Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Presbyterians, Creation Days, and Evolution

In 1830, Sir Charles Lyell argued for uniformitarianism (interpreting the earth as something formed by continual and uniform processes) in his Principles of Geology, asserting that the earth was far older than previously thought. This debate became active among American Presbyterians in 1852 with the article, "Is the Science of Geology True?" in the New School Presbyterian Quarterly Review. The article argued that Christians must accept that the earth is millions of years old and that creation was a gradual work through countless ages.

There were several different approaches that people took with respect to the age of the earth and creation days of Genesis 1. Some held to the gap theory, proposing a gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Some held to the day age theory, arguing that the days of creation were not literal, but referred to times or ages. Others continued to hold to six day creationism, that the days were natural light/darkness days and that the six days covered everything from creation ex nihilo to the creation of Adam. Others of a more liberal or unbelieving bent agreed that Scripture taught six day creation, but is that Scripture was wrong.

Those who held to the gap or day-age theory did not necessarily believe that the theory of evolution was true. It was in 1859 that Darwin published his ideas in On the Origin of Species, arguing for the evolution of species by natural selection. But belief in an old earth eliminated one objection to embracing evolution, and the controversy concerning biological evolution would follow upon the heels of that concerning geology and the age of the earth.

I think the Westminster standards affirm the six day creation view and should have at least have required officers to state a scruple to the standards if they held to the gap or day-age theories. R.L. Dabney argued for this in 1871, saying, 
I would beg you to notice how distinctly either of the current theories [Gap and Day Age] contradicts the standards of our Church. See Conf. of Faith, ch. iv, I. Larger Cat., que. 15, 120. Our Confession is not inspired; and if untrue, it should be refuted. But if your minds are made up to adopt either of these theories, then it seems to me that common honesty requires of you two things; to advertise your Presbyteries, when you apply for license and ordination, of your disbelief of these articles; that they may judge whether they are essential to our system of doctrine; and second; to use your legitimate influences as soon as you become church rulers, to have these articles expunged from our standards as false. (Systematic Theology, p. 256)
Nevertheless, it was argued by others that the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms simply copied the Bible’s terminology, and since this was capable of these interpretations, so also the statement of the standards. Yet, I would note that the standards did not simply use the Bible’s phrase, but used the phrase "in the space of six days," emphasizing the six days as the time period in which God’s work of creation was accomplished. 
It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create or make of nothing the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good. (WCF 4.1)
The phrase had appeared earlier in James Ussher’s Irish Articles of Religion (1615), "In the beginning of time when no creature had any being, God by his word alone, in the space of six days, created all things, and afterwards by his providence doth continue, propagate, and order them according to his own will."

Woodrow vs. Dabney

In 1861, Dr. James Woodrow (Woodrow Wilson's uncle) became the Perkins Professor of Natural Science in Connection with Revelation at Columbia Theological Seminary in South Carolina. Dr. Woodrow, at his inauguration as professor, stated that he believed old earth geology to be true, that those who believed in the extreme antiquity or multiple origins of man to be wrong, and that the extent and character of the Noah’s flood was something (at least presently) uncertain. His views were already beginning to diverge from Southern Presbyterian leaders like Thornwell, Dabney, Palmer, and Girardeau, who believed in six day creation and a young earth (c. 6,000 years old). R.L. Dabney, professor at Union Seminary in Virginia, engaged the issue that same year, 1861, with an article “Geology and the Bible,” in which he defended Scripture and its relevance for science and critiqued the arguments for an old earth.

In 1863, James Woodrow wrote “Geology and Its Assailants,” defending geology (as he saw it) against men like Dabney (though not mentioning him by name). In 1871, Dabney delivered as a lecture and then published as an article, “A Caution Against Anti-Christian Science,” targeting both old earth geology and the theory of evolution. The same year, he published his Systematic Theology, in which he critiqued evolution and the gap and day age theories (although of the two theories, he saw the gap theory as the most plausible).

In 1873, Woodrow wrote “An Examination of Certain Recent Assaults on Physical Science,” in which he attacked Dabney by name. Woodrow had recently returned from a trip to Europe during which his views had hardened. Woodrow sought to present Dabney’s critique as an attack on science itself. Each of them responded with an additional article in 1873-1874.

Here is brief summary of the points of criticism Dabney brought against the Gap and Day Age theories in his Systematic Theology (1871). 

Against the Gap Theory:
  • Light, and the sun, moon, and stars - essential to life on earth - were not created until after Genesis 1:2. I would add to this point that the first day of Genesis 1 is in fact the first day, so that there is no day before it (it includes the darkness that preceded the light). 
  • Suffering and death, even that of animals, came into the world through Adam’s sin (Gen. 1:31, 3:17-19, Rom. 5:12, 8:19-22).
Against the Day-Age Theory:
  • The progression of Genesis 1 does not match the progression proposed by the geologists, so it does not even solve the problem it is supposed to address. 
  • “The narrative seems historical, and not symbolical…”
  • “The sacred writer seems to shut us up to the literal interpretation, by describing the day as composed of its natural parts, ‘morning and evening.’” The morning and evening are the beginnings of the day and night that fill the twenty-four hours of a day.
  • In Genesis and Exodus, “God’s creating the world and its creatures in six days, and resting the seventh, is given as the ground of His sanctifying the Sabbath day.” I would add that Exodus 20:11 also undermines the Gap Theory. 
  • While “day” can refer to an era or season, the natural day is the literal and primary meaning which we revert to unless the context indicates otherwise. 
  • The day age theory confuses providence with creation. The distinctiveness of creation is that these things were not brought about by natural law, but by a supernatural divine exertion. 

Hodge and Princeton

Around the same time, up north in New Jersey, Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary addressed these issues in his Systematic Theology (3 vol., 1871-1873). Then, in 1874 he wrote What Is Darwinism? This book against Darwinism was written in the context of a disagreement with Dr. James McCosh, President of Princeton College, who had begun arguing that theistic evolution was compatible with the Bible. 

Charles Hodge has been described as “the most powerful critic of Darwinian evolution in America in the late nineteenth century” (Reformed and Evangelical, p. 204). Hodge was open to an old earth if indeed the findings of geology established it with certainty, first leaning toward the gap theory and then to the day age theory as an explanation, but he opposed the theory of evolution. 

Here is a summary of some of his arguments against the theory of evolution in his Systematic Theology (vol. 2): 
  • Darwin’s theory cannot be true, because “it assumes that matter does the work of mind.”
  • The “system is throughly atheistic, and therefore cannot possible stand.” It denies design in creation, since it explains everything as the survival of the fittest to survive (natural selection).
  • The theory “is a mere hypothesis, from its nature incapable of proof.” 
  • The history of species and the fossil record are against the theory (e.g. missing transitional forms).
  • It is contrary to the Bible’s doctrine of creation, that in the beginning God created, or caused to be, every distinct kind of plant and animal, including mankind.
  • Hodge distinguished natural species (the “kinds” of Genesis 1) and artificial species (distinctions made for the convenience of naturalists, variations within natural kinds). Natural species were specially created by God, “not derived, evolved, or developed from preexisting species.”
  • He taught that mankind is not evolved from a preexisting species, but that God made man in maturity and in the image of God, beginning with a literal Adam and Eve, from whom the whole human race is descended. He also argued against the idea that man has been on earth for 100,000+ years, and for the idea that mankind was created around 6,000-10,000 years ago.
His successors at Princeton and Westminster seminaries, like A.A. Hodge, B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and E.J. Young, continued to be open to an old earth, yet did not embrace evolution, did affirm doctrines like the special creation of a literal Adam and Eve, and had various degrees of openness to whether some limited aspects of evolution could be compatible with the Bible. Warfield initially embraced evolution, but he rejected it around the time he became professor at Princeton. The Dutch Reformed tended to hold to six day creation, including Princeton professor Geerhardus Vos. In 1958, Meredith Kline, professor at Westminster, began to popularize the framework hypothesis, another reinterpretation of the creation days that would allow for an old earth. 

Controversy in the South

After years of growing suspicion than Dr. James Woodrow had embraced evolution, the seminary board called on him to publish his views on evolution, which he did in 1884 with his 28-page “Evolution Address” at an alumni gathering. He defended theistic evolution, arguing that Scripture was not specific enough to address it (or science in general) and that the “dust” out of which Adam was created could refer to evolutionary ancestors, although he added that both the soul and Eve were special creations. He concluded that “the doctrine of Evolution … is God’s PLAN OF CREATION.”

