The puritan doctrine of union and communion with Christ is not only a biblical doctrine, it is quite beneficial pastorally and theologically. Eventually, I would like to consider some uses of this doctrine, but for now I will focus on its meaning and biblical basis. And in good puritan fashion I will do so by making a number of points.
 
First, the doctrine of union and communion pertains to actual union or what is often called mystical or vital union. It is possible to speak of a union between Christ and the elect in terms of the decree and the federal headship of Christ. But these senses are quite different from an actual or mystical union and are not under our purview. An actual union with Christ refers to the moment when a sinner is united to Christ at his conversion, or in the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism, in his effectual calling (Q&A 66-67).
 
Second, union with Christ is a spiritual union that binds the believer to Christ. Ezekiel Hopkins noted that this union “is a high and inscrutable mystery,” as did Edward Reynolds who said that it “is one of ‘those deep things of God,’ which are not discernible without the Spirit.” Nonetheless, we know that it is “close, spiritual and real (1 Cor. 6:17, Hopkins),” and that it is comparable to “a body, consisting of divers members,” to a building, consisting of stones, to “an ‘ingrafture of a branch in a tree,” and to a marriage (Reynolds). Similarly, John Ball described union as being “engraffed into Christ, and made one with him, flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, lively members of that body, whereof he is the head (Rom. 11:17; John 15:1; Eph. 5:30).” Furthermore, our union with Christ is comparable to our former relationship with Adam. Reynolds says we are spiritually in and from Christ, the second Adam, even as we were naturally in and from Adam.
 
Third, union with Christ is by faith. Ball said that we are married to Christ by faith and that “faith is the band whereby we are united unto Christ.” Reynolds stated that the “formal effect of faith” is to unite a person to Christ and give possession of him (Eph. 3:17); and Hopkins noted that it is by faith “that we are made mystically one with Christ; living members in his body; fruitful branches of that heavenly and spiritual vine.” Interestingly, the Westminster Larger Catechism does not specifically mention that union is by faith but simply teaches that it is done in a person’s effectual calling. The Catechism’s definition of effectual calling is broad, however, and it includes both the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit and the sinner’s personal act of faith. It thus allows for one to place union in connection with regeneration or with faith or with both. Since union involves a reciprocal relationship or what Reynolds called a mutual act, wherein “Christ exhibiteth himself unto us, and we adhere and dwell in him,” it is theologically legitimate to do all three. In one place Reynolds said that the formal reason or bond of union is “the Spirit of Christ, by which, as by immortal and abiding seed, we are begotten anew unto Christ.” In another place, he said that faith is the bond of union (“the spiritual joint and ligament, by which Christ and a Christian are coupled,” Gal. 2:20; John 6) “on our part.” Similarly, Rowland Stedman said that union with Christ is a “mutual conjunction,” which involves “two great bonds or ligaments.” The bond on Christ’s part is the Spirit indwelling the believer (Rom. 8:9-10), and the bond on the sinner’s part is faith. When both “great bonds” are in place, Christ and the believer are “conjoyned, and made one together.” Thus, we could say, along with Herman Witsius in his book on a puritan debate that included this very issue, that a sinner is truly and really united to Christ by the Spirit at regeneration and thus before faith, but at faith, a “mutual union” takes place. In other words, Christ by his Spirit embraces the (passive) sinner in regeneration (a real union), and the (active) sinner embraces Christ back by faith (mutual union). The reciprocal nature of union means, therefore, that actual union may be considered from three angles: regeneration, faith, and effectual calling (i.e. regeneration and faith). Yet, since faith is what we do to unite to Christ, marks the completion of our union with him, and is a biblical way of speaking, it is most fitting to say that union with Christ is by faith.
 
Fourth, communion follows union. Once we are made one with Christ, we share in and partake of the salvation that is found in him. John Ball said that “after Union followeth Communion with him.” Similarly, Reynolds said that from union “doth immediately arise a communion with him in all such good things as he is pleased to communicate.” According to Ball, the fruits and benefits of communion are justification, adoption, and sanctification (see also WLC 69). In another place, he says that we have “communion with him in his death and resurrection, he and all his benefits are truly and verily made ours.”
 
