An Escondido seminary teacher who works alongside Michael Horton starts a 6,200 word blog post with this question:
There is concern by some in the Reformed community that there is too much emphasis on grace, in the doctrine of sanctification, and not enough emphasis on obedience and even godly fear. The question has arisen how this matter should be addressed.
"The question has arisen how this matter should be addressed" might lead the reader to conclude the author of the post believes these concerns are valid and he shares them. But sadly not. Plowing through the Escondido man's endless words, the readers is led to see the fear of God as a very dangerous thing promoted by those who deny the Reformed doctrine of sola fide—that man is justified by faith alone. In other words, if a Christian starts talking about the fear of God or Christian obedience, watch out! "Holiness" people and Tridentine Roman Catholics are lurking just around the corner.
Now truthfully, in the Reformed church today it should be universally acknowledged that the grace mantra never stops suppressing obedience and the fear of God... Tell me the last time you were left clinging to the Cross of Christ at the conclusion of a Lord's Day sermon? The closest we come to the sermons of Knox and Calvin and Luther and John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul is those postmodern and effeminate exhortations which suggest that we might have a tendency to the moralism and selfishness of the Elder Brother, and that we take a moment to think about it while the offering plates are passed.
Twenty years ago, a fellow PCA pastor summed up his years of sitting under Reformed preaching as "You're worse than you think, but God loves you much, much more than you could ever dream!" Repeat the mantra week after week after year after decade and you have the Reformed church led by pastors trained at seminaries like Escondido and Covenant. Another PCA officer—this time a ruling elder—exploded with frustration in the foyer outside General Assembly one year: "Along with the indicative, can't we please have God's imperative!?!" The man's pastor went on to teach homiletics at our denominational seminary.
Read the Escondido man's thousands of words and it's no surprise Reformed preaching today by pastors trained by such men leave their sheep without compunction of conscience, devoid of the fear of God. There is the endless repetition of the doctrine of justification by grace alone followed by the the endless repetition of the doctrine of justification through faith alone; and then, again, the endless repetition of the doctrine of justification by grace alone. As Spurgeon would say, "My how a harp of ten-thousand strings doth harp on one string so long!"
What do God's people need to know about the Image of God in man?
Justification by grace alone!
What do God's people need to know about God's Order of Creation?
Justification through faith alone!
What do God's people need to know about sanctification?
Justification by grace alone!
What do God's people need to know about the perseverance of the saints?
Justification through faith alone!
What do God's people need to know about holiness?
Justification by grace alone!
What do God's people need to know about the Last Judgment?
Justification through faith alone!
What do God's people need to know about the fear of God?
Justification by grace alone!
It's mind-numbing; but infinitely worse, soul-numbing.
The Escondido teacher hints to his readers that he might have something helpful to say when he trots out this truism: "Throughout her entire history the Christian church has taught the moral necessity of believers to strive for holiness, conformity to Christ."
The reader is hopeful the teacher will go on to instruct us in holiness and the fear of God, that we will learn about sanctification. But no, not yet. Immediately following this sentence are 787 words warning against the "medieval church" doctrine "that we are justified (accepted by God) to the degree we are holy." In other words, we're back at justification and the failures centuries ago of the despised "Anabaptists," "those groups influenced by the Anabaptists," and "some wings" of the "ostensibly Protestant" "holiness movements."
Then, keeping with the theme of the great danger sanctification poses to the Biblical dotrine of justification, the post lists these Scriptures, one after another:
God counts righteousness apart from works (Rom 4:6)
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Rom 11:6)
…a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal 2:16)
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal 3:10)
Wasn't our subject sanctification, the fear of God, and Christian obedience? So where did they go? Why 787 words on justification by grace alone, through faith alone?
Maybe readers need this warning before being allowed access to the secret things concerning holiness and sanctification? O.K., we got the warning. But now, would you please tell us how the Christian is to flee immorality and pursue the sanctification and holiness without which no man will see God?
But no, hold your horses: he's not there yet. We still have to slog our way through hundreds of words on the terrible dangers posed by preaching or teaching or pastoral counsel calling men to fear God in any way similar to those horrible Roman Catholics who repudiate the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone. Did the reader know how terribly immoral those Roman Catholics were—back in the Middle Ages? And why?