This address provoked a firestorm of controversy among Southern Presbyterians. John L. Girardeau led the charge in the Synod of South Carolina to condemn the seminary board’s approval of Woodrow’s address. After the synods which controlled the seminary condemned the promotion of evolution at the seminary and elected new members to the seminary board, the new board removed Woodrow on December 10th.

In 1885, Woodrow appealed the board’s decision and the controlling synods were split on the matter. He was reinstated as professor in December, agreeing not to promote evolution. Then in 1886, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) condemned evolution and directed the controlling synods to dismiss Woodrow. It affirmed 
That Adam and Eve were created, body and soul, by immediate acts of Almighty power, thereby preserving a perfect race unity; that Adam’s body was directly fashioned by Almighty God, without any animal parentage of any kind, out of matter previously created from nothing.
This position was reaffirmed in 1888, 1889, and 1924. 

Dr. Woodrow was dismissed from Columbia Seminary. He was acquitted by his presbytery, but this was overturned by his synod, and the general assembly in 1888 upheld the synod’s decision. He remained a minister in the PCUS and became president of South Carolina College in 1891. Woodrow and his supporters lost in the church courts and the PCUS in general resisted his views. In this way, the Southern Presbyterian church avoided rank liberalism for a time. But division in the ranks continued and Woodrow’s views continued to be held by some of his students who remained active. The issue resurfaced in the 1900s. In 1969, the PCUS affirmed his views and repudiated its previous position. This was one manifestation of the growing liberalism in the PCUS that in 1973 led to the formation of the more conservative PCA. The PCA carried on the pre-1969 position against evolution while tolerating various views of the creation days. Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, founded in 1986 in South Carolina, has held to and promoted six day creationism.

Other 20th Century Developments

In the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan, a Presbyterian elder and a “day-age creationist,” led the fundamentalist opposition to evolution and promoted legislation against the promotion of evolution in the public schools. In 1923, Oklahoma and Florida passed laws against it, and in 1925, Tennessee did as well.

Tennessee's law was challenged in court in the Scopes Trial in 1925. The ACLU defended John T. Scopes, a teacher who had broken the law, and William J. Bryan participated in defense of the law. The law was upheld (even by the Supreme Court) and Scopes was convicted, but proponents of evolution used the case to ridicule its opponents and to stir up people in its support. Mississippi and Arkansas also passed similar laws against evolution in the schools, and opposition to evolution was carried out through school boards, but the Supreme Court reversed course in 1968 when it struck down the anti-evolution law in Arkansas, claiming that it violated the 1st amendment. 

In 1961, Dr. Henry Morris and John C. Whitcomb published The Genesis Flood, arguing for young earth creationism and a view of geology that took into account the global flood. While they themselves were not Presbyterians, their book was published by Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing through the influence of a Presbyterian minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church by the name of R.J. Rushdoony. This book helped spark the modern creation science movement and its organizations, such as the Institute for Creation Research (1970), Creation Research Society (1964), and Answers in Genesis (1994). 

Confessionary Presbyterian denominations like the OPC and PCA do allow their officers to hold to several views of the creation days, but not theistic evolution. For example, in 1996, Dr. Terry M. Gray, a ruling elder at Harvest OPC and a professor of biochemistry at Calvin College, was suspended from office by his session for stating “that Adam had primate ancestors.” This indefinite suspension was upheld by the Presbytery of the Midwest and the OPC General Assembly. And as the OPC's 2004 report on creation notes, the ordinary day view remains the majority position in conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches. 

This post is based on a lesson I recently gave in my series on American Presbyterian history: Presbyterians, Creation Days, and Evolution. In addition to the books and articles already mentioned, many of which can be found online, I would add that Did God Create in 6 Days? edited by Joseph A Pipa Jr. & David W. Hall is a good resource both on the history of the issue and the issue itself. You can also find my sermons on Genesis at this link.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

The King and His Kingdom

Jesus made an important claim by his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Sunday. His claim would be contested throughout that week and vindicated by his resurrection on the next Sunday. This claim was that Jesus is the promised son of David, the king of Israel, the Christ.

Jesus had come to Jerusalem for Passover. As he approached the Mount of Olives, he purposefully arranged for his triumphant entry on the donkey’s colt, in accord with Zechariah 9:9 and Genesis 49:11. He did not hold back, but openly declared himself as the promised Christ by his actions and by receiving the praises of the people. Matthew and Luke both recount how Jesus defended the crowd against grumbling Pharisees. “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40). His disciples and fellow pilgrims praised him as the son of David, the king of Israel, he who comes in the name of the Lord, shouting Hosanna! and laying their cloaks and palm branches before him.

“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10) 

Jesus is a blessed king of a blessed kingdom. The people rightfully exalted Jesus the king and his Davidic kingdom. Your king has come to you, therefore receive him with joy!

You Need This King

Without King Jesus, people go their own rebellious ways, liable to deception, destruction, and the devil.

The need for a king to rule God’s people is made evident in Scripture in the disorder in the days of the judges and the disorder accompanying the apostasy of David’s heirs and their overthrow in judgment. A remnant was saved by faith in God’s promise to establish the reign of David’s son, but they earnestly desired to see him come and establish “the coming kingdom of our father David.”

The common metaphor for a ruler in Scripture is that of a shepherd. Thus, when the Davidic kings failed to rule well under God, God described the people as sheep without a shepherd. “So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts” (Ezekiel 34:5). Without the Lord’s anointed king, people are like sheep without a shepherd, scattered on the hillsides, everyone going his own way, torn to pieces by the wolves and lions.

Driven by depravity - everyone going his own way, in bondage to sin, exposed to danger. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Is. 53:6). “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains. From mountain to hill they have gone. They have forgotten their fold.” (Jer. 50:6).

Liable to deception - walking in ignorance, following idols, false teaching, sensuality, led by wolves in sheep’s clothing and the world’s rebellion.

Liable to destruction - condemnation and death, as sheep get devoured by wild beasts. “Israel is a hunted sheep driven away by lions. First the king of Assyria devoured him, and now at last Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon has gnawed his bones” (Jeremiah 50:17). These “lions” were instruments of God’s judgment. So the ways of sin end in death and hell.

Liable to the devil’s domain - he seizes those who follow his ways, tyrannizing over them by the fear of death, leading them deeper in ignorance and depravity, refusing to let them go to serve the Lord. He is the father of lies, the murderer from the beginning, the evil one. He seeks to stir up the forces of evil to destroy the church and to keep people from serving the Lord.

We need a merciful and mighty king to deliver and defend us.

The misery, disorder, and and despair that exists in the domain of darkness is on display before us every day. Behold the confusion, perversion, anxiety, and suffering of the world around you and see a world in need of Christ the king. 

Let this thought drive you to compassion for those who are like sheep without a shepherd, as it provoked compassion from our Lord. Let this thought drive you to gratitude for having such a king to deliver you. Let this thought drive you to greater devotion to your king. May we not neglect the benefits of his reign. May we follow the voice of our shepherd cheerfully, delighting in his government and protection. 

This King Is Good

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9, Ps. 118:26, a messianic reference). Jesus is the good king, the good shepherd (John 10).

His gentleness and mercy

Jesus assumed this mediatorial kingship for the sake of sinners. “…you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (John 17:2). He is gentle, lowly in heart, inviting all to come to him and find rest (Zech. 9:9, Mt. 11:28-30). He came on the donkey’s colt, with all sorts with him: fishermen, children, healed blind men, etc. He is merciful, showing compassion to those who call on him (Mark 10:46-52). He speaks peace to his people and the nations (Zech. 9:9-10)

His power and efficacy

Jesus spoke with authority and power, as when he healed the blind man and cursed the fig tree (Mark 10:52, 11:12-14). He gives true rest to the believing and humble. He sends judgment on the impenitent. Though he conquered through weakness on the cross, yet in this way he would powerfully cast out the evil one and draw all men to himself (John 12). He is able to deliver, secure, govern, and reward.

His person is excellent, his words are gracious, his power is great and majestic, his throne is forever (Psalm 45:1-8a). “Your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; the peoples fall under you” (Psalm 45:5).

This king is good, he is both merciful and powerful. He rode to Jerusalem to deliver his people from their sins by his humiliating death on a cross. He would be rejected by the builders that he might become the cornerstone.