Two quick observations are worth noting. First, justification and sanctification as well as every other saving benefit are rooted in union and communion with Christ. This means, for example, that union with Christ is necessary for and logically prior to justificaiton. Being joined to Christ by the Spirit through faith is thus foundational to personally experiencing salvation. Echoing the words of John Calvin (Institutes 3:1:1), Reynolds wrote, 
Wealth in the mine doth no good at all, till it be severed and appropriated to persons and uses. Water in the fountain is of no service unto me, till it be conveyed thence to mine own cistern. The light of the sun brings no comfort to him, who hath no eyes to enjoy it. So though Christ be a mine, full of excellent and unsearchable riches, - a fountain full of comforts and refreshments,-a sun of righteousness, - a captain and prince of life and salvation; yet till he be made ours, till there be some bond and communion between him and us, we remain poor and miserable, as if this fountain had never been opened, nor this mine discovered.
Second, Christ and his benefits are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other. Christ doesn’t save by going around handing out tickets to heaven. He saves by giving himself. Moreover, you can’t have one benefit and not the others. As Ball said, “he and all his benefits…”
 
Much more could and should be said about the puritan doctrine of union and communion with Christ, which I hope to do in the next article.
The doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of the gospel and the heartbeat of Christian faith and life. Before understanding how to apply the doctrine of the Trinity, however, we must understand clearly what this doctrine entails. Theodorus VanderGroe (1705-1784) helps us understand such truths through treating the distinction between the divine persons, followed by the unity of the Godhead.
 
Following the Heidelberg Catechism, VanderGroe began his treatment of the doctrine of God with his triunity. Noting God’s incomprensibility, he wrote, “I can give you nothing other than this inferior and imperfect summary of Jehovah God, and happy is he who may have even a small measure of such knowledge!” (1:127) He added that the reason why we assign the names Father, Son, and Spirit to God is that these are the names by which he revealed himself in Scripture (128). He divided this subject into treating these names and the proper work of each person. His first point was that Father receives his name through generating the Son from all eternity. The manner of this generation is simultaneously glorious and incomprehensible (citing John 5:26). He added that the Son receives his name, in turn, by being generated by the Father from all eternity. In an equally glorious and incomprehensible manner, the Spirit derives his name from eternal procession from the Father and the Son (127).
 
The Catechism next addressed the “extrinsic work” of each person, assigning creation to the Father, redemption to the Son, and sanctification to the Spirit (128). This followed the order of the Apostle’s Creed. This did not mean that the other persons were excluded from the particular works of each person, since all three persons “are equally engaged” in every divine work. This was an appeal to the common teaching of the church that the external works of the Godhead were undivided. This principle is important because it secures the unity of the Trinity even while assigning particular or appropriate works to each divine person. He concluded, “Therefore, they all work concurrently and simultaneously by their common power and eternal Godhead” (128). The particular works of the persons reflect their personal distinctions at work “in the divine economy.” In other words, the eternal order of the persons and how they relate to one another affects how they work in time.
 
VanderGroe next asserted that the Father originates the work of creation because he is “the eternal fountain and wellspring of the Godhead” (129). He works by his Son and the Father and the Son work together by the Spirit. While some authors, such as John Calvin, objected to calling the Father “the fountain of the Godhead,” most Reformed authors accepted the phrase. Calvin argued that eternal generation referred to the Son’s personhood, but not to his deity, since he thought that this would create subordination among the divine persons. However, the majority of Reformed authors taught that while the Son was God in and of himself, eternal generation entailed an eternal communication of Godhead from the Father to the Son. This applied equally to the procession of the Spirit, to whom the Father communicated deity and personhood through the Son. The reason why these authors did not view this teaching as resulting in inequality among the divine persons was that the Father communicated divine attributes to the other two persons, including self-existence. This was not the same thing as treating the Father as the cause of the divinity of the Son and the Spirit. What is incommunicable to the creation is communicable among the divine persons. Calling the Father the fountain of the Godhead was a means of retaining the eternal order of the persons in the Trinity. All three possess all divine attributes equally, but not in the same way. The idea was that though we can distinguish personhood and essence in the Godhead, we cannot divide them (as Calvin did).
 
The next question was that if the divine essence is one, how could we speak of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? VanderGroe argued that the fact that there is one God scarcely required proof. He cited only Deut. 6:4, Isa. 44:6, 45:22, and 1 Cor. 8:4 (130). He added that we must remember that we can know the doctrine of the Trinity from Scripture only (131). In arguing for the doctrine from Scripture, he began with the revelation of the divine persons and then moved to their unity as the one true God. Following a long-standing definition, he stated that a person was, “a rational and independent entity, gifted with an intellect and a will” (131). The Father is a person in light of Heb. 1:3. John 5:26 shows that the Son is a person. 1 Cor. 2:10 and 12:11 highlight the personality of the Spirit. These last two texts, in turn, ascribe intellect and will to the Spirit. These persons are not distinct in their divine essence, but only in their personal subsistences and works. 
 
