Biblicism is reading the bible by itself and by one’s self, i.e., in isolation from the church. Sola scriptura means that Scripture alone is the sole, final authority for faith and life but it does not mean to declare either that believers read the bible in isolation from all other books nor does it mean to say that believers read the Scriptures in isolation from the church. Further, sola scriptura does not mean imply nor does it suggest that we should read Scripture as if no one has eve read it before. Such biblicism has a been a great temptation particularly in the modern period and perhaps especially by American evangelicals, where individualism in politics and economics (as advantageous as it is in those spheres) is carried over into ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) and into hermeneutics (the interpretation of texts) and theology. A second temptation that we face is to attempt to create a narrative about the history of Reformed theology by consulting various writers in the tradition, perhaps one’s favorites, and then using one’s reading of the tradition to determine what “the Reformed” view on a topic is. Here is yet another place where the Reformed confessions help. One the one hand, by learning the confessions and by reading Holy Scripture with our confessions to hand we avoid the danger of biblicism, which has almost always been accompanied by faith destroying rationalism On the other hand, the confessions signify for us that the consensus of the Reformed was (and is). Confessions, whether drafted by an individual and adopted by the churches, as in the case of the Belgic Confession, or drafted and adopted by the churches, as in the case of the Canons of Dort, tell us the consensus interpretation of the Scriptures. Thus, if an ostensibly Reformed writer proposes to establish what he perceives to be “the Reformed” view based upon his personal interpretation of Scripture (per biblicism) or derived from his favorite author at the expense of what is confessed by the churches, then we have a right to be skeptical. To be sure, the confessions may be revised and they may be revised on the basis of the interpretation of Scripture and in consultation with the tradition but that is an ecclesiastical process, whereby one overtures ecclesiastical assemblies (e.g., a consistory or session) and engages the whole church.
In the discussions over justification and salvation initially provoked by the Shepherdite theology, which morphed into the self-described, so-called, Federal Vision Theology, that have turned in recent years to discussions about sanctification it has been suggested that though we are justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) when it comes to the broader category of salvation we should think and speak differently. I have already addressed the history of the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) on this topic in a series of five detailed posts. I’ve given some consideration to Ephesians 2:8–10 on the relation of faith to the gift. Here I want to concentrate on the way the Reformed churches speak about justification and salvation.
Let us grant that it is appropriate to distinguish justification and salvation. The former is a narrower category and the latter is broader. Justification has no reference to sanctification. As Calvin said, “When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle.” Under the head of salvation, however, it is appropriate to discuss sanctification. That distinction having been made, some might be tempted to suggest that though we are justified sola gratia, sola fide, we are saved through faith and works or through faithfulness. Were such a suggestion to be made it would be contrary both to the mainstream of Reformed theology and to Scripture as it is confessed by the Reformed churches.
Though, under the heading of salvation, we may discuss sanctification it is not as if sanctification is any less gracious than justification. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is explicit:
Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
Note that whereas justification is said by the churches to be “the act of God’s free grace” (WSC 33) whereby God declares us to be righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and received through faith alone, sanctification is the “work of God’s free grace” in renewing us into Christ’s image. Justification is a declarative, definitive (once for all) act and sanctification is a gracious work or process. That is why we have usually spoken of justification as punctiliar and sanctification as progressive, i.e., ongoing. Rome (like all moralists) confuses justification and sanctification. She says that justification is sanctification and therefore progressive. According to Rome, we are presently being justified by grace and cooperation by grace but we are not yet justified. Scripture says the opposite:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1).
We who believe are presently and perfectly justified. There is no future justification. We are justified now and we shall be vindicated later.
Even when we come to discussing salvation, however, we confess that it too is through faith alone. E.g., the Westminster Shorter Catechism does not say that salvation is through faith and works (faithfulness). No it says that salvation is through faith:
Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.
Notice that faith is a saving grace. It receives and rests upon Christ not only for justification but also for salvation and that is offered through the gospel. Here we see that the churches speak about salvation just the way they speaks about justification.
This way of speaking occurs repeatedly.
Q. 89. How is the word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.
Clearly here salvation includes sanctification (e.g., converting, holiness) but even then notice the instrument of salvation: “through faith” and the outcome: “unto salvation.”
Q. 91. How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
A. The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.
The Spirit also operates through the sacraments. We reject the Romanist doctrine that the sacraments work ex opere. No, it is God the Spirit who works and he works through the sacraments but the blessings signified and sealed by the sacraments are received only by faith. In each case faith is the instrument of salvation.
In the history of the church, the biblicists have typically become Socinians and they rejected essential doctrines of the Christian faith including the doctrine of justification and salvation by free grace. Traditionalists have corrupted the doctrines of justification and salvation out of fear that gospel of free justification and salvation would not produce the sort of godliness that they want to see in Christians. Ultimately, the Socinians, the Romanists, and the moralists (e.g., Baxter) agreed: the gospel of free justification with God and free salvation must be rejected because it’s insufficient to produce the desired outcome. They agree with Paul’s opponents who asked, in response to the doctrine of free grace, “should we sin that grace may abound”? They too worried that Paul’s gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone would not produce the right outcome. They did not understand or accept that sanctification is a gospel mystery, that sanctification flows from the gospel.
Next time: The Belgic Confession.