His Blessed Kingdom Has Come

“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” The kingdom of Jesus is the “coming kingdom of our father David” - the promised kingdom.

In Ezekiel 37:22-28, we find it prophesied that David (i.e. his heir) would be king over all God’s people forever. They would all have one shepherd, as when Israel lived under David and Solomon. They would walk in God’s rules and dwell securely in the land. God’s dwelling place would be established among the people.

In Jeremiah 23:5-6, we find it prophesied the Lord would raise up a righteous Branch for David who would deal wisely, reign as king, and execute justice and righteousness in the land. “In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.”

In Amos 9:11-12 (cp. Acts 15:16-17), we find it prophesied that the fallen tent of David would be rebuilt and restored and that the rest of mankind would seek the Lord.

Jesus is this king, the king of God's covenant people. He is not only “the king” but “your king” if you place your faith in him. Both truths are important, but comfort from knowing that Jesus is king comes from the fact that he is your king.

The people of his kingdom are under his protection. The king gives peace and rest to his subjects, and the subjects obey and honor their king. Within his kingdom is the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. His kingdom is like a tree in which which all the birds can come and take refuge.

Inward and Outward Rule

Jesus inwardly governs his people by the Spirit. He conquers their hearts so that they willingly offer themselves to him and receive his pardon by faith. He rules their hearts and inwardly leads them to walk in his ways. He writes his laws on your hearts. He thereby leads his people to practice justice, walking together in the paths of righteousness.

Jesus visibly governs his people by outward means. He rules through his word, his officers, and the keys of the kingdom. He makes these ordinances effectual by the Spirit. The church is the institutional expression of the kingdom of Christ. The church is a monarchy and Christ is its king. He organizes his people as a kingdom and he governs them using these outward means. He gave the keys of the kingdom to the visible church, to be administered by the shepherds he has given the church.

Gathering and Governing

As king, Jesus gathers sinners into his kingdom by his word and Spirit. He bestows saving grace on his elect. He offers pardon to rebels as they enlist under his banner. He saves the lost sheep and brings them into his fold, into the kingdom. There is safety in the sheepfold, in the care of the shepherd.

Jesus then rules his people as a shepherd does his sheep, for their good. He governs his people by rewarding their obedience, correcting their sins, preserving them through trials, restraining and overcoming their enemies, and ordering all things for his glory and their good.

Its Aim and Destiny

Christ’s claims and rights are universal. On the basis of his death, he has been given all authority. He claims all nations, all stations, all of life. He aims at nothing less that the subjection of the world to God. Let all people bow before the king and follow him! Let all rulers fall down before him, all nations serve him!

This kingdom will grow in this age such that all nations will be blessed in him. “The scepter shall not depart from Judah…and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Gen. 49:10-11). “...he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:10). The nations are his and he will have them. Those who reject him will be overthrown. 

The kingdom will be perfected when he returns to judge the living and the dead. His people will be blessed in the eternal glory of the kingdom with their God. 

Therefore, rejoice in the kingdom of our father David! It has been established by Jesus Christ!

May we not neglect this kingdom, but press into it and participate cheerfully in its life. Place your faith in the king and obey him with devout allegiance. Treat him as your king and treat his subjects as fellow citizens. Invite others into this kingdom, to enjoy its blessings with you.

This kingdom is not bound to any location. It can be taken from the ungrateful and given to others. So may we pray and work for its greater manifestation here. Let us maintain and spread the preaching of the gospel to the saved and the lost. Let us swell the assemblies of the saints. Let us observe and maintain the observance of the Lord’s Day, the right use of the sacraments, the exercise of church discipline and shepherding, and the Christian training of children.

Serve the king. May we offer ourselves freely to him and his direction. Observe and promote joyful service to Christ in your household. Serve King Jesus in everything you do, from the monumental to the mundane. Let everyone in every station do everything in submission to the reign of Christ and to promote the reign of Christ. Everyone from kings and queens to children has something to do.


What is the basis of this kingship? By what right does Christ gather sinners into this kingdom, giving them pardon, renewing them unto righteousness? By what right does he speak peace to the nations, who lay under a curse and the domain of darkness? He does this by right of redemption through his blood, by giving his life as a ransom for many. By his death, he crushed the serpent’s head and secured redemption for his people. Thus he rode to Jerusalem, the king who would rescue his people, the shepherd who would lay down his life for the sheep. For “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). To our merciful King be all honor and glory and blessing, forever and ever!

Friday, March 22, 2024

A Christian Nation? - American Presbyterians (1850-1950)

In preparing for a lesson in my series on American Presbyterian history, "A Christian Nation?," I thought I would share a few resources from four Presbyterian seminary professors between 1850 and 1950 on the relation of Christianity to civil government and society. Nearly all these resources are available online (click on the links to find the resources), thanks to the Log College Press and Westminster Media.

Charles Hodge of Princeton Theological Seminary

“The Sabbath Laws” in his Systematic Theology, vol. III (1873), pages 340-348

“Province of the Church” (1859), in Discussions in Church Polity, pages 100-106. 

James H. Thornwell of Columbia Theological Seminary

Relation of the State to Christ” (1861)

A.A. Hodge of Princeton Theological Seminary

“The Kingly Office of Christ,” “The Kingdom of Christ,” and “The Law of the Kingdom” in Popular Lectures on Theological Themes (1887), currently published by Banner of Truth as Evangelical Theology. I have posted quotes from these before, here, here, and here

John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary

The Christian World Order” (1943)

“The Church – Its Identity, Function, and Resources" (not available online in full, but see quoted paragraph here)

Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Judicial Laws of the Old Testament

How should we use the judicial laws of the Old Testament? What relevance do they have today? The Westminster Confession of Faith contains an excellent, brief paragraph on this question after discussing the moral law and the ceremonial laws given to Israel. 
“To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people, not obliging any other, now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” (WCF, 19.4)
Nevertheless, there is still a bit of debate among confessional Presbyterians on the topic, especially with regard to how compatible it is or not with "theonomy." Part of the problem is that there is some diversity among modern theonomists, with some theonomists being more confessional than others. Part of the problem is that the opponents of theonomy sometimes misunderstand theonomy or attack a straw man version. Additionally, part of the problem is that the confession's own statement is not always well understood.

For example, I have heard some people explain the confession's statement by saying that today the judicial laws only have relevance for the church, as the new covenant Israel. But the focus of the confession's "general equity" clause clearly refers to the obligation of states. While Paul does apply judicial laws to the church, this does not mean they no longer apply in some sense to the political sphere.

Nor does it do justice to the confessional position to say that equity (i.e. justice or fairness) has replaced the judicial laws in civil affairs. Rather, the confession teaches that the judicial laws themselves are binding to an extent defined by their connection with general equity.

What does the confession mean by "general equity"? We can start by describing general equity as a quality that some of the judicial laws have. To the extent that they have it, they are universally binding on that basis. The judicial laws are not binding on modern states further than their general equity may require. I hope the following discussion will help explain this concept. 

It is important to note that the reason given in the confession for the expiration of the judicial laws is the expiration of the state of Israel. We cannot go back to the original context of ancient Israel. The reason that these laws have expired is because the original context no longer exists. Thus, to apply these laws today, a person must discern what was grounded in the unique position of ancient Israel and what was grounded in the moral law.

Incidentally, I believe that most theonomists who seek to be confessional are in agreement with the Westminster Confession of Faith. You can see how Greg Bahnsen argued for theonomy's compatibility with confessional and historical Reformed theology in this extended article. Modern-day theonomists would do well to follow his example by drawing from the work done in prior centuries. I do not think Dr. Bahnsen is the final word on the subject. I believe his position can be refined and improved by continued attention to the judicial laws themselves and the work of earlier Reformed writers concerning the application of God's law to society. But I do think his work is quite helpful in critiquing antinomianism, affirming the relevance of God's law to all of life, and calling attention to a certain applicability of the judicial laws.