He next added that divine persons are distinguished primarily by their personal properties. VanderGroe summarized, “The personal distinctive of the Father is that he generates the Son, and together with the Son, he causes the Holy Spirit to proceed from him. The personal distinctive of the Son is that he is begotten of the Father, and together with the Father, he also causes the Spirit to proceed from him. The personal distinctive of the Holy Spirit is that he proceeds both from the Father and from the Son” (132). He taught without explanation a distinctively western view of the Trinity by stating that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son instead of from the Father only. He added that though we cannot comprehend such things, we must follow the Scriptures, which reveal that each divine person has his own unique “subsistence and activity” (132).
 
The fact that there is only one true eternal God comes next in the HC. Assuming the clarity of the Scriptures in relation to this fact, VanderGroe went on to prove the deity of each divine person. Though many Western authors began with the unity of God and moved next to the divine persons, VanderGroe began with the divine persons and then proved that each of them was God from Scripture. This shows that where an author began his treatment of the Trinity was not necessarily an East versus West distinction. The deity of the Father is clear and obvious in Scripture (133). The Scriptures show the deity of the Son through his names, attributes, honor, and works. These were common categories in Reformed theology and Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 11 summarizes them well. The same criteria applied to the Spirit (134). 
 
VanderGroe concluded that faith in the doctrine of the Trinity was necessary for salvation. Echoing Calvin, he noted that those who do not believe that God is triune turn him into an idol. He argued that this was the case primarily because the Scriptures taught that this is who God is. (135). This appears to be insufficient, since Scripture teaches many things that are important, but that are not necessary for salvation, such as head coverings and infant baptism. The Scriptures teach that we know the divine persons best through depending on each of them for salvation. However, VanderGroe noted rightly that the most important thing for people to know is who God is, which they cannot do without knowing that he is triune.
 
Don't forget our current giveaway of a set of VanderGroe's sermons.
The Heidelberg Catechism has stood the test of time as one of the most beloved confessions used by many Reformed churches. It has also been common, especially from the time of the Synod of Dort in the early seventeenth-century, for Dutch Reformed ministers to preach sermons on the Catechism in the second service of the Lord’s Day. This enabled pastors to instruct their congregations regularly in the system of doctrine taught in Scripture. This has the advantage of keeping the whole counsel of God before the entire congregation, which is important for pastors to do through some venue or another in order to strengthen the church in sound doctrine and life.
 
Theodorus VanderGroe (1705-1784) was one of the last proponents of the so-called Dutch Second Reformation. This movement, which was a counterpart in many respects to English Puritanism, aimed to inculcate the experimental knowledge of God in the church. The Christian’s Only Comfort in Life and Death represents Bartel Elshout’s translation of VanderGroe’s sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism. This work, which was well-loved by many in its time and long afterwards, is now available in English for the first time. It is easy to read and full of helpful pastoral counsel.
 
VanderGroe’s sermons are simple and full of Scripture and application. The pastoral quality of this book pervades throughout. He rarely engaged in polemics beyond passing references in order to teach the truths of Scripture with greater clarity and power (e.g., 1:141, 269, 347). The sermons generally follow the division of the Catechism into fifty-two Lord’s Days, with the exception of adding several sermons treating the preface to the Ten Commandments and a few additional sermons at various points, in which he ran out of time to treat his subject fully in a single sermon. His treatment of the Ten Commandments is particularly helpful, since his exposition is brief, to the point, and edifying.
 
Another useful feature of this set is that VanderGroe appealed to the work of all three persons of the Trinity throughout, even concluding the entire work with a Trinitarian doxology. For example, in treating prayer, he wrote,
Thus, believers are fully in need of the triune God in all their prayers – one God, the Father, out of and from whom grace must proceed; one God, the Son, who must secure and make available this grace from the Father; and one God, the Holy Spirit, who must transmit the grace of the Father and the Son to believers and work it within their souls. Therefore, though believers end in God the Father in their prayers, they go to him through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit, they come to the Son and are united to him (2:439).
This trinitarian emphasis is welcome today, both in light of the increasing interest in the doctrine in many circles and in light of the common assumption that Reformed authors treated the Trinity only as an appendix to the doctrine of God. Vandergroe helps readers grow in devotion to the triune God even as they work their way through the entire system of Christian doctrine.
 
