westminster Confession that ‘ I find that when I read the Westminster Confession, I resonate with virtually everything it…..’ These words may suggestive mere stylistic differences, nothing substantial. But  in fact the Confession places an insuperable barrier between Craig’s view of calling, which requires the cooperation for its efficacy of the human free will, and the effectual calling which was first articulated clearly by Augustine, and maintained by the Westminster divines.  The second paragraph of Chapter X of the Confession is as follows.

II. This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.

The italicized words (my emphasis) make a crucial difference between the two views. Men and women who are in need of God’s grace are altogether passive in first receiving that grace,  in being regenerated. That is, they are completely passive. Each power of the soul is similarly dead. Their souls as souls are spiritually dead, with no appetite or force for the terms of the Gospel. The passivity is a death. How can a person receive the grace of God? What they need – is what the WCF calls the quickening – making alive – and renewing by the Holy Spirit. The making alive is the renewing.

These expressions take seriously the various biblical language of regeneration as indicating this spiritual death. So when Christ told Nicodemus that he must be born again, the rebirth is like natural birth, a unilateral action that the one born benefits from but which he or she does not first contribute to. It makes no sense to say that a person could  have contributed, or could contribute,  to  their own birth. The  ‘must’ in ‘you must be born again’ is thus not the ‘must’ of a command that we have the power to comply with, but the ‘must’ of necessity: 2+3 must equal 5, and a molecules of water must contain hydrogen, and a cook must have eggs in order to make an omelette. In the same way, it is required of us, if we are to enjoy the privilege of spiritual life, to undergo  a new birth. The work of the Spirit, as Christ told Nicodemus. Paul adds to the figurative language that in the NT characterises it, by writing of regeneration as a new creation.’  ‘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  in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (1 Cor. 4.6) And John adds another figure, ‘No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God’. Luke commented on the behavior of Lydia that ‘The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul’. (Acts 16.15) John has a different figure: ‘No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God’. (I Jn. 3.9) And writing to Titus Paul referred to the ‘washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit’. (3.5)) Sacramentalists may move to the baptismal font at that point, but though baptism is a washing, Paul’s washing here signifies a washing that water cannot give, the cleansing and renewal of the Holy Spirit.

Lydia’s experience, as commented on by Luke,  shows that in regeneration there is a conjunction  of word and Spirit. Does this view of the deadness of the soul and the role of the Spirit in regeneration Spirit squeeze out the role of the word of the Gospel? Not at all. The Spirit’s action is the infusion of new appetites, central to which are a desire for the words of the Gospel,  ‘what was said by Paul’, in Lydia’s case. As we shall  see regeneration leads to conversion.

The Puritan Stephen Charnock is best-known for his tome The Existence and Attributes of God, but he also wrote four smaller treatments of regeneration, to be found in volume III of his writings. In The Nature of Regeneration he follows Paul in stressing the soul’s passivity in regeneration, and contrasts it with  conversion.

In regeneration, man is wholly passive ; in conversion, he is active as a child in its first formation in the womb, contributes nothing to the first infusion of life ; but after it hath life, it is active, and its motions natural. The first reviving of us is wholly the act of God, without any concurrence of the creature ; but after we are revived, we do actively and voluntarily live in his sight : Hosea vi. 2, ' He will revive us, he will raise us up, and we shall live in him ; then we shall walk before him, then shall we follow on to know the Lord.'

Charnock goes on

Regeneration is the motion of God in the creature ; conversion is the motion of the creature to God, by virtue of that first principle ; from this principle all the acts of believing, repenting, mortifying, quickening, do spring. In all these a man is active ; in the other merely passive ; all these are the acts of the will, by the assisting grace of God, after the infusion of the first grace. Conversion is a giving ourselves to the Lord, 2 Cor. viii. 5 ; giving our own selves to the Lord is a voluntary act, but the power whereby we are enabled thus to give ourselves, is wholly and purely, in every part of it, from the Lord himself. A renewed man is said to be led by the Spirit, Rom. viii. 14, not dragged, not forced ; the putting a bias and aptitude in the will, is the work of the Spirit quickening it ; but the moving the will to God by the strength of this bias, is voluntary, and the act of the creature. (III 88-9)

Well said. The coming of this new phase, conversion, is what the Confession at this point is referring to when it refers to a person  who is regenerated:  he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it’. Not that God’s part is now at an end. More generally, ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ (Phil.2.13)

Once regenerate, always regenerate. Seeded for ever? Regeneration takes place in the secret of the  heart. Who can know it? Conversion is its chief test.