The Judicial Laws, the 39 Articles, and the Westminster Confession

The Westminster Assembly (1643-1652) addressed the judicial laws of the Old Testament in 19.4 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. To understand its statement, it is helpful to compare it to what the 39 Articles had said previously. The 39 Articles had served as the confession of faith for the Church of England since 1571. In its chapter on the Old Testament, the 39 Articles said, 
“Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth…”
In their initial revision of the 39 Articles (available in The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 5:326), the Westminster Assembly specified which judicial laws are no longer binding on nations: 
“Although the Law Given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christians, nor the civill precepts given by Moses, such as were peculiarly fitted to the commonwealth of the Jews, are of necessity to be received in any Commonwealth...” (emphasis added)
This helps us understand the distinction made in it the final product of the assembly. In its confession of faith, the Westminster Assembly made the same distinction in a different way, specifying which laws continue to be binding rather than specifying which ones do not. 
“To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people, not obliging any other, now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” (WCF 19.4)
This is to say that the judicial laws of the Old Testament are binding on states today as far as they are of general equity, not peculiarly fitted to Israel, a distinction that was commonly made at the time.

For example, Johannes Piscator’s appendix to his commentary on Exodus was quoted favorably in the writings of men at the Westminster Assembly (George Gillespie, Francis Cheynell, and Samuel Rutherford). In that appendix, Johannes Piscator (1546—1625) argued that
“the magistrate is obliged to those judicial laws which teach concerning matters which are immutable and universally applicable to all nations, but not to those which teach concerning matters which are mutable and peculiar to the Jewish or Israelite nations for the times when those governments remained in existence.” (Disputations on the Judicial Laws of Moses, Braselton, GA: American Vision, 2015 [1605], 4-5)
While a member of the Westminster Assembly, Samuel Bolton published The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (1645). In this book, he said “in respect of the ceremonial and the judicial law we find few dissenters.” Here is how he explained this common view of the judicial law:
“As for the judicial law, which was an appendix to the second table, it was an ordinance containing precepts concerning the government of the people in things civil, and it served three purposes: it gave the people a rule of common and public equity, it distinguished them from other peoples, and it gave them a type of the government of Christ. That part of the judicial law which was typical of Christ's government has ceased, but that part which is of common and general equity remains still in force. It is a common maxim: those judgements which are common and natural are moral and perpetual.” (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1964 [1645], 56)
This concept and terminology was also found at this time on the other side of the Atlantic. Thomas Shepherd, minister in Massachusetts, cited and affirmed Piscator’s view in thesis 42 of his Theses Sabbaticæ, or, The doctrine of the Sabbath, saying “The learned generally doubt not to affirme, that Moses judicials binde all nations, so farre forth as they containe any morall equity in them...” The New Haven Colony affirmed in 1642,
“that the judicial law of God given by Moses and expounded in other parts of scripture, so far as it is a hedge and a fence to the moral law, and neither ceremonial nor typical nor had any reference to Canaan, hath an everlasting equity in it, and should be the rule of their proceedings.” (Charles Hoadly, ed. Records of the Colony and Plantation of New Haven from 1638 to 1649, Hartford: for the Editor, 1857, 69)
Two Kinds of Judicial Laws in the Old Testament

So regarding the judicial laws, Reformed theologians have distinguished between laws peculiarly fitted to Israel and laws on things common to all nations. They taught that the first category, while instructive in various ways, is not binding on the nations, but that the second category, resting on general equity, does bind them. While there is some room for debate on what was peculiarly fitted to the commonwealth of Israel, here are a few examples of how 16th-17th century Reformed theologians described this distinction.

Johannes Piscator, Disputations on the Judicial Laws of Moses (2015 [1605]):
“Things common to all nations (that is, which befall all) and are immutable with respect to their own nature and merits are moral offenses, that is, against the Decalogue, such as murder, adultery, theft, seduction from the true God, blasphemy, and smiting of parents.

“Those laws which are mutable and which were peculiar to the Jews for that time are things such as the emancipation of Hebrew slaves in the seventh year, Levirate marriage, releasing of debts in the appointed year, marriage with a woman from one’s own tribe, and if there were any other of the same sort.”
Henrici Alting, Scriptorum theologicorum Heidelbergensium (1646):
“For whatever was a particular proper right, such as peculiarly concerned the Jews, of which sort was the law concerning the office of the Levites, as another concerning inheritances not being transferred from one tribe to another, all of this kind have ceased. But insofar as it concerned common right, enacted according to the law of nature for all men together, of which sort are the laws concerning the punishments for crimes, these same judicial laws all remain.”
William Gouge, A commentary on the whole Epistle to the Hebrews (1655):
“Many branches of that law appertained to the Jewish priesthood; as, the particular laws about the cities of refuge, whither such as slew any unawares fled, and there abode till the death of the high priest. Num. xxxv. 25. And laws about lepers, which the priest was to judge. Lev. xiv. 3. And sundry other cases which the priest was to judge of, Deut. xvii. 9. So also the laws of distinguishing tribes. Num. xxxvi. 7 ; of reserving inheritances to special tribes and families, of selling them to the next of kin, Ruth iv. 4 ; of raising seed to a brother that died without issue. Gen. xxxviii. 8, 9 ; of all manner of freedoms at the year of jubilee, Lev. XXV. 13, &c.

“There were other branches of the judicial law which rested upon common equity and were means of keeping the moral law: as putting to death idolaters and such as enticed others thereunto; and witches, and wilful murderers, and other notorious malefactors. So likewise laws against incest and incestuous marriages; laws of reverencing and obeying superiors and governors; and of dealing justly in borrowing, restoring, buying, selling, and all manner of contracts, Exod. xxii. 20 ; Deut. xiii. 9; Exod. xx. 18 ; Num. xxxv. 30; Lev. xx. 11, &c., xix. 32, 35.”
Applying the Judicial Laws with Wisdom

Like any nation, Israel needed a law to guide the state in its normal role in administrating justice. It is right after Moses appoints judges for Israel in Exodus 18 that Israel is given judicial laws in Exodus 21-23. These judges were not prophets like Moses. They needed God's word to direct them in their task. God gave Israel laws, which if they were observed, would make that nation a model of justice and righteousness (Deut. 4:5-8). As Moses said, "And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?" (Deut. 4:8). In this respect, their God-given laws were a model to all the nations. As they pertain to matters which are immutable and universally applicable to all nations and rest upon general equity, they remain in force. But it should also be noted that there are two sources of discontinuity in modern application:

First, there are redemptive-historical differences between Israel and modern nations. Israel held a unique position as the entire covenant people and the kingdom of God with typological significance. Its land held special significance as the promised land. Judicial laws that depended upon the Levitical priesthood cannot be replicated as they were originally instituted. The test for adultery in Numbers 5 is only designed for the old covenant system. Other examples include laws regarding tribal inheritance, the sabbath year and year of jubilee, the particular regulations for the cities of refuge, and the laws regarding the inheritance of the Levites. Other laws might be a mix, partly reflecting Israel's unique position and modified or intensified accordingly.

Even the laws adapted to Israel's unique position are still instructive, even though they are abrogated. For example, the laws regarding the inheritance of the Levites teach the principle that they who proclaim God’s word should be maintained (1 Cor. 9:13-14). The laws regarding the cities of refuge teach us to distinguish between murder and manslaughter as well as to seek due process and adjudication.

Second, there are other situational differences such as technological differences, cultural contexts, and aggravating or mitigating circumstances. Even in the Old Testament, wisdom was needed how to apply case laws to particular situations as new situations arose or old situations changed. For example, consider the culturally specific setting of the parapet law (Deut. 22:8). It assumes the use of the roof as a living space, but the principle continues to apply even when the precise application becomes obsolete. When Paul concluded from the law against muzzling the ox while it tread out the grain the principle that the laborer deserves his wages (1 Cor. 9:8-10, 1 Tim. 5:18), there was nothing unique to the new covenant about this observation - those under the old covenant should have made the same deduction. Even in the Old Testament, some cases required a determination on the part of the judge how many lashes were to be given in proportion to an offense up to forty (Deut. 25:1-3, cp. Luke 12:47-48). A ransom payment was sometimes accepted instead of the death penalty, although not in the case of murder (Ex. 21:30-32, Num. 35:31-32). Ezekiel 18 and 1 Kings 1-2 seem to indicate that mercy could be shown in some cases toward the repentant, though not toward the incorrigible. I think that some people who object to any binding relevance of the judicial laws today operate on a misunderstanding of what the judicial laws required of Israel and would require of us.

Rulers of every commonwealth have a God-given responsibility to carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer; to maintain piety, justice, and peace in their realm; to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good (Rom. 13:4, 1 Peter 2:13-14, 2 Tim. 2:2, WCF 23.1-2). The civil government has some flexibility to make laws fitting for its situation and to apply them justly as fits the situation, but it is obligated to make such laws in accordance with the moral law of God and with the judicial laws given by him, insofar as they are of general equity. That is, modern states should maintain justice in accord with God’s moral law, and they should model their laws after the judicial laws of of the Old Testament as an infallible example of God’s moral law applied in a given society, with appropriate adaptation to their circumstances.

And while only the civil magistrate has the power of the sword, all of society should find direction in the judicial laws, since they teach the application of the moral law to life. Business, families, and individuals should learn from them to be honest, just, and righteous. You should study these laws, heed their principles, and walk accordingly. Observe God’s displeasure with those sins in the prescribed punishments. And remember that as civil laws, they often express a minimal standard (e.g. do not kill your neighbor), not the full ideal (e.g. love your neighbor as yourself). Likewise, remember they often teach principles through case laws that give direction for what to do in a given case - as if the case already exists and is bring brought before a judge to adjudicate - and so the law does not necessarily approve or permit everything in the situation (e.g. when it gives directions for dividing an inheritance in a polygamous family, it is not approving of polygamy).

The church must also wisely apply God’s law, including the judicial laws, in line with what we have said. It applies them in its own way, with spiritual discipline, not civil punishments. But like Israel of old, the church is told to “purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13). Like Israel of old, the church is told to establish every charge “by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matt. 18:16). The church should also proclaim the substance of typical ordinances, for example, proclaiming the spiritual jubilee in Christ.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024


The last virtue that I want to address in this series on virtue is that of self-control. The word "self-control" was not coined as a word until 1711, which is one reason why you will not find it in the King James Version of the Bible. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word was "coined by English moral philosopher Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) to refers to 'restraint of one's desires' ... He also used self-command, 'that equanimity which enables one in any situation to be reasonable and prudent' (1690s)."

Even though the word did not exist in English until 1711, the concept is found in Scripture, and you will find it used in modern translations of the Bible. There are two different Greek words that are translated in the ESV as self-control. These words have different nuances to them which help us fill out this concept. 

The first Greek word for self-control is σωφροσύνη (sóphrosuné). It comes from two words, one for health and the other one for mind, with the resulting idea of "soundness of mind." It can also be translated as self-control, moderation, or temperance. It refers to a soundness of mind and judgment that is not overcome by sinful passions. It is a state of mind that allows you to do what is proper and to properly use earthly goods rather than to abuse them, to not get carried away, but rather to keep your head about you and to exercise self-control in that respect. The King James Version most commonly uses some variant of "sobriety" when translating this word, which does get at the sense, although there also is another Greek word for being sober or sober-minded.

This word for self-control or soundness of mind is the word that is used several times in Titus 2. Older men are to be self-controlled (2:2). Younger women are to be self-controlled (2:5). Younger men are to be self-controlled (2:6). When Paul says that older women should "train" the younger women (2:4), that word for train is also a form of this word. The idea of this verb is to make them sensible, to bring them to their senses, to encourage, to exhort, “to instruct in prudence or behavior that is becoming and shows sound judgment” (BDAG). In fact, Paul wrote that all of us should be self-controlled.
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age…” (Titus 2:11–12) 
I have addressed being "upright" (also translated "righteous") and godly (also translated "pious"). Our lives also ought to be "self-controlled," not marked by worldly passions. 

Now σωφροσύνη was one of the classical virtues, and if you are reading one of the classic writings on the cardinal virtues, it would probably translate this word as temperance or moderation. Unlike the “temperance” movement, it is not defined by abstinence, but by propriety, doing what is proper in the situation and properly using things according to their intended use. 

For example, temperance is shown with respect to things like food, drink, clothing, recreation, and sleep by using them as they ought to be used, in accordance with their purposes, as is proper and good. These are things that should be used. It would be immoderate to not have any recreation, to not have any exercise, to not have any sleep. But you could also go overboard on these things too. The Westminster Larger Catechism includes in the duties of the sixth commandment, "a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations..." Use them as they ought to be used, in accordance with their purposes, as is proper and good. 

Calvin has an excellent portion in his Institutes of the Christian Religion on using earthly things like food and drink and clothing and arts. He says, “Let this be our principle, that we err not in the use of the gifts of Providence when we refer them to the end for which their author made and destined them, since he created them for our good, and not for our destruction.” Calvin notes that God made things useful and for enjoyment or delight. God has made food that is good for us and also tastes good. Clothing is both to be useful, to keep you warm for example, as well as to lend dignity to you, to keep you from being exposed. But God's good gifts are not intended for pride, immodesty, greed, drunkenness, or stupefaction. As Chrysostom said of wine, "Wine was given, that we might be cheerful, not that we might behave ourselves unseemly; that we might laugh, not that we might be a laughingstock; that we might be healthful, not that we might be diseased; that we might correct the weakness of our body, not cast down the might of our soul." 

One rule that we can use to use things properly is to remember that we should receive all these earthly good things with gratitude to God. If we are using them in a way that is contrary to piety, to reverence and thankfulness to God, then we are not using them rightly. If you use them in such a way that you give way to sinful actions and desires, or loose control of yourself, or become insensible and unable to give God thanks, then you are abusing them. We should give thanks to God. These are things that show his divine care and goodness to us.

Temperance and moderation is not only the middle way between too little and too much, but it is also the state of mind that allows you to choose that middle way. A temperate person is able to do what is fitting and good and wise since he is not led away by worldly passions, by sloth or gluttony or rage or lust.  Drunkenness is contrary to self-control in both respects - it is both a drinking to excess that shows a lack of self-control and is itself a state of intemperance in which a person looses his soundness of mind. 

The other word for self-controlled is ἐγκράτεια (egkrateia). This word is probably closer to what you think of as self-control. It means self-mastery, the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions. To make things a little confusing, the King James Version usually translates it as temperance, although it also translates the other word as temperance once or twice.

This word refers to the ability to control yourself so that you do the things that you know are right. The alternative is to be mastered and overcome by your desires and passions so that you act contrary to even what you know is right because you gave in to what felt good at the time even though it was something you knew to be wrong. This word for self-control is mentioned in the list in 2 Peter. It is also listed in Galatians 5 as fruit of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit, when he works in a person and begins to make his presence known, does not take away self-control, but produces it. He certainly enlivens you in godly desire and love, but he also works in you ἐγκράτεια. 

Elders ought to have ἐγκράτεια (Titus 1.8). Paul uses the word and concept in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, comparing the self-control of the athlete to the self-control he exercises in his service of God.  
"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." 
Even the pagans recognized that ἐγκράτεια is important. Socrates said, "Should not every man hold self-control to be the foundation of all virtue, and first lay this foundation firmly in his soul? For who without this can learn any good or practice it worthily?" (Xenophon, Mem. 1.5.4-5). The Bible also comments on the importance of this virtue. "A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls" (Proverbs 25:28). If you have no self-control, you are defenseless, ready to fold at the approach of temptation. "Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city" (Proverbs 16:32). It is more impressive to rule yourself than to take over a city in battle. This is the battle that you need to win. It is the battle of taking over yourself, that you might use yourself. You are your greatest tool that you can use to accomplish good and to serve the Lord. As Paul says, "present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness" (Rom. 6:13). 