In spite of the usefulness of VanderGroe’s sermons, they are marked by some pastoral imbalances. Most of his direct application and exhortations were directed towards the unconverted exclusively. He frequently describes the blessedness of Christians without applying the truths of Scripture to them directly, exhorting those who do not match such descriptions simply to wait for the Spirit to work faith in them as they sit under the means of grace. This differs from the emphases of the New Testament, which directs people to exercise Spirit-wrought faith and repentance rather than merely waiting for it. He also gives the impression throughout that most of his readers are presumably outsiders to experiencing the glorious truths of Scripture. For example, he states that “thousands in the church” believe mistakenly that Christ died for them (1:336). While it is true that there are hypocrites mixed among true believers in the church, the tone of VanderGroe’s exhortation results in pastoral imbalance that runs the risk of discouraging many of his readers rather than teaching them how to exercise faith in Christ for all things.
 
At one point, VanderGroe imagined some in his audience complaining that while ministers should address faults in their sermons, they should not be so ready to condemn their hearers are being false Christians. He even depicted this audience as saying that the minister says many good things in his sermons, though he is at fault in condemning his hearers too readily. He responded that such hearers were unconverted (2:297). However, while this reviewer agrees with VanderGroe that ministers should press hearers to self-examination, he agrees with his imagined audience that his pastoral emphases were often imbalanced in favor of conviction at the expense of comfort. This does not match the tone of the Heidelberg Catechism, which addresses the issue of hypocrisy while expecting readers to exercise firm faith in Christ throughout. While VanderGroe’s teaching is often true in relation to this issue, he did not always present the truth with balance by accentuating its positive aspects. In this reviewer’s opinion, it is better, under self-examination, to exercise faith in Christ to supply all that we lack than to be left wondering whether we have faith in Christ at all. This kind of self-examination might even lead to more conversions in the long-run, with the Spirit’s blessing.
 
In spite of some deficiencies, The Christian’s Only Comfort in Life and Death is a welcome addition to the growing body of English translations of classic Reformed literature. Discerning readers will find much food for the soul in these pages. VanderGroe wrote excellently and frequently about Christ’s glory and the believer’s union with him, which enables readers to offset his pastoral imbalances. This book should help pastors, in particular, preach the whole counsel of God more effectively by providing them with a model of clarity and simplicity of style. It should help all readers meditate on the great truths embodied in the Heidelberg Catechism.
 
Don't forget our current giveaway of a set of VanderGroe's sermons.

Thanks to our friends at Reformation Heritage Books—the book sponsor of Meet the Puritans—we have one (1) set of the newly translated The Christian's Only Comfort in Life and Death: An Exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism by the influential Dutch Second Reformation preacher, Theodorus VanderGroe. Deadline to register is Friday, April 7.

Stay tuned this coming Monday and Tuesday for reviews and articles on this book to give you a sense of its valuable content.

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Pray for Meet the Puritans editor, Danny Hyde, as he travels and speaks at the second annual Soli Deo Gloria Conference in Santiago, Chile, Thursday, March 23-Saturday, March 25. He will be joining MtPs friends, Lee Gatiss and Mark Jones as they speak on the theme La Reforma Continúa, "The Reformation Continues."

Watch the stream on Youtube (Iglesia Cristo rey Las Condes) and Facebook (Ministerios Soli Deo Gloria).

¡Gloria a Dios!

Last time we examined the Anglican principle in how the Articles of Religion and the Book of Common Prayer form the confessional structure of our theology and worship. This time, we need to illustrate how the Articles have an almost narrative structure. In other words, what is established in the Articles that preceded, inform the content of a subsequent article. This principle may be an obvious principle to many, but there is a failing within American Anglican thinking to interpret an article as a proof-text, as it were, of their theological presuppositions.
 
II. Of the Word or Son of God, which was made very Man.
The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say the Godhead and manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead and buried, to reconcile his Father to us and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt but also for all actual sins of men.
Oliver O’Donovan reminds us that the exposition of our redemption in the life, death, and resurrection is the most weighty task in theology, and also the hardest. With the doctrine of the Trinity established in Article 1, the Thirty-nine Articles develops its doctrine still further in Articles 2 through Article 5, the doctrines of the person and work of Christ. The topic of Article 2 is the understanding the person and work of Jesus Christ in light of his gracious work to save: “The Son…took man’s nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin;” he “…truly suffered, was crucified, dead and buried.”
 
Like Article 1, this article substantially reproduces the Augsburg Confession of 1530 (Article 3) via Cranmer’s “first draft” Thirteen Articles of 1538. Article 2 was intended to summarize the teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ from the Nicene and Athanasian creeds. According to Gerald Bray’s Documents of the English Reformation, Cranmer's added phrases concerning eternal generation and consubstantiality are original (p. 286). Only the last phrase, clarifying the atonement, was added in 1563. Cranmer’s original reads: “to be a sacrifice for all sin of man, both original and actual” to “to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt but also for the all actual sins of men.”
 
The Article states that there are three things necessary for salvation to know:
  1. Christ is truly God, and he is truly man.
  2. Christ both truly God and man is united in one person. 
  3. Christ is our Savior. 
The Lord Jesus Christ is truly God because his essence or substance is divine. He has a whole and perfect divine nature. Complete in the Godhead, he is in an eternal and perfect relationship with the Father. He is wholly God and yet distinguishable in relation to the Father, as the Son (and he is begotten from everlasting of the Father). This relationality is termed his “generation” and is sometimes used synonymously with filiation.
 
When the Article refers to Christ as “Son,” we are not to think human terms, but of the precise language of the Nicene Creed (325AD) we regularly use in the Lord’s Supper of the Book of Common Prayer. When we use the term, Son, we do not mean that he is inferior to the Father, or that as the son he moves from non-being to existence, but an eternal and perpetual relation in the Godhead. It is an unchanging activity that is in God’s very essence as Trinity. We are aware of this relationship because as the "Word" of the Father, the Son perfectly and completely expresses the one and revealed the purpose of God.
 
To enable human beings to be in a real personal relationship with God and for the salvation of human beings to be accomplished, it was necessary for Jesus also to be truly human as he is truly divine. This is the incarnation, the conception by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Thus, Christ gained a full, true human nature. It is the incarnation that draws the two entire and perfect natures together in one Person, never to be divided. The two natures are distinct, not separate. This understanding was the fruit of centuries of reflection that culminated in the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
 
Having established Jesus’ perfect divinity and humanity, the article summarizes how he is uniquely and perfectly the Savior of his people. Salvation is first rooted in the real historical events of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. In his human nature, the Lord Jesus “truly suffered, was crucified, dead and buried.” His resurrection is set out in Article 4, but Article 2 sets his work both temporally and logically in his death. 
 
Article 2 emphasizes that Jesus’ death brings reconciliation with the Father and is an atoning sacrifice. The latter we understand readily, but what of the former when most of Scripture speaks more of us being reconciled to God? The article underlines the point that our real problem is that our sinfulness deserves God’s righteous anger, and only the death of the transgressor will satisfy the violation of his holiness. Article 2 stresses that Jesus is our Savior because he is “a sacrifice” for our original guilt and actual sins. It is a substitutionary atonement: Jesus according to his human nature dies in our place, satisfying God's perfect justice. The language change made in 1563 is the language used in the Roman Catholic view of the Council of Trent (1545-1563): that while Jesus’ death dealt with original guilt inherited from Adam, it required the sacrifices of Mass to deal with our actual sins. However, the Article affirms Jesus’ one perfect sacrifice is sufficient in itself to atone. 
 
Although written to counter Roman Catholic theology, it is today’s Arminian Anglicans that have a lot of trouble accepting original guilt, and among Baptists, there is the "age of accountability" so that children are not born guilty or culpable before God until they reach a certain age when they can make their decisions. 
An Arminian Anglican would argue that we have Adam’s corrupt nature but not Adam’s guilt. Therefore human beings are corrupted physically and intellectually, but not volitionally. Therefore the will retains its ability to seek God through the invention of prevenient grace that replaces original guilt. God gives a prior grace that nullifies the legal guilt. When an Arminian Anglican insists that Article 17 (Of Predestination and Election) will allow a free will, they have forgotten the point in Article 2 points on the nature of Christ's atonement for Adam's guilt. We will need to revisit this principle when we come to Article 28 and the Prayer Book on the sacrament of baptism.
 
For previous articles in this series, see:
  1. Introduction
  2. One God in Trinity, Trinity in Unity (Art. 1)
Continuing our series on the covenant theology of the Westminster Standards (see parts #1, #2), the third element of a covenant, namely conditions, may be the most controversial and perhaps the most confusing. In fact, at least some of the controversy over the conditionality of the covenant of grace is due to the confusion surrounding the meaning and use of the word “condition.”
 
Theological words and phrases may and do have multiple meanings. For example, the phrase “republication of the covenant of works” may refer to a number of different and quite distinct views. The same may be true of “the two kingdoms” or “covenantal justification.” Consequently, a person may hold to one understanding of republication, of the two kingdoms, and of covenantal justification and reject other understandings of those very same terms. Or a person may reject the terms themselves but keep the concepts and refer to them by different names. For example, a person may reject the term “covenant of works,” but still embrace the theology behind that term and refer to it by “covenant of life” or “Adamic Administration.”
 
All of this and more is true of the theological term “condition.” Many puritans used it and by it they generally meant whatever is required on our part in the covenant of grace. Although they were careful in their use of the word to avoid legalism, Arminianism and Romanism, they were sometimes still accused of all three. Of the puritans who embraced conditionality, some believed that faith, repentance, and obedience are all conditions, albeit in different senses; while others believed that faith is the only condition of the covenant. Samuel Rutherford, for example, argued that faith is the condition of the covenant while “holiness and sanctification is the condition of the Covenanters.”
 
There were some puritans who rejected the term “condition” altogether. Tobias Crisp argued that there were no conditions in any sense. Faith, thus, is not a condition or requirement of salvation, it is rather evidence of salvation. William Bridge wrote in 1667 that there were no conditions in the new covenant, which he limited to the elect, because if a requirement on our part is promised then it can’t be a condition. Even faith, therefore, is not a condition because God promises to give faith to his people.  ridge did, however, believe that faith, obedience and repentance are required in the covenant as duties.
 
In light of these disagreements, what do the Westminster Standards say about conditions and the covenant of the grace? Since, antinomianism, which categorically rejected all conditions, was considered to be a grave threat to orthodoxy in mid-17th century England, it is not surprising at all that not only the theology but the term “condition” is found in the Westminster Standards. Westminster Confession of Faith 7.3 says that the Lord requires man to have faith in order to be saved. Similarly, Westminster Larger Catechism 32 says that faith is required as “the condition to interest them [sinners] in him [the Mediator].” Although the Standards speak of repentance and good works as necessary for salvation in a broad sense, they do not employ the word “condition” with respect to either of them. Thus, strictly speaking only faith is the condition of the covenant of grace.
 
Since a good number of puritans believed that repentance and obedience are also conditions of the covenant, it is noteworthy that the Standards limit the condition to faith. What accounts for this? The Standards were probably so formulated in order to accommodate the views of those who limited the condition of the covenant to faith such as Samuel Rutherford. By affirming that faith is a condition, by not denying that repentance and obedience are conditions, and by expressing the necessity of repentance and obedience, the Westminster divines produced a document that rejected antinomianism on the one hand, and embraced the varied opinions concerning conditionality on the other hand. The Westminster Standards, therefore, are, at least with respect to the topic of covenant conditions, a fine example of a Reformed consensus document.

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The Puritans set high standards for preaching. They believed they should preach the Bible from their own experience of it and apply what they preached to the particular needs of their hearers. But as much as we admire the Puritans, we should not slavishly imitate them, but critically examine their approach to preaching. My topic for the next two posts is “Should We Preach like the Puritans?” In this first post I will answer “no.” In the second I will answer "yes.”
 
The Puritans followed an educational method called "Ramism" after French philosopher Petrus Ramus (1515–1572) who attempted to modify Aristotelian philosophy by orienting it toward practical godliness instead of intellectual speculation. In many ways, the Ramist approach helped Puritans to analyze a topic theologically and practically. However, Ramism also introduced a methodological complexity to preaching that few modern hearers can receive well. Let me offer some specifics.
 
1. Do Not Structure Sermons by Theology but Exegesis
The typical Puritan sermon began with an exegetical introduction that derived a specific doctrinal proposition. This was broken down into its parts and expounded. Finally, various applications were made. John Flavel’s (1628-1691) sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:30 is an example (Works 2:15–33). He began by speaking of the excellence of Christ and arguing that we must have his benefits applied to us. He then examined the four benefits: wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. This led to his main doctrine: “The Lord Jesus, with all his precious benefits, becomes ours, by God’s special and effectual application,” which in turn led to several doctrinal propositions and seven practical inferences. In print, the exegesis fills only three pages; the doctrines and applications occupy fifteen.
 
As much as we can learn from Flavel, I do not believe that this is the best way to preach today. I am not against topical or doctrinal preaching; in my Dutch Reformed tradition, we regularly preach based on the Heidelberg Catechism. However, the standard Puritan method places systematic theology in the foreground and the particular words of Scripture in the background. We would do better to reverse this and devote the whole sermon to expounding and applying the message of a particular text.
 
2. Do Not Multiply Points but Strive for Simplicity
The Ramist method analyzed a topic by dividing it into categories, and those categories into sub-categories with each level becoming more specific. The aim was to avoid abstract generalities and to discuss a topic with a level of detail and concreteness that facilitated practical application. For example, Peter Vinke's (d. 1702) sermon on original sin (Puritan Sermons, 1659–1689, 5:115-134). His text was Romans 6:6, which he handled in a single page. After the intro, he propounded two main doctrinal headings and one practical. Point 1 has two sub-points; the first sub-point contains four sub-sub-points; the fourth of these sub-sub points contains two sub-sub-sub-points. You get the point! The outline contains sixty-four points organized in six descending levels.
 
Don’t try this at your church! The Puritan method system of education prepared people to listen in this way; ours does not. In all fairness, we should also remember that Puritan sermons as they appears in print may not reflect exactly how they were preached as authors would later revise them for publication. Nevertheless, the Puritan style of preaching involved a complexity of structure that most modern hearers cannot sustain well in their minds.
 
3. Do Not Overwhelm with Applications but Focus
The Puritans called applications “uses.” They developed multiple uses for different spiritual conditions of people as well as different kinds of applying Scripture. Their preaching was so rich in application that it functioned as a kind of biblical counseling from the pulpit. However, the effect of such elaborate schemes of application was to blunt the effect of the whole sermon. For example, consider a sermon by Thomas Manton (1620–1677) on Isaiah 53:5 (Works, 3:272-295). He had three main doctrines. The first had two uses, the first of which was consolation for the suffering, subdivided into people suffering at the hands of their families and friends, or from general rejection, legal injustice, and public contempt. The second doctrine had another two uses: confutation of theological errors of the Socinians and Papists and exhortation for people to look upon Christ’s suffering for sins with faith, love, and repentance from sin. The third doctrine was divided in two, each with two applications. From a single verse he made eight distinct applications.
 
If we visualize his uses, the effect is somewhat like shooting with a shotgun loaded with scatter shot. You may hit many targets, but you will not take any of them down. It is wiser to structure a sermon as a high-powered rifle with a scope. Make application with each main point of your sermon, but align the applications so that they all have one unified thrust, which is the main thrust of the text.
 
4. Do Not Preach Too Many Sermons on One Topic or Verse but Keep Moving
The Puritans’ thorough approach often resulted in extended sermon series, which you can see in their books, many of which consist of published sermons. Robert Traill (1642–1716) preached sixteen sermons on only one verse: John 17:24 (Works, 2:1-298). Thomas Hooker’s (1586–1647) sermons on Acts 2:37 and the breaking of the heart over sin prior to conversion fill seven hundred pages in the original edition (reprinted as "The Application of Redemption"). Hooker spent so much time on the series on contrition over sin that it could have made the love and forgiveness of Christ seem distant to his hearers. This method makes for excellent reading but will not work well as a series of messages today.
 
5. Do Not Preach with Too Many Cross-References but Only a Few
It is amazing to see the Puritans’ grasp of the whole Bible, especially knowing that they lived long before the days of Bible software and internet search engines. They drew proof texts from all over the Old and New Testaments. For example, Owen preached two sermons on Romans 1:16 (Works, 9:217–37), citing fifty texts; Flavel’s sermon on John 3:16 cites thirty-three texts (Works, 1:62–72).
 
The great strength of this is that it roots systematic theology in the whole Bible. This wide-ranging knowledge of God’s Word that men like these had at the tip of their tongues should humble us. However, the main text had a tendency to be obscured. We should use cross-references to confirm the doctrines we derive from the main text, but it is best to focus on an exposition of one text, and cite only one or two cross-references for each point. If you are going to preach Romans 1:16 or John 3:16, then allow that text to control your sermon and press its major thrust of application upon your listeners with all your might.
 
In critiquing Puritan preaching, we do not dishonor the Puritans as faithful servants of God, but only acknowledge that they were mere men, fallen and fallible, and men of a particular time and place. Even as we disagree with their methods, let us admire their zeal and effectiveness under the blessing of God’s Spirit.
In our previous three posts (#1, #2, #3), we considered questions on hell from Puritan Christopher Love’s Heaven’s Glory, Hell’s Terror (1653). In this post, we will examine his perspective on the controversial doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell. Again, I will pose the question he asks (specifically on this issue) then answer as if Love were speaking to us. We will then conclude with some analysis on his position. 
 
Did Jesus personally descend into hell as the place of torment? 
No. Related to the phrase in the Apostles Creed, “he descended into hell,” Jesus did not descend into hell literally or virtually. Likewise, the phrase must not be regarded as synonymous with the power of death.
 
First, Jesus did not descend into hell literally. Luke as a careful historian (see Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1) does not mention this personal descent, which he would surely would have done had it occurred. Likewise, that Jesus rested in the grave the day he died denies a literal descent. In connection with physical burial, Jesus in his soul entered his Father’s presence (Luke 23:43). This occurred according to the promise made to the thief of entering paradise with Jesus “today.” The explanations for his physical descent are faulty. Such include the idea that he needed to: deliver souls out of hell; make further satisfaction due to the incompleteness of that on the cross, or “vanquish and overcome the Devil.” Indeed, Christ’s satisfaction was “finished” at his death (John 19:30) and he overcame the devil “by dying” (Heb 2:14). In the end, the physical descent “is both disagreeable to Scripture and Reason.”
 