Because Rome taught "the system of justification through sanctification." They used
...threats and fear as a motivation to sanctity. Jesus was represented to the clergy and laity as an ominous, holy, fearsome judge instead of the one gracious Savior and Mediator between God and man.
Ah yes. Sanctification is dangerous, and so is the fear of God. Didn't someone famous once say that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself?
So again, a blog post about the absence of the fear of God in Reformed churches today becomes a blog post warning against the fear of God. Why do we need this warning?
Because talk of God as the worthy Judge Eternal inevitably leads to the repudiation of justification by grace alone, through faith alone.
Continuing in this monotone, the Escondido teacher declares:
The Reformation repudiated the use of fear ...as an inducement for Christians to become more sanctified.
This ought to strike every Reformed believer as a howler. It ought to be met with heckling and catcalls. But in our day, so few of us have read the Reformers that we are completely vulnerable to such seductive nonsense.
Calvin repudiated the use of fear as a motivation for the sanctification of Christians? Can he be serious? Knox and Luther repudiated fear as a help toward the godliness of believers? The Escondido teacher's great learning has driven him mad.
Read Calvin almost anywhere talking about almost anything and you'll find him exhorting believers concerning the fear of God, and it's the same with Knox.
But what about Luther? Didn't he say things about the two uses of the Law that would cause a good Lutheran to be suspicious of any role given to fear in the Christian life?
No, that's a perversion of Luther and here are some representative quotes:
Mammon has two properties; it makes us secure, first, when it goes well with us, and then we live without fear of God at all... (Luther, Table Talk)
...a God-fearing Christian lives modestly and honestly, shuns all manner of wrongful dealing, stands in fear of God's wrath and everlasting punishment. But the child of the devil does quite the contrary... (Luther, Table Talk)
It is true we ought willingly to serve, love, and fear God, as the chief good. (Luther, Table Talk)
Then, too, we live in the fear of God. If we sin, we sin not on purpose, but unwittingly, and we are sorry for it. Sin sticks in our flesh, and the flesh gets us into sin even after we have been imbued by the Holy Ghost. (Luther on Galatians)
I want to encourage all who fear God, especially those who intend to become ministers of the Gospel... (Luther on Galatians)
True believers are no hypocrites. They crucify the flesh with its evil desires and lusts. (But) inasmuch as they have not altogether put off the sinful flesh they are (still) inclined to sin. They do not fear or love God as they should. ...They crucify the flesh with its evil desires and lusts by fasting and exercise and, above all, by a walk in the Spirit. (Luther on Galatians)
Since the devil has this uncanny ability to make us believe a lie until we would swear a thousand times it were the truth, we must not be proud, but walk in fear and humility, and call upon the Lord Jesus to save us from temptation. (Luther on Galatians)
But to those who are smug and have altogether discarded the fear of God, God's blows and wrath must be presented in order that they may be warned by the example of others and cease to sin. For this is what is meant by saying that everything was written for our instruction. Therefore those who, influenced by I know not what reasons, maintain that the Law should not be preached in the church are pernicious teachers. ...Would you use the promises of the New Testament to increase the smugness of those who were smug before?
Indeed, God wants the destruction of Sodom by fire and that lake of asphalt to be conspicuous to this day and to be spoken of in sermons and made known among all posterity, in order that at least some may be reformed and may learn to fear God. (Luther on Genesis)
...how can or should the preaching of the Law be excluded from the church? Do you not at the same time exclude the fear of God and the majority of the works of God? God certainly does not perform these in order that they may remain hidden, but He wants us to see them and in this way to be led to fear Him.
If there were no perils of fire and water, no sudden death and similar evils, I myself would surely not say anything about them and would speak only of God's kindness and of His benefits. But experience teaches otherwise.
Hence to declare that the Law should not be taught in the church is characteristic of men who do not know Christ and are blinded by their pride and wickedness. ...(God says) "I want the destruction of Sodom by fire preached in the church." What is the reason for this?
Because the church is never altogether pure; the greater part is always wicked, as the parable of the seed teaches. In fact, the true saints themselves, who are righteous through faith in the Son of God, have the sinful flesh, which must be mortified by constant chastening, as Paul says: "If we would judge ourselves, we would not be chastened by the Lord." Therefore keep this passage in mind. It is adequate by itself to refute the antinomians. (Luther on Genesis)
If these statements are indicative of how central the fear of God is to be in the work of sanctification of Christians in Luther's writing, what about Calvin? Does he disagree?