Consider a few areas in which this self-control is needed: 
  • Food and Drink. "They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime" (2 Pet. 2:13). "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery…" (Eph. 5:18). "Happy are you, O land, when… your princes feast at the proper time, for strength, and not for drunkenness!" (Eccl. 10:17). Remember the strong craving and discontentment that Israel showed in the wilderness regarding their manna, desiring meat, provoking them to speak against the Lord (Num. 11). The Lord responded that he would give them so much it will come out of their nostrils and became loathsome to them. When the people greedily gathered excessive amounts, the Lord struck them down with a very great plague. Exercise self-control by eating and drinking what is proper. 
  • The Tongue. "They blaspheme…speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice..." (2 Pet. 2:10-12, 18). "If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. … So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness … It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison." (James 3:3, 5-6, 8) Exercise self-control by speaking what is proper. 
  • Anger. "A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression" (Prov. 29:22). "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God" (James 1:19–20). Exercise self-control by being slow to anger, patient, and long-suffering. 
  • Sexual Desire. "…those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion…They have eyes full of adultery" (2 Pet. 2:10, 14a). Be watchful over your eyes, that they be not "eyes of adultery," instruments of sinful desires. Sexual desire is a powerful force, so one must be careful to not stir it up to a wrong end. Do not stir it up prematurely. Do not corrupt it through pornography. When facing temptation, remember your goal is to build up a habit of self-control. Either hold back this desire or get married and direct this passion unto your spouse (1 Cor. 7:5, 9). Flee from sexual immorality (1 Cor. 6:18).
  • Covetousness. "They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Bear, who loved fain from wrongdoing…" (2 Pet. 2:14b-15). Watch your hearts, that they be not "hearts trained in greed." Beware the love of money, the love of possessions and power. As Jesus said, you cannot serve God and money. 
In addition to these two Greek words for self-control, there are several terms and concepts found in Scripture that are related to self-control. For example, in 1 Timothy 2.9, it says, "...likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire..." Along with self-control we find the words "respectable" and "modesty." Respectable is κόσμιος (kosmios). It is an adjective from the word kosmos, which refers to the world or universe as a system, an ordered whole. Kosmios means respectable, well-ordered, observing decorum, or appropriate. It is mentioned in the next chapter with respect to overseers, that they should be respectable. And of course, with respect to women, it is speaking not of simply being respectable, but having respectable apparel, having clothing that is appropriate and observes decorum. 

Modesty is also mentioned here, αἰδώς (aidos), “a sense of shame, modesty” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). Shamefacedness is how the King James Version translates it, which is very literal. It is the idea of having a sense of shame. What would it be like to not have a sense of shame? What would a person act like if they did not have a sense of shame? They would be shameless. They would act shamelessly. They would do things that people should be ashamed of. A healthy sense of shame prevents us from acting shamelessly and guides us to act with propriety. Public nakedness, for example, is shameful. Sometimes people expose others to humiliate them, as Jesus was deprived of his clothing for his crucifixion. Then there are some people that do it to themselves voluntarily. Overly exposing yourself is contrary to the Christian virtue of modesty.

Another word of note is εὐσχημόνως, the word for properly and decently. Presbyterians love this word. Worship should be done decently and in good order (1 Cor. 14:40). Romans 13:13 and 1 Thessalonians 4:12 use this word to remind us to walk properly throughout the course of our life.

I already mentioned that there is a Greek word for sober. It is νηφαλέος (naphaleos) and can mean literally sober (not drunk with wine) or metaphorically sober (sober-minded). We ought not be drunk, literally or metaphorically. We should be sober-minded (e.g. 1 Peter 4:7, 5:8). 

Another word related here is dignity, σεμνότης (semnotés). The Greek word means dignity, honor, the gravity and dignity that invites respect or reverence. It is the equivalent to the Latin gravitas. In 1 Timothy 3, for example, it is supposed to mark elders. "He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive..." Timothy was supposed to demonstrate dignity in his teaching (Titus 2:7). The wives of deacons were supposed to dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded (1 Tim. 3:11). Older men should be dignified (Titus 2:2). Paul exhorts everyone to think upon and follow after that which is semnos (honorable) in Philippians 4. This is a Christian virtue for us all, especially for those in positions of honor or authority.

Lastly, let me mention πρᾳΰτης (prautes), which means gentleness. Sometimes this word is translated meekness or humility. Gentleness, though, is usually its meaning. It is the idea of being able to control yourself so as to be gentle with others. Jesus called himself "gentle and lowly in heart" (Matt. 11:29). Of course he was capable of casting out money changers from the temple and executing judgment, but he had his strength under control. He gives rest to those who are heavy laden and "a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench" (Matt. 12:20). Jesus is a gentle Savior and his yoke is easy. He is not a harsh master like Pharaoh. He is gentle with those who come to him and he invites all to come. Matthew 21:5 also describes Jesus as πραῢς, "See, your King is coming to you, gentle, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (CSB). He taught his disciples to imitate his gentleness. The same Greek word is used in the beatitude, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5). It is not the greedy and covetous who will inherit the earth, but the restrained and gentle. Paul also lists gentleness in his description of the fruit of the Spirit, right alongside self-control (Gal. 5:23). Christians are to be those who hold their strength under control so that they can be gentle. 

All the virtues discussed in this series can also be called graces, because they are produced in the elect by the grace of God. They are gifts that he works in his people, as well as virtues which they practice. We should pray to God for self-control and seek to exercise and build up self-control, in order that we might not be led astray by sinful desires. Let us continue to make every effort to add to our faith virtue, to make these qualities ours and to increase them, looking to Jesus, the author of our faith, the object of our faith, and also the model for perfect virtue as one who is holy and righteous, without blemish.

Thursday, January 11, 2024


In this study of virtue, we come next to steadfastness. I am thinking of a collection of related virtue words like fortitude, courage, boldness, steadfastness, endurance, perseverance, patience, and diligence. Think of the daring by which you do something difficult or dangerous, as well as the perseverance you show in continuing to do something hard without giving up. The word I am going to generally use is steadfastness, but I will use some of those other words as well. 

The Call for Steadfastness

Revelation 14:12 says, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” This is the way in which we are to walk: the commandments of God and faith in Jesus Christ. It takes endurance and courage to hold fast to that course, to not be led astray, to not be pushed out of that way, but to endure to the end. So there is a call for the endurance of the saints. 

It is not merely a New Testament call. We can think of many examples in the Old Testament that called for courage and endurance. In Deuteronomy and Joshua and 1 Chronicles you can find an exhortation given in almost identical words each time. It goes something like this: "Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you" (Deut. 31:6). This exhortation is given from Moses to Israel, from Moses to Joshua, from God to Joshua, and from David to Solomon. Israel and Joshua were exhorted as they were about to begin the conquest of the land (Deut. 31, Josh 1). Solomon was exhorted as David was about to die and Solomon was about to build the temple (1 Chron. 22:13, 28:20). 

Some of these lines are picked up in the New Testament. Hebrews 13:5 picks them up in an exhortation to believers in the new covenant era. In both testaments we are exhorted to a courage that is anchored on God's promise and abiding presence. 

Christ has given the church a more intimidating task than was given Joshua or Solomon. What is the task that Christ gave the church? It is to go into all the world and preach the gospel and make disciples of all the nations. The Great Commission is a large task and will take multi-generational endurance. This is a difficult task and one that has to deal with persecution and opposition from the world, the flesh, and the devil. How does Jesus encourage his disciples when he gives them this commission? "I am with you always, even to the end of the age." 

Eleven times in the book of Acts, "boldness" or "boldly" is used to describe those who spoke the word of God. In Acts 4 the saints prayed for boldness, and then as they were filled with the Spirit they spoke the word with boldness. This trait marked the apostles and preachers in Acts. It took boldness to speak the word forthrightly, plainly, and publicly. Courage is required for preachers, and it is also required for the whole church as it pursues this mission. At the end of 1 Corinthians 16, not only does the Apostle Paul say, "let all you do be done in love," a virtue we looked at earlier, but he also says, "Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong" (1 Cor. 16:13). And so, the church is not called to be weak. The church is called to be strong. The church is told to stand firm in the faith. 

This courage and strength should be thought of both in terms of not running away from a position as well as in not turning aside from your course - continuing the work despite challenges. In other words, it is both defensive and offensive: do not abandon the Lord and go forward with your duty.

The Need for Steadfastness

The fact is we face challenges and temptations that make this virtue necessary. It is not enough to know and understand the faith. A person who knows the truth but is not steadfast might be swept away by the crowd. A person who knows the truth but is without self-discipline or patience can be distracted and led astray by the next flashy thing. A person who knows the truth but does not have strength of character may cave in against his better judgment. As Theodore Beza said, “In the midst of assailing adversity, steadfastness is among the greatest of the moral virtues.” 

There is a threefold enemy that seeks your destruction - the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul, the devil that seeks to devour you, and the world that seeks to push you by carrot and stick out of the way. Without steadfastness, we are unstable and therefore easily deceived or cowardly. The unstable man will be driven and tossed by the wind (James 1:6, Eph. 4:14), deceived or deceiving himself (Col. 2:7, 2 Pet. 3:16-17). The man who is cowardly and faithless is in danger of eternal judgement (Rev. 21:8). 

Some people go astray. Not every gospel seed perseveres. Think of the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23). Not all of them had steadfastness or endurance. The seeds were all tested. The sun came out, some of them shriveled up and some of them did not. 

