Dear Church Family,
In recent weeks, I’ve been reflecting on preaching. You may read the previous installments online:
Last week, we introduced the concept of how believers act differently based upon what each particular passage of Scripture contains. Today, we will look at some of the things that God’s Word has to say about this concept.
Insights from the Scriptures
When the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that “by faith, a Christian…acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come” it does not do so arbitrarily and without biblical warrant.
Obedience to the Commands
In understanding how a Christian, by faith, responds to God’s commands in His Word with obedience, the Confession draws upon the closing benediction in the book of Romans. There the Apostle Paul declares that his “gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith” (Romans 16:25-26).
Even as God called Abraham and introduced the covenant with him and the sign of circumcision, obedience was implicit in the gospel call: “Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless’” (Genesis 17:1). Noah was a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). Moses recounted the law of God to the people of Israel and they all responded with one voice, “All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 24:3). Daniel mourned over the exile of his people because of their lack of obedience to the message of the prophets: “we have rebelled against Him; nor have we obeyed the voice of the LORD our God, to walk in His teachings which He set before us through His servants the prophets.” John the Baptist called upon his hearers to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). It was the practice of Jesus to call for his hearers to obey His commands – for example, the command to cut off that which causes sin (Matthew 5:29-30). And, in his defense before King Agrippa, Paul summarized a portion of his gospel ministry as a call to “repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:19-20).
Trembling at the Threatenings
In understanding how a Christian, by faith, responds to God’s threatenings in His Word with tremblings, the Confession draws upon the words of Isaiah: “Thus says the LORD, ‘Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest? For My hand made all these things, Thus all these things came into being,’ declares the LORD. ‘But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word’” (Isaiah 66:1-2).
God looks with favor on the one who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at His word. One of the clearest places in the Old Testament where we see God use threatenings to bring about repentance is in the book of Jonah. Jonah’s message to the people of Ninevah (the enemies of God’s people) is recorded in the Bible as being a very simple message of threat: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). This was the gospel according to Jonah: Ninevah will be destroyed! What was their response? “Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. He issued a proclamation and it said, ‘In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.’“ (Jonah 3:5-9). And, what was God’s response? “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).
It is also illuminating to consider how Paul, near the end of his ministry, talked about faith in Christ Jesus with Felix (the Gentile) and his wife Drusilla (the Jew). Having sent for Paul, Felix and Drusilla “heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. But as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, ‘Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you’” (Acts 24:24-25). Paul’s explanation concerning faith in Christ Jesus included righteousness, self-control, and the future judgment (commands and threats, along with promises). Apparently, this went on for two years while Paul was imprisoned (Acts 24:26-27). In the words of Paul, “according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:16).
Embracing the Promises
In understanding how a Christian, by faith, responds to God’s promises in His Word by embracing His promises, the Confession draws upon the two passages. The first is Hebrews 11:13. Having recounted the faith of several people (from Abel to Abraham and Sarah), the writer of Hebrews says, “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). These early saints who died in faith saw the promises of God from a distance. Though they did not see the fulfillment of those promises which only comes when Christ Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God on earth, they welcomed them; by faith, they embraced the promises of God. “And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40). God makes promises to those who may not have been able to experience the fulfillment of them, yet they embraced those promises by faith and desired “a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16).
The second passage that the WCF draws upon to teach how a Christian, by faith, embraces God’s promises in His word is 1 Timothy 4:8: “for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” God makes promises to those who pursue godliness. The promise of reward is for both this life and the life to come. At the end of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, the people were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” To which, Peter responded with a wonderful promise of the indwelling, regenerative power of the Holy Spirit: “‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.’ And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation!’” (Acts 2:38-40).
This is probably why the WCF concludes paragraph 2 of chapter 14 with these words: “But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.” By faith, Christians obey God’s commands, tremble at His threatenings, and embrace His promises. All of these work together as God’s means for the bringing about and building up faith and faithfulness. Yet, saving faith has – as its principle act – accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life in the covenant of grace.
This last point is very important because some may read these essays and arrive at the erroneous conclusion that I am making an argument for legalism or works-righteousness. By no means! There is a difference between ends and means that we must keep in mind here. The end is accepting, receiving and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life in the covenant of grace. The means which God uses (within the proclamation of His word) are commands, threats, and promises which God’s people, by faith, obey, tremble at, and embrace.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch