August 6, 2019
I write to you regarding the book review printed in the June 2019 issue of the Beacon Lights, Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God.
In particular, I bring to question two aspects of your review.
First, your quote from the book in review, Union with Christ, says that “the one who made heaven and earth dwells within you. He not only holds the lever of change, but he also promises that when you abide in him, through faith and obedience, his living water will flow out of your life.”
Second, your quote from Synod 2018: “We experience fellowship with God through faith, on the basis of what Christ has done, and in the way of our obedience.”
Oddly enough, you warn against the dangers of the first statement, while you embrace the second statement.
I believe your analysis, though incorrect, is important, because it is proof that we as the PRC would now welcome and embrace the theology of one such as Mr. Rankin Wilbourne. I can marry the two quotes. One supports the other, without question.
Our obedience cannot have a place in our fellowship with God. It cannot, and it does not.
We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied; as David and Paul teach us, declaring this to be the happiness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works. And the same apostle saith that we are justified freely by His grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ.
And therefore we always hold fast this foundation, ascribing all the glory to God, humbling ourselves before Him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we really are, without presuming to trust in any thing in ourselves, or in any merit of ours, relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours when we believe in Him. This is sufficient to cover all our iniquities, and to give us confidence in approaching to God; freeing the conscience of fear, terror, and dread, without following the example of our first father, Adam, who, trembling, attempted to cover himself with fig leaves. And, verily, if we should appear before God, relying on ourselves or on any other creature, though ever so little, we should, alas! be consumed. And therefore every one must pray with David: O Lord, enter not into judgment with Thy servant: for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified.
Belgic Confession, Article 23.
It seems so simple, so obvious.
May God be gracious.
Cordially in Christ,
I thank you for your letter, as it allows me the ability to further expand on this vitally important topic. It is through exchanges like this that we can come to a better understanding of the truth of God as it relates to our salvation.
You claim that the two quotes, the one by Rankin Wilbourne and the other taken from the decision of Synod 2018, are one and the same. “I can marry the two quotes. One supports the other, without question.”
The reason you take issue with both statements is that you feel they give to our obedience a “place in our fellowship with God.” This is objectionable to you because our obedience “cannot, and it does not” play a role in establishing or maintaining fellowship with God.
About this, we are in full agreement.
In addition, we do well to listen carefully to your concern about the use of the phrase “in the way of.” That phrase has been used wrongly, the result of which was the compromise of the gospel. Your rebuke that “it seems so simple, so obvious,” is one we do well to apply to our hearts and minds. The gospel is simple, as is taught in 2 Corinthians 11:3: “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.”
The phrase “in the way of” is applied and used improperly when it becomes synonymous with “means” or “instrument.” Synod 2018 restored to us its proper use, which is opposed to the theology of Wilbourne. Wilbourne taught in his book that our obedience is in some way the instrument of our experiencing fellowship with God. This can be seen in the chapter titled, “The Art of Abiding” and the following chapter, “The Means of Abiding.” The means of abiding are not our obedience or even our availing ourselves of the means of grace, as important as that is. The means of our abiding in Christ is faith in Christ.
Compare the two quotations again (emphasis mine):
“He not only holds the lever of change, but he also promises that when you abide in him, through faith and obedience, his living water will flow out of your life.” — Wilbourne
“We experience fellowship with God through faith (instrument), on the basis of what Christ has done (ground), and in the way of our obedience (way of conduct or manner of living).” — Synod 2018
“Through” is instrument-language, which is why it is wrong to say “through faith and obedience.” Synod applied the “through” rightly, namely to faith.
Synod 2018 was at pains to make clear that our obedience is not, in any way, the means or instrument of our experiencing fellowship with God. “The way of approach unto God is not our obedience, but Christ alone, by faith alone” (2018 Acts of Synod, 66). We do not “look to obtain anything by our obedience” (70).
The question is, what is the instrument and what is the ground for our experience of covenant fellowship with God? Synod explained that in its use of the phrase you find objectionable. The instrument is faith, and the ground is Christ (74).
The conjunction “and” in the decision of synod does not equate faith and obedience or put our act of obedience on par with faith in Christ. It simply recognizes the reality that this experience is interrupted by an ungodly walk. What about our obedience then? “Obedience—the obedience God requires and the obedience we gratefully give in a life of good works according to the power of His Spirit working in us” is “always a fruit in the covenant relationship” (73).
Therefore, the inclusion of the phrase “and in the way of our obedience.” Sin interrupts the experience of fellowship with God. Not only is this the experience of every child of God, but it is also the teaching of the Canons of Dordt, Head 5, Article 5 (“sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time”) and Article 13 (“God should turn away His gracious countenance from them”).
Herman Hoeksema, also quoted by the decision of Synod, used this phrase: “and therefore, we are saved through the instrument of faith, and in the way of obedience” (71, emphasis mine).
Doesn’t this mean, then, that our walking in the way of obedience is somehow responsible for our experience of fellowship with God, along with Christ and our faith in Christ? It does not. This is answered thoroughly in the Acts on pages 72–74. “When we experience covenant fellowship in the way of our obedience, it is not because of our obedience, but because of Christ’s perfect work” (72). Although the words “in the way of our obedience” must be included because we need to do justice to the fact that we do not experience God’s favor while walking in a wicked way, this too must be properly understood. “Though we may lose the experience of covenant fellowship by continuing in disobedience, we never gain it by our obedience, but it is restored by faith in Christ and in the way of repentance” (73, emphasis mine).
You correctly quote the Belgic Confession Article 23 to drive home your point. So too did Synod 2018. “The way of approach unto God is not our obedience, but Christ alone, by faith alone (B.C., Art. 23, we rely and rest ‘upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which become ours, when we believe in Him. This is sufficient to cover our iniquities, and to give us confidence in approaching to God’)” (p. 66). This article was also quoted later to prove that “the experience and assurance of justification in one’s consciousness is justification, and justification is by faith alone in Christ alone” (p. 69).
I am convinced that your concern about the phrase and your understanding that the only instrument is faith, and the only ground is Christ, was exactly that of Synod 2018.
You write that it seems simple and obvious. That is another reason I am so thankful to God for the decision of Synod 2018. It brought clarity and simplicity as it restored the proper use of the phrase “in the way of.” We should not abandon that phrase because it has been misused. Rather, we should understand and confess it properly, and the decision of Synod 2018 enables us to do just that.
The decisions of Synod 2018 require additional study, and I hope that study is taking place among members of our churches, including the young people of our churches, for two reasons. First, to get this wrong is to “compromise the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Acts, 70), and this makes us redouble our efforts to be careful when discussing our salvation. Second, a proper understanding of these truths ensures that all of the glory and praise for our salvation, including our experience of fellowship with God, is given to God, and his Son, Jesus Christ, alone.
Soli Deo gloria!