Furthermore, some Christians endure in the faith and yet cause great harm by their lack of steadfastness. They might be saved and have true faith, but because they swerved and made bad decisions, they sinned and hurt others and caused damage to the church of Christ. 

Additionally, I think our culture in particular is prone to flux. It does not encourage stability. It is good at providing many different choices and new things to replace the old. It is a mobile culture with a tendency to scorn old things.

The Doctrine of Perseverance 

But not only are there pressures and challenges, but there is also God's grace. We know the doctrine of perseverance, that all who are chosen by God and come to true faith in Christ will endure to the end. Those who depart, who fall away from us, John says, were not of us (1 John 2:19). They were not good soil to begin with. Those who are elect and do exercise true saving faith in Christ will endure to the end. John 6:37-40 teaches that all who are given by the Father to the Son (the elect) will come to the Son and will be kept by the Son and will be raised up to a glorious resurrection on the last day. Jesus will not loose any of them. Paul is able to say with confidence, "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). 

Perseverance is a gift. Nevertheless, it is also something that we do using the means that God gave us. He works within us, so that we do his good pleasure. One mark of true faith is that it is a faith that endures. So keep in mind both preservation by God as a grace to give thanks for, and also the perseverance of the saints. Persevere in reliance upon the grace of God, praying for his strength, and giving him the praise for this work in your life.

Steadfastness Described

The Bible speaks of steadfastness, perseverance, and endurance as virtues which Christians ought to develop and practice. In fact, all three of these words are translations of the same Greek word, ὑπομονή (hupomoné), “the capacity to hold out or bear up in the face of difficulty, patience, endurance, fortitude, steadfastness, perseverance” (BDAG). As a verb it is “to maintain a belief or course of action in the face of opposition, stand one’s ground, hold out, endure” (BDAG). Aristotle contrasted the man of endurance (ὑπομονή) with the soft and effeminate man who is easily overcome by pain and difficulty (Ethics, 7.7).

Peter tells you to make every effort to supplement your faith with virtues, including steadfastness (2 Peter 1:6). Paul told Timothy to pursue steadfastness along with other virtues (1 Tim. 6:11) and Paul later commended Timothy for following his steadfastness (2 Tim. 3:10). In Titus 2:2 Paul taught that older men in particular are to be “sound…in steadfastness” (Titus 2:2). A mature man will be sober, sound, and steadfast. Steadfastness is important for every Christian and it is all the more important when others are looking up to you. It is especially important for leaders and others who carry weight in a community to be steadfast and dependable, to be a ballast to those around them.

Negatively, steadfastness is to not depart from the way of duty because of difficulty or temptation; to be stable, immovable. Joseph demonstrated steadfastness when he rejected the enticements of Potiphar’s wife, even though she persisted day after day (Gen. 39). Paul exhorted the saints to “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting form the hope of the gospel” (Col. 1:23, see also 1 Cor. 15:58). 

Positively, steadfastness is to continue in the way of duty and faith in Christ, despite the natural tendency to grow weary and the hostile pressures to abandon course (Rev. 14:12, Gal. 6:9). It is to run the race to the end. Go forward with your calling and mission. Let us follow Christ and press on to the goal and the glory that awaits. 

Why is steadfastness a virtue? On the one hand, it is only a virtue when we are steadfast in the right course and the true faith. Courage and endurance, if directed by folly or evil, can do much harm. It is not good to be steadfast in your sin. You need the right goal. You need the right path. Yet this is a perversion of this virtue. 

On the other hand, it has long been noted that it is a vital support to all virtues. The others are not worth much if they fade away or disappear in a trial. Steadfastness turns other good traits into habits and makes them a part of your character. As Romans 5:4 says, “…endurance produces character…” Or as James 1:4 says, “And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Do you want to be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing? Then value steadfastness.

Perseverance is also a requirement. Twice Jesus said, “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22, 24:13). Endure, rather than fall away or be led astray. Do not deny Christ. Endurance is an essential part of the Christian life. Continuing in the faith necessary to receive the reward (Col. 1:23, Rev. 2:1).

Hebrews 10:36 says that "you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised." In fact, the Epistle to the Hebrews as a whole, and Hebrews 10-12 in particular, is an extended exhortation to endurance. "But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls" (Heb. 10:39). Hebrews 11 recounts those who persevered and endured by faith. Their faith supported their endurance. Because they had faith, therefore they endured. We look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who endured the cross (Heb. 12:1-2). Therefore let us run the race with endurance, looking to him. We have need of endurance, so let us have faith and therefore run with endurance, looking especially to Jesus, both the object of our faith and the example of endurance. 

James holds up another example. In his epistle, he mentions a person from the Old Testament. Job was an example of endurance. “Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job…” (James 5:11). Job suffered much. Everything was taken away from him and he endured pain, yet he did not turn from God. He certainly poured out his agony and struggled, but yet he ran the race with endurance despite all the afflictions that came even from his friends.  In the end, Job was restored. God did not abandon him.  "... and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful" (5:11).

Helps to Steadfastness 

We do have helps to perseverance. God has provided outward means to nourish this virtue. 

God has given us his word. When Joshua was encouraged to be strong and of good courage, he was also told to think upon the law of God day and night (Josh 1:8-9). God's word contains promises for us. As we receive them by faith, we have hope. This eager expectation leads to patience and steadfastness. Paul's discussion of the gospel and our future resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 ends with an exhortation to steadfastness. In 1 Thessalonians 1:3, he speaks of "your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ." 

We are also told to assemble with the church. As Hebrews 10 calls us to "hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering" it goes on in this next verse to exhort us to "consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." We have been given the instruction, worship, discipline, and fellowship of the church for our good (Eph. 4:11-16, Acts 2:41-42). 

A right use of trials also produces steadfastness. Like other virtues, steadfastness is built up by consistently practicing it. Steadfastness is like a muscle that grows with use. Overcoming smaller trials builds up steadfastness. There are several passages in Scripture that encourage people in trials with this benefit - not that hardship in itself is a good thing, but that God uses hardship for the good of believers. We can rejoice at this benefit. "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds." Why? Why should we rejoice? "...for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." In Romans chapter 5:3, we read "not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings." Why? "...knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character..." 

We also have prayer. Jesus told the disciples, "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matt. 26:41). We are given prayer as a means of grace through which, and in response to which, God strengthens us against temptation. 

There is a need for steadfastness. The Christian life can be difficult. Perseverance is a gift of God. It is also a virtue which we ought to practice, supported by these means that God has given. At its end is glory. Its end is that gift of grace that we see by faith, the everlasting kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord will not forsake us. So let us be steadfast and of good courage.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024


"For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." (Romans 14:17)

In Greek there is one word, δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosuné), that can be translated as righteousness, justice, or uprightness. (Our English words justice and just and justification come from Latin, and righteousness and righteous come from Anglo-Saxon.) In Hebrew, there are two words: צְדָקָה (tsedaqah), which is used for righteousness, and מִשְׁפָט (mishpat), for judgment or justice. These two words are often grouped together, because they are closely related, overlapping terms. "For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Genesis 18:19). What is it to keep the way of the Lord? To do righteousness and justice. 

Righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount

Jesus spoke of righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount. First, he mentioned it in the Beatitudes, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Matt. 5:6). Remember that the Beatitudes are not a buffet, as if you get to pick whichever you like. All of them describe Christ's disciples and their blessedness. Christ's disciples ought to be those, and are those, who hunger and thirst after righteousness. They are also described as those who are "persecuted for righteousness' sake" (Matt. 5:10). 

Then Jesus goes on to talk about the law and the prophets. He did not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them. He said that "whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:19). So he is talking about what should we do as well as affirming continuity with the Old Testament. In that context he says that "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20). Now, were the scribes and Pharisees righteous? At first this sounds like a really high standard, and it probably did to the people that Jesus was teaching. But their righteousness was hypocritical. In the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasts the righteousness of the hypocrites with the righteousness that his disciples should practice. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was just for show, merely external, out of accord with God's word, and done for the praise of man (Matt. 6:1). It did not originate in the heart. The righteousness of Christ's disciples is to be different, as Jesus explains in some detail. 

Then Jesus directs his disciples to not serve money or be worried about money and possessions, but rather to serve God, trust his fatherly provision, and "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" (Matt. 6:33). Jesus calls us to pursue righteousness. As his disciples, we are to learn to observe all his commandments (Matt. 28:18-20). This righteousness we practice is not the basis of our justification - I will get to that in a little bit - but it is something that as Christ's disciples we ought to be learning and pursuing.

