Should a D.Min be called ‘Doctor’?

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letter-lLast month we talked about what a DMin is, and we ended that article with the question of whether or not someone who has earned a DMin should be referred to as ‘Doctor’.

So let’s talk about that.

At a glance the obvious answer would be “well of course they should be called doctor, it’s right there in the degree: Doctor of Ministry.” For many, though, this is not an adequate response, mainly because it is seen as giving the DMin too much credit, as putting in on par with a PhD.

Others say that neither of those should really be called doctor, that we should reserve the term for those in the medical profession (think Tim Allen’s character in The Santa Clause not wanting Neil to be referred to as a doctor since he’s just a psychiatrist).

To begin to answer this question let’s first look at the history of the term doctor.

At its base definition, the term doctor historically refers to an eminent theologian declared a sound expounder of doctrine or simply a learned or authoritative teacher. Etymologically, the word derives from the Latin verb docere ‘to teach’ (especially in reference to doctrine). It was first used by Cicero in his discussions of rhetoric and picked up by the early church to refer to the apostles, church fathers, and other authorities on the Bible (such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome as doctor ecclesiae, ‘doctor of the church’).

John Calvin expanded this designation into a more official office of the church (along with pastors, elders, and deacons), where their duty was to “the interpretation of Scripture only, in order that pure and sound doctrine may be maintained among believers.”

If we are basing our conclusions on etymology, it is likely safe to say that the one who has achieved a DMin fits  into this definition.

On the flip side, it could theoretically be asserted that – following Calvin’s model – that the DMin is disqualified because it is a degree pursued by pastors, by people who preside over discipline, the administration of the sacraments, admonitions, and exhortations, not people who’s sole job is to properly interpret the Scriptures.

If we choose to go with the loose definition, a DMin suffices as someone who is [ideally] a sound expositor of doctrine or a learned teacher in the church. The pastor by any definition is also a teacher, and if they have studied far enough to earn a DMin then they certainly qualify as a learned teacher of the church. If we choose to go with Calvin’s strict formulation of the offices of the church, then it might not.

Etymology seems to provide a case either way, so let’s look at academic rigor instead. One reason often given for not honoring DMins with the title of doctor is that the DMin is really just a fluff degree, ‘PhD Lite’, or a watered-down doctorate (as we saw last time, the fact of the matter is that it’s just a different type of degree).

The question is then raised, how do a PhD and a DMin stack up against one another academically?

In answering this question let’s look at a case study. Let’s look at Westminster Theological Seminary and compare the requirements for a DMin versus those of a PhD (assuming you did your entire academic tenure there beginning after undergraduate).

Below is a breakdown of what a student at WTS would  go through start to finish, based off an MAR leading up to the PhD and an MDiv to the DMin (note, this is a breakdown I put together based upon the information provided on the WTS website).

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So how do they stack up?

The PhD is a longer program than a DMin, and also has a much more substantial final project in its dissertation as opposed to the applied research project of the DMin. On the flip side, in the end a DMin will have taken quite a few more semester hours overall, and it would likely take an individual longer to get an MDiv and a DMin.

That is all merely to say, the PhD is no doubt more intense than a DMin, but the amount of coursework required to achieve a DMin is no pushover.

Note: We might also point out here that it is not accurate to compare the DMin to something like a Juris Doctor (which is a master’s level degree). A more apt comparison would be between someone in the medical field getting an M.D. versus a PhD in medicine.

Basing this case study at Westminster also gives the PhD an even higher boost. The average master’s-level degree is closer to 36 semester hours; thus, if a student earned a standard master degree and chose to go to a school that didn’t require the learning of Greek and Hebrew, the PhD would top out at 72 semester hours and 2 languages, compared to the DMin requiring well over 100 semester hours of coursework regardless.

This means that it is perfectly possible -and indeed, likely – to have a PhD who has completed about half as many semester hours as a DMin.

There is certainly something to be said for the dissertation, but there is also certainly something to be said for potentially having gone through twice as many semester hours; granted, this is largely due to the mammoth size of the standard MDiv, but I’d contend one should take the MDiv into account.

Given all of this, is it appropriate to refer to a DMin as doctor?

In my opinion, yes, based both on the historic usage of the term and on the amount of coursework put into earning the degree. By the time someone has finished a DMin they should certainly qualify as a sound expositor of doctrine and a learned teacher in the church, and they will have potentially done much more bare coursework than the average PhD.

That said, what should be avoided – and the thing that many objectors have a problem with – is the desire to be called doctor; that is, a minister who insists that those around them refer to them as a ‘doctor’ or who introduce themselves as such. There is a temptation towards pride that must be guarded against (though the same can be said of the PhD).

It as accurate to refer to a DMin as ‘doctor’, though whether it is prudent is perhaps a matter of circumstance, and we can probably agree that anybody who mandates that they be referred to in that manner is a prig.

Knowing Who Christ Is, What He Has Promised, And Expecting This Of Him – The Person & Work of Christ

cross.pngLetter IIn his classic book All of Grace, C.H. Spurgeon makes the statement in regards to Christianity that “Faith is believing that Christ is what He is said to be, and that He will do what He has promised to do, and then to expect this of Him.” If this is accepted as an accurate description of what the Christian faith entails, then the we must analyze what these things are which are to be believed.

If faith is believing that Christ is what he is said to be, it must be determined what Christ is said to be. If faith is believing that Christ will do what He has promised to do, it must be determined what Christ has promised.

Only after this is done may we as Christians move on to the sphere of trusting in or expecting this of Christ; so, it must be determined who Christ was and what he did, does, or will do.

Before any of this may be done it is first necessary to construct some basic context from which we as Christians may view the person and work of Christ. Historic Christianity in such texts as the Athanasian Creed has asserted that Christ is both God and man.

In order to set the context it is necessary to analyze both God and man individually, before proceeding to the Christ who embodies both – or as John Calvin states in the first line of his tremendous Institutes of the Christian Religion, our wisdom “consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

Laying the Groundwork: God and Man

In speaking of God and of mankind, one thing which may be immediately noticed is that there is a gulf between God and man, a gulf which is twofold.

On the one hand, there is a gulf of class between God and man – we are not of the same type. God “is a Spirit,” is “eternal, immortal, invisible,” is sovereign and therefore “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will,” and that He has “made the world and all things therein” and is in need of nothing. Man, however, is created, and this is the most fundamental distinction that can be made, that between the Creator and the creature.

There is this gulf of class; yet God, as invisible creator, reveals himself.

After creