WCF 7: Of God’s Covenant with Man

Dear Church Family,

The Bible describes the ‘bad news’ of the fall of man – his sin and sinfulness – in no uncertain terms. Yet, in chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (as we examined this past week in the adult Sunday school class), we learn of the gracious condescension of God by way of covenant. In his book Confessing the Faith, Chad Van Dixhoorn gives this definition of a divine covenant: “a sovereignly determined and administered arrangement between God and man, with penalties and promises” (97).

There are two biblical covenants which are taken up and described in this chapter: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

The Covenant of Works

In the Garden of Eden, God entered into a ‘covenant of works’ with man. God gave Adam free reign of the garden, to eat freely from it; however, He commanded him to not eat of one tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Having been created in a state of righteousness and holiness, Adam had the ability to obey or disobey this command. If he obeyed, God promised him life; if he disobeyed, the penalty was death (Galatians 2:16-17). The Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of this covenant as a ‘covenant of life’ in which God required perfect obedience…upon the pain of death (WSC 12).

As we know from Genesis 3, Adam disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit. Based upon passages like Romans 5:12-20, theologians have referred to Adam as the covenant (or federal) head of all mankind: through Adam, sin and death entered the world and death spread to all men because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 5:12; 3:23). Thus, because of man’s falling into a state of sin and death, the wrath of God abides upon all men (John 3:36; Ephesians 2:1-3). Man failed to meet the requirements of the covenant of works and lost any hope of life, blessing, and intimacy with the Creator

The Covenant of Grace

In His lovingkindness and according to His good pleasure, God made a second covenant which theologians typically refer to as the ‘covenant of grace.’ The covenant of grace is very different from the covenant of life. For one thing, the covenant of grace has a different requirement: instead of perfect obedience, the condition is faith in Jesus Christ for salvation (John 3:16-18, 36). And, in this covenant of grace, God ordained (or predestined) some to eternal life. He promises to save them by giving them His Holy Spirit, making them willing and able to believe (John 6:44-45; Acts 13:46-48; Galatians 3:11).

There are many who still seek to earn salvation through obedience, but it is futile. The good news of the gracious covenant of grace is that Christ has met the demands of the covenant of works on our behalf. And, in His sacrifice, Jesus underwent the penalty of death for us: God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The Old and New Covenants

The covenant of grace begins in Genesis 3:15 and continues through to the end of Revelation 22. After the fall of man at the beginning of Genesis 3, the Scripture is one big story of God’s plan of salvation through the covenant of grace – from start to finish. At the same time, in the Scriptures, there is often a distinction made between the old covenant and the new covenant.

Simply put, the old covenant (or old testament) refers to the covenant of grace before the incarnation of the Son of God, before Christ came into this world; the new covenant (or new testament) refers to the covenant of grace renewed (or fulfilled) through Christ’s work in His first coming and His future return, our present era. Though the entire Bible speaks of one covenant of grace, it also speaks of how this covenant of grace begins in the old covenant and is ultimately fulfilled in the new covenant.

For instance, in the book of Hebrews, we learn that when God established the new covenant through Jesus Christ (as foretold in Jeremiah 31:31-34), He made the first covenant (the old covenant) obsolete (Hebrews 8:13).

The Differing Administrations of the Covenant of Grace

Thus, the Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of how the covenant of grace was administered in the old testament by “promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances” that all pointed to Christ who was yet to come. Though these elements were a mere shadow of what was to come, the substance (or essence) of them was Christ (cf. Colossians 2:17). Therefore, the Holy Spirit used these old covenant shadows to grant redemption and sanctification to God’s people. (WCF 7.5)

In the new covenant, the covenant of grace is dispensed through means that are more simple, yet more powerful: the preaching of the Word and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper. In these new covenant administrations, the covenant of grace reveals the work of Christ in His death and resurrection and the fulfillment of all the old testament promises (2 Corinthians 1:20). Indeed, these means of dispensing God’s grace in the new covenant are at the heart of the Great Commission to make disciples through baptizing and teaching all of Christ’s commandments (Matthew 28:18-20).