No. Check out these samples of the centrality of the fear of God for the sanctification of Christians in his writing:
For when the fear of God is less effectual with us than it ought to be; it is useful to call in other helps also, which may retain us in our duty. Now however since we all are adopted as sons of God... (Calvin on Genesis)
Whence we infer, how great is the corruption of our nature, which causes even the fear of God—the highest of all virtues—to degenerate into a fault. Moreover, we must observe whence that fear, of which Moses makes mention, suddenly entered the mind of Sarah; namely, from the consideration that God had detected her secret sin. We see, therefore, how the majesty of God, when it is seriously felt by us, shakes us out of our insensibility. We are more especially constrained to feel thus, when God ascends his tribunal, and brings our sins to light. (Calvin on Genesis)
Now really, must I go on? Here we have Calvin himself designating the fear of God "the highest of all virtues." And like Luther and all the other Reformers, it's clear he holds the fear of God as one of the principle aids to the sanctification of the Christian.
Having misled his readers concerning the place the Reformers gave to the fear of God in the work of sanctification, the Escondido teacher feels constrained to deal with passages of Scripture which might cause some Christians to fear God. Under the heading, "A Look At Some Warning Passages," he acknowledges that "there are passages in the NT that might be described as 'warning passages.'"
Might be described as "warning passages?" As opposed to what? Joyful passages? Comforting passages? Velveteen rabbit or teddy bear passages?
What possible label could be given to these passages other than "warning passages," and why is the teacher so very vigilant against allowing these passages to be called what they most certainly are?
Our teacher sets out to explain each one, and predictably, each turns out to be one more warning against any repudiation of the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone.
First, he dispenses with Hebrews 4:1:
Let us fear therefore, while the promise still stands, lest anyone of you should seem to have come short of it.
But, dear Christian, don't worry about that one. It's just a warning to those lacking faith, and those in danger of forgetting that faith is a gift.
The danger is that of unbelief. The Israelites heard the gospel preached to them and they failed to enter the rest of salvation. That same danger exists today. The message must be received with faith! And, Pastor Paul hastens to add ...that faith is a gift of God.
He then moves on to Hebrews 10, and note the scare quotes around the word 'warning.' Those quotes lead the reader to question whether warning is really the proper label for this passage.
Hebrews 10 contains perhaps one of the strongest “warning” passages in the NT. Verses 26–27: "For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries."
There could hardly be a more frightening passage in all the NT. It seems to seek to drive us to holiness by using the threat of final judgment. Once again, however, if we expand the context, the picture changes considerably.
Do you wonder how the "picture changes considerably" after our Escondido teacher explains this text under the light of his special key to the Scriptures? Well, never fear: this text, too, is a warning against those who repudiate the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone. Those
whether in the visible assembly of the church or outside of it, who are not covered by Christ’s righteousness are in grave danger.
True believers, however, united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone ( sola gratia, sola fide) are in no such jeopardy. ...The preacher to the Hebrews knows nothing of a true believer who may fall away. He does, however, know of those who have made profession of faith, who have a merely external relationship to the covenant of grace (Rom 2:28), who are not actually united to Christ by faith. These are two distinct classes of people who co-exist within the administration of the one covenant of grace.
Now at first, this seems good. But understand that it's in the middle of a 6,200 word post that was said to be addressing the absence of the fear of God and Gospel obedience within the Reformed church. Wouldn't the above warning in Hebrews 10:26,27 be helpful to restore such fear and Gospel obedience?
Well yes, but only to false Christians. Never to true Christians.
Now listen, I'm tired and if I don't stop, this post deconstructing our teacher's post will also blogiate into 6,200 words. Does any regular reader of Baylyblog doubt the truth of that confession?
But one last salvo. How on earth do we restore the fear of God to the Reformed church today?
By preaching to church members as the Apostles preached to church members.
And how do the Apostles preach to church members?
By constant reminders that our Savior's rule is "by their fruit ye shall know them."
And what is fruit but good works done in, and motivated by, what John Calvin calls "the highest of all (Christian) virtues."
As John Frame has warned, the Escondido theology is dangerous. Buy his book and read it.