The apostle Paul also told Timothy to pursue righteousness, along with other virtues. In 1 Timothy 6:11, he says, “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” He gave a similar exhortation in 2 Timothy 2:22, “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” Pursue after these virtues, one of which is righteousness. We can tell that Paul is not talking about justification in this context, because once you are justified, you are justified. You do not have to keep pursuing it. You receive and rest upon Christ for being declared righteous, but beyond that, there is a pursuit and growth in practicing righteousness. 

Righteousness, Justification, and Sanctification 

I have mentioned justification. We can describe this act with the Latin-based term "justification" or by describing it as "declaring someone to be righteous." To justify someone is to declare them righteous. That can happen in an everyday situation. Perhaps you've been wrongfully accused of doing something, but then the evidence shows that you actually were in the right, and so the judge pronounces you to be righteous. The opposite of being justified is being condemned as guilty. 

But our justification before God is of grace, for by our works we would all be condemned (Ps. 143:2). God justifies the ungodly by his grace in Christ through faith (Rom. 4:5). God justifies by his grace those who who have sinned and who have fallen short of the glory of God. And the only basis for this declaration is the righteousness of Christ, imputed to you. I wrote about this some when discussing faith, because we are justified by faith alone. Faith is how we receive it. But the basis for it is in what Christ did. He was righteous and lived a righteous life. Our sins were imputed to him and he annihilated them by suffering for them and satisfying divine justice. Then he rose from the dead. His resurrection was his justification, God's declaration that he was righteous, that having paid for our sins there was no charge against him. His righteousness is imputed to his people who are raised to new life with him. And so we are declared righteous before God on account of Christ's righteousness imputed to us, received by faith alone. 

Yet that is not the end of the story. In what we call sanctification, God delivers us from the power of sin so that we who were slaves of sin become willing slaves of righteousness, presenting our members to God as instruments for righteousness. In Romans 3-5, Paul talks about being declared righteous in Christ. Then in Romans 6, Paul speaks of how we have become willing slaves of righteousness. We who have died to sin, who have been freed from sin, now are no longer tyrannized by sin, but are raised with Christ to walk in newness of life, so that we should present our our bodies as instruments for righteousness. They were instruments of sin. But now you have been delivered by Christ and have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching you have received. The work of transformation has begun. As he also says in Ephesians 4:22-24, you have been taught in Christ "to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness."

Thus, one of the graces infused into us from Christ is the virtue of righteousness, although this virtue within us, which is presently imperfect and growing, is not the grounds for our verdict and status before God. It is not the basis for our justification, but it is something that is present and growing in Christ's disciples.

What is Righteousness? 

What does it mean to live righteously? What does righteousness mean? It means obeying the moral law of God and fulfilling your obligations to others. Righteousness is sometimes described as giving everyone his due. God is the one to whom we have our primary obligation and we have his law that he has given us to obey. So righteousness is doing what he has commanded us, just as sin is breaking his law. 

When you look at what God's law tells us, you find that we have obligations to worship God alone, to not serve idols, to not blaspheme his name, to observe his holy day. You will find we also have obligations to other people, to give honor to whom honor is due, to not murder but to preserve life, to not commit adultery but to be pure and chaste, to not steal but to preserve and further our own and our neighbor's property, to guard the good name of our neighbor rather than defaming them or being dishonest, and to not covet our neighbor's stuff. We have obligations that we bear and ought to fulfill. 

We ought to fulfill them. The language of ought and duty and deserve and rights and fair comes naturally to us. You can be very young and have a sense that "that's not fair," or "I deserve this," or "you ought to do this." This is the language of righteousness. People who do not believe in God will still assume the existence of these moral obligations. In fact, this is one witness to the fact that there is a supreme lawgiver and judge to whom we are accountable, who has established the world in such a way that there are obligations that tie us to each other and to him. We are responsible beings created with an obligation to our Maker. We have the Ten Commandments as a summary of that moral law, a standard of righteousness. 

Righteousness involves not harming your neighbor, but it is more than that. How did Jesus put it? "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." (Matt. 7:12). It is not just "don't do what you wouldn't want others to do to you," but it is positive too. We ought to love our neighbor as ourselves. Do not do unjust harm and do positive good. As Proverbs 3:27–33 says, 

"Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to do it.
Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again,
tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you.
Do not plan evil against your neighbor,
who dwells trustingly beside you.
Do not contend with a man for no reason,
when he has done you no harm.
Do not envy a man of violence
and do not choose any of his ways,
for the devious person is an abomination to the LORD,
but the upright are in his confidence.
The LORD’s curse is on the house of the wicked,
but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous." 

Do not withhold what is due your neighbor when you have it. A righteous and just person will consistently seek to fulfill his obligations to his neighbor. As Aquinas wrote, the virtue of justice is "the perpetual and constant will to render each one his due." Likewise, do not plan evil against your neighbor who dwells trustingly beside you. 

Your obligations before God include the obligations of your calling. What is your position in your family, your work, your neighborhood, your society, your state? These relationships come with obligations that must be fulfilled. Serve God in these ways, leading the life to which he has called you (1 Cor. 7:17). For example, if your employer is paying you for your time and you do not do your work, you are defrauding your employer. That would be an injustice. You ought to fulfill these obligations by doing your duty. 

Also, you should fulfill your word. You create obligations for yourself when you give your word, when you say, "I'm going to do this." When you make an agreement with someone, when you make a contract, when you give a promise, you create an obligation and it would be unjust or unrighteous for you to not fulfill it. So a just person is honest and faithful, not defrauding anyone by dishonesty. He is steadfast in keeping his promises and agreements, follows through on his commitments, even to his own hurt (Ps. 15:4). A righteous person does his duty. 

Rectifying Unrighteousness 

Now when those obligations are not kept, a debt is created. Justice calls out for judgment, that justice may be restored. That is part of the idea of righteousness as well. When the obligation is not met, there is now a punishment that is required or a restitution that needs to be given. Unrighteousness deserves condemnation and punishment. Restitution is required to rectify the injustice. If you steal from another person, you ought to at least give back what was taken, and more as the situation calls for it (Lev. 6:1-7). The thief that is caught ought to pay back double (Ex. 22:4, 7, 9) or more, depending on the situation (Ex. 22:1).

So righteousness refers both to being righteous as well as correctly rectifying unrighteousness. If we call someone a just person, that means that he lives justly, doing his duty. If he is a judge, for example, it also means that he is going to judge justly and maintain righteousness in that office. The magistrate is equipped with the sword to carry out God's wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom. 13:1-7). He is to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good (1 Peter 2:13-14). As Moses said, he is to judge with righteous judgment, to follow justice alone, and to maintain the cause of the righteous (Deut. 16:18-20).

But the magistrate is not the only one who should rectify injustice. As a private individual, you should not take vengeance or enforce justice by dealing out punishment, but if you have done wrong, you should not wait for someone to tell you to do what is right. You should seek to make it right on your own. Also, you can help maintain righteousness by protecting others from unrighteousness. If someone is about to harm someone else, step in the way or to give assistance. If you see someone about to get ripped off, call attention to the fraud that is being practiced or to help them to seek redress from the proper authorities. 

Righteousness and Piety 

In an earlier post I described piety as dutiful devotion to God that springs from reverence and gratitude. I had said that piety can be considered part of justice. It is what we owe God. God has all authority and power, and so we should revere him. He has also given you life and breath and everything, and so we ought to be grateful to him. You should be devoted to him out of gratitude and reverence. This is just. Additionally, piety leads a person to be righteous and just, for we serve God by fulfilling his commands to do what is right not only with respect to him, but also to our neighbor. 

Piety and righteousness are related in that they require each other. Without piety, your good deeds are profane. You are in hostility towards God. There might be great right justice or fairness among pirates, right? But they are all treasonous. They are all condemned. They are outlaws because they are in rebellion to the king. Likewise, impious people might do works that are outwardly righteous, while yet being at enmity with God and under his condemnation. Likewise, without righteousness, piety is hypocritical. "If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20). The person who worships God but then steals from his neighbor is hypocritical. Piety and righteousness go together as we serve God. Let us give thanks to God for declaring us righteous in Christ by his grace and then also let us pursue after righteousness that we might practice it in our lives.