Conclusion

In the end, we find that whether a person lived before Christ’s first coming or after, every human being has one of two possible covenant heads. “In Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). One is either in Adam, abiding under the wrath of God and the just punishment of the covenant of works; or one is in Christ, abiding under the grace of God and the blessing of eternal salvation through faith in Him.

Let us praise God for the good news of the gospel which is made more poignant through an understanding covenant history between God and man: through Adam’s disobedience, we were all made sinners; yet, through Christ’s obedience, we are made righteous by faith in Him (Romans 5:19).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

WCF 6: Of the Fall of Man, Sin, and the Punishment thereof

Dear Church Family,

The ‘problem of evil’ is something that all people wrestle with, not just philosophers. If God is sovereign and good, then why is there sin and calamity in the world? Often, the underlying assumption behind this question is that human beings are basically good. Therefore, as the reasoning goes, how could it be fair and just that a sovereign God permits evil and atrocities.

Though it would ultimately require much more discussion, the answer to the ‘problem of evil’ must begin with an understanding of origins and the basic human condition since the Fall of man into sin. As we saw last week, the Scriptures explain the origin of creation and the origin of man: God created all things “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and mankind was created in God’s image, innocent and righteous (Genesis 1:26-28; Ecclesiastes 7:29).

In chapter 6 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (as we examined this past week in the adult Sunday school class), we learn the details of another important element concerning man’s origins and the basic human condition: the Fall of Adam and Eve, the Fall of all humanity, and the punishment and pervasiveness of sin.

(WCF 6.1-2) The Fall of Adam and Eve

Though innocent and righteous, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had the possibility of sinning. This they did when they were tempted by Satan and disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:1-24). As a result, Adam and Eve both lost some things and gained some things.

By sinning and disobeying God, Adam and Eve lost both their original righteousness and communion with God. The Scriptures describe this loss of righteousness in a peculiar way: their eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked (Genesis 3:7) and they became like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:22). Of course, God knows good and evil – yet, He knows evil as one who is apart and above it. The problem for Adam and Eve was that they now knew evil as participants in it – they came to know evil experientially. Because of their sin, they also lost the intimate fellowship and communion that they had with God and He drove them out of the Garden (Genesis 3:24).

By sinning and disobeying God, Adam and Eve gained death and defilement. The curse of their disobeying God was a death sentence (Genesis 2:17). Having been made from the dust of the ground, man was now cursed to return to that same dust (Genesis 3:19). Defilement is just another way of describing ‘total depravity’: Adam and Eve became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body (WCF 6.2). Adam and Eve’s innocent nature became corrupted such that they suffered the consequences of physical and spiritual death and every intent of man’s thoughts in his heart became only evil continually (Genesis 6:5).

(WCF 6.3-4) The Fall of all humanity

As the representative head of all humanity, through his sin and disobedience the curse that Adam incurred was passed on to the rest of humanity descended from him. In Adam, all die (1 Corinthians 15:21-22); through him, sin entered the world and death spread to all men (Romans 5:12).

Not only has the sentence of death been passed on to all human beings, but so has Adam’s corrupted nature. Just as Adam and Eve became wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body, all mankind has become defiled in the same way (Genesis 5:1-3; Romans 3:23).

The total depravity of all men is stark and pervasive: “we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil” (WCF 6.4). All mankind has been imprisoned in disobedience and sin (Romans 11:32; Galatians 3:22). In our natural condition, apart from God’s sovereign mercy, man does not have free will (the ability to obey and please God): we are by nature children of wrath, dead in our trespasses and sins, willingly pursuing the lusts and desires of our flesh (Ephesians 2:1-3). The mind set on the flesh is hostile to God (Romans 8:7); there are none who are righteous or who seek after God (Romans 3:10-12).

The notion that, since the Fall, man is born with free will is one that many people (even many Christians) falsely believe. They propose that man is basically born good, or at least has good in him such that he has the ability to seek after and obey God should he choose to do so. Certainly, the image of God is retained in man since the Fall, but it has become so corrupted and perverted by inherited and inherent sin that apart from the free and gracious gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8), it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).