Second, we must reject the idea that the phrase is synonymous with either “the power of death” or hell “virtually” by way of the cross. Such explanations corrupt “mens judgements more,” by dismissing the “generality of Intrepreters” who argue for the literal understanding of the phrase. So, rather than altering the phrase to make it more palatable, we need to do away with it entirely in the Apostles’ Creed.  So, while Love believed that Christ suffered the torments of hell on the cross, the use of this clause in the original Creed did not teach this. 
 
Analysis
Most Reformed theologians differ with Love who wanted to take the phrase out of the Creed entirely. Many of such believe that the phrase is simply a synonym for death with “hell” denoting Hades or the realm of the dead.  Two other popular views were mentioned above by Love, namely, that the descent clause symbolizes Christ’s sufferings on the cross (implying descent before burial) or refers to the curse of death he endured. John Calvin held to the first of these two (Institutes 2.16.8-12) and The Westminster Larger Catechism set forth the second (see Q.50). 
 
Our own Danny Hyde’s In Defense of the Descent identifies six major interpretations of the descent clause, these two symbolic ones and four variances of the literal descent. He finally argues for a combination of the two symbolic views (as in Calvin’s 1545 Catechism of the Church of Geneva, Q&A 65-72) to teach: “As to the body of Jesus Christ, He descended into the state of death, As to the soul of Jesus Christ, He suffered the agonies of hell.” 
 
For Wayne Grudem in, "He Did Not Descend," the various interpretations are in some sense moot, since the clause did not appear in the earlier forms of the Creed and when it finally did was considered a synonym for burial. Such thinking, in line with Love, maintains that Jesus may have suffered the agonies of hell on the cross, but the original clause did not teach this.  
 
I am sympathetic with the doctrine Danny Hyde espouses in line with Reformed Orthodoxy. However, I am also sympathetic with Grudem that the Creed did not teach this originally when the clause eventually found its way into the text. Besides, the clause “he descended into hell,” fails to express such theology and remains “confusing” and “misleading.” Were we to ask the majority of Christians today what this clause means, such misunderstanding would quickly become apparent. 
 
I do not like changing creeds, especially when they unite the church through history preserving solidarity and in hope that nothing will stop the progress of the church. However, we cannot preserve unity at the expense of integrity. If the original usage did not teach this, we do not have the liberty to make the Creed say it, even if the thought is orthodox. In other words, the Creed cannot be treated as a wax nose shaped as we please while claiming, “Look, it’s the same nose. It’s all there after all, is it not?”
 
Many Americans despise such treatment of the Constitution by the Supreme Court who often maintain wording while transforming authorial intention. Many Evangelicals protested the same with the supposed creedal agreement between Catholics and Evangelicals in “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994). For example, how can we agree on the wording for the teaching of justification, when the words mean something different for the two traditions? Similarly, why do we feel at liberty to change the meaning of a clause in the Creed just so we can preserve its wording? Have we not detracted from the unity we supposedly enjoy with the original authors of the document? 
 
With this in mind, I believe we ought to remove the clause or at least clarify it in a modern form. So, our options are two: (1) Remove the clause entirely with an appeal to the earlier forms of the Creed and/or the idea that early usage of “he descended” simply repeats “was buried”;  (2) Modernize the language of the early usage to remove the confusion of descent into “hell,” which the majority of the Reformed do not hold in a literal sense. Why not say something like “he descended into Hades” (with a footnote indicating Hades as the realm of the dead) or “he went to the dead” (as some modern Lutheran forms do–contrary to Luther), which preserves early usage of the phrase? 
 
Some say that this changes the creed and detracts from ecclesiastical unity. I am perplexed by this as most Christians rightly allow and justify modern English translations of the Bible. Why not set forth modern versions of the Creed seeking to preserve not only original wording (formal equivalence/word-for-word translation from Latin) but also original meaning (functional equivalence/thought-for-thought translation). In the end, a good translation seeks to preserve both wording and meaning in a balanced manner. In this way, we can justify, for example, modern versions of the Westminster Standards (which I personally do not like but see how helpful they can be). So, if the clause “he descended into hell” causes confusion, why not modernize it without losing its meaning of being synonymous with burial? Let us be done with this clause, which most Christians fail to understand, not because it is unclear in English but just the opposite. 
 
Did Christ descend into hell? No and Yes, but let us clarify.