(WCF 6.5-6) The pervasiveness and punishment of sin

The last two paragraphs of this chapter in the confession speak to two very important issues: the pervasiveness and punishment of sin. First, with respect to the pervasiveness of sin, the confession summarizes the teaching of the Bible concerning how those who are regenerated (or born again) still retain a corrupt nature; therefore, in this life they continue to sin (1 John 1:8-10; Romans 7:14-25). For those who have been born of God, their sins are forgiven and God keeps them safe from the evil one (Ephesians 1:7; 1 John 5:4, 18); and, those who belong to Christ Jesus are able to pursue the will of God in sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7). Yet, the Christian continues in a continual and irreconcilable war against his own sinful nature (Galatians 5:17; 1 Peter 2:11).

By acknowledging that believers are forgiven and being sanctified, yet still fail by sinning according the remnants of their corrupt nature, we are protected from falling into two errors. On the one hand, we are protected from falling into the error of ‘perfectionism’ – the idea that believers may attain perfect holiness (the absence of sin) such that, in this life, they may be completely within the will of God (the Bible clearly teaches against perfectionism, 1 John 1:10). On the other hand, we are protected from falling into the error of ‘wormology’ – the idea that believers are still controlled by their fallen nature such that they are still defined by their corruption (the Bible clearly teaches against wormology, Romans 6:6, 14).

The final paragraph of this chapter teaches how every sin deserves and brings the judgement and wrath of God (John 3:36; Ephesians 2:3) and the curse of death (Romans 6:23). There are some who deny the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell: annihilationists propose that those who have not been born again will be destroyed (cease to exist), and universalists believe that all human beings will be blessed in the life to come regardless of faith. Yet, consignment in hell for all eternity is a very real and horrifying reality.

Eternal punishment in hell is described as both ‘being away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power’ (2 Thessalonians 1:9) and ‘being tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb’ (Revelation 14:10). The eternal destiny of the devil and those who never repent of their sins and trust in Christ is a lake of fire and brimstone, a place of eternal torment (Revelation 20:10).

Conclusion

This portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith is full of ‘bad news’: all mankind is utterly lost and dead in sin. Considering the sinfulness and depravity of man with which we are all afflicted, it is enough to drive us to cry out with the Apostle Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24)

And so, with Paul, we also confess and rejoice in the ‘good news’ of the gospel:

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)

 

Praise God for His glorious grace! Let all who are secure in Christ, rejoice! For God “rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins”! (Colossians 1:13-14)

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

WCF 4-5: Creation and Providence

Dear Church Family,

Sometimes you will hear people talk about having a “worldview” – a word that is derived from the German, “weltanschauung.” Fundamentally, it refers to how one views the whole of life and basic existence. Foundationally, it begins with one’s view of origins and authority (where we come from and who’s in charge). And so, the starting point of a “biblical worldview” – and we might even go so far as to say, the essence of a “biblical worldview” is an understanding of God’s relationship to His creation – how did God create the world and how does God govern that which He created?

We have explored the truth of Scripture that God works all things after the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11) – how in eternity past, God has unchangeably ordained whatever comes to pass (WCF 3.1). This understanding of God’s sovereignty may lead us to a logical question: exactly how does God bring about that which He has decreed?

The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives us the short answer: God executes His decrees in the works of creation and providence (WSC 8). Chapters 4 & 5 of the Westminster Confession of Faith elaborate upon this answer by explaining God’s work of creation in the past and His continuing work of providence. These are the two chapters that we recently studied in our adult Sunday school class.

Creation

The fourth chapter of the Westminster Confession makes two general points about God’s work of creation by speaking to the creation of the world and the creation of man.

First, God created the world and all things. We find the historical record of God’s creation of the world in the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1. Specifically, the confession enumerates several points (WCF 4.1): all three Persons of the Trinity were active in creation; the purpose of creation is to reveal God’s eternal power, wisdom, and goodness; God created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing); God created the world ‘very good;’ and, He created the world in the space of six days.

When we discussed this portion of the confession in the Sunday school class, we mentioned several of the different views of how God created the world and every living thing. Yet, we also examined how understanding the six days of creation as being ordinary calendar days as we experience them is the simplest and most apparent reading of the Biblical account. The Bible doesn’t speak of creation as a process, but as an historical event: God spoke all things into existence miraculously and immediately.

Second, God created man, male and female, in His own image. We find the historical record of God’s creating man in His own image and likeness in the first two chapters of Genesis. In the garden, Adam and Eve were originally created in innocence and holiness. That is to say, the law of God was written on their hearts and while they continued to obey God, they experienced an intimate relationship with the Creator and had dominion over the creatures.

There are at least two erroneous views about the origin of man that have gained special attention: (1) theistic evolution – some have sought to hold to a middle ground between the theory of evolution and the divine work of creation by proposing that God used an evolutionary process to create man from lower life-forms; (2) a denial of the historicity of Adam – the basic premise of this false assertion is that the origin of mankind cannot be traced back to two distinct people. Both of these views are at odds with the Biblical account of the creation of man.

Providence

The fifth chapter of the Westminster Confession explains how it is that God governs His creation and upholds all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3). While the historical account of creation in Genesis 1-2 shows how God created everything immediately (apart from means by directly speaking everything that exists into existence), we know also from Scripture that God continues to govern and uphold His creation by use of particular means.

The Confession speaks of this by describing God as the ‘first cause’ and how He uses ‘second causes’ to providentially govern and uphold all His creatures and all their actions. These second causes that God uses to order the events of history include the physical laws of nature, the decisions of rational creatures, and even the repentance or rebellion of human beings.

Understanding that God is able to work miraculously (apart from means) as He pleases, but that He ordinarily works through secondary causes to accomplish His purposes, helps us to maintain a balance in understanding the providence of God and to not fall into one of two ditches of error.

On one side of the proper understanding of the providence of God is the ditch or chance, the notion that things happen randomly or apart from God’s governance. Deism, the belief that God may have created all things, but that He does not continue to govern His creation in any way, is one form of this error. Arminianism, the belief that man is able to choose God of his own free will, is another form of this error. Though many Arminians would probably not admit it, the denial of the doctrine of predestination and election is a direct affront to the Bible’s assertions regarding the sovereignty and providence of God.

On the other side of the proper understanding of the providence of God is the ditch of fatalism, the notion that things happen meaninglessly by mechanical fate. Fatalism is a form of determinism that some Christians are in danger of falling into. The danger is that, even as we confess that God governs and upholds all things by the word of His power, we may begin to think of God’s providence as a mechanical force. Thus we may arrive at some false conclusions: if God governs all things, then man is not responsible for what he does; if God governs all things, then it doesn’t matter what I do; or, if God governs all things, then He must be the author of sin.

In order to combat these false conclusions, the Westminster Confession goes to great lengths to help us understand one of the keys to finding assurance and comfort in God’s providence and governance. While those who do not belong to Christ may relate to God only as the Judge of mankind, believers are able to relate to God in Christ also as a loving Father. So, while to some it may be a terrifying thing to consider that our days are determined by another, for the believer it is a great comfort to know that our days are determined by one who is good, who loves us and cares for us, who has our best interests in mind.

God holds the whole world – and all the actions of His creatures – in His hands. And they are good hands! The same God who created all things by the word of His power also causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

Let us praise God for His wonderful work of creation and for His continuing to uphold and govern that same creation – for our good, and for His own glory!

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

WCF 3: Predestined to the Praise of His Glorious Grace

Dear Church Family,

In our continuing study of the Westminster Confession of Faith in the adult Sunday school class, two weeks ago, we examined the third chapter of the Confession: “Of God’s Eternal Decree.” This chapter of the Confession deals with a difficult topic. It’s difficult because our finite minds cannot comprehend the fullness of the character of God in His sovereignty – we are limited by our own finitude and creaturliness. Yet, the Scriptures clearly teach that God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass (WSC 7).

And so, by way of explanation of this important doctrine, the Confession summarizes the teaching of the Bible in this area over the course of eight paragraphs. These eight paragraphs may be paired together in four couplets to teach the following truths:

(1) WCF 3:1-2 – God has foreordained everything, but not based on foreknowledge.

Unfortunately, some try to limit God’s sovereignty by describing His decrees simply in terms of foreknowledge. In this way of thinking, God looks forward in time to see what will happen, and then because He is not constrained by time and space, He then decrees in eternity past that which He foresaw in the future. This doesn’t affirm God’s sovereignty, however, it simply makes Him out to be a good observer.

Certainly, God knows and foresees all future events; however, the God’s Word goes further to declare that He not only foresees all things, but that He works all things after the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11). God’s purpose is unchangeable (Hebrews 6:17). A sparrow does not fall to the ground apart from our Heavenly Father’s will (Matthew 10:29), and even the hairs of our heads are all numbered (Matthew 10:30). God not only gives life and breath to all things, but He has also determined our appointed times and boundaries of our habitations (Acts 17:25-26).

(2) WCF 3:3-4 – Some are predestined to eternal life, others foreordained to death; this number is fixed.

God is sovereign over all things, including salvation. This means that God saves those whom He has predestined to eternal life and foreordained the rest to eternal death. Again, some try to side-step this teaching of Scripture by describing God’s election by way of mere foreknowledge. And so, some might say, God knows those who will choose Him and thus ‘predestines and elects’ them based upon each individual person’s choice. Again, this denies God’s sovereignty and makes His will subservient to the will of His creation.

In contrast, the Bible teaches that in love, God predestined some men and angels to eternal life (Ephesians 1:5-6; 1 Timothy 5:21). Those who belong to Christ were chosen by Him before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). We can make no claim to having chosen Christ; rather, He has chosen us (John 15:16). Jesus is the author and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:2), and at His return, He will send forth His angels to gather the elect (or chosen ones) to Himself (Matthew 24:30-31).

(3) WCF 3:5-6 – Predestination is unconditional, yet accomplished by way of particular means.

God’s decree of election is not based upon any foreseen faith in the individual or merited by the elect in any way. Rather, based solely upon His free and sovereign choice, God chose to redeem and save a people for Himself. In explaining this doctrine of unconditional election, the Apostle Paul gives the example of Rebekah’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau (Romans 9:10-24): “though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God's purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” (Romans 9:11-13)

Just so, God has mercy and compassion on whom He wills. Salvation does not depend upon man who wills or runs, but upon God who has mercy (Romans 9:16). The Potter has a right to do with His clay as He pleases (Romans 9:20-24; Jeremiah 18:6). And, because God has predestined the end (salvation), He also has foreordained the means: effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification (Romans 8:30; 10:12-15; 2 Thessalonians 2:13), and perseverance (1 Peter 1:5). These means are only appropriated to the elect (John 17:9; Romans 8:28).

(4) WCF 3:7-8 – God’s decree includes passing by some; and, a proper understanding of predestination ought to give assurance to the children of God and inspire them renew their obedience.

God’s judgements are unfathomable (Romans 11:33); therefore, the doctrine of the “high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care” (WCF 3:8). So, in the final paragraph of this chapter of the Confession, we find the practical benefit for believers. Some decry the doctrine of election, assuming that it will lead to ambivalence, spiritual sloth, or a lack of zeal in evangelism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A proper and reverential understanding of the doctrine of election provides three practical benefits for those who confess Christ. First, it inspires and encourages believers to obey the will of God, seeking after new obedience (2 Peter 1:5-11). Second, it causes us to praise His glorious grace (Ephesians 1:6, 12). Third, it gives assurance that He who began the good work of salvation will be faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6; Romans 8:33; Luke 10:20).

Let us praise God for His glorious electing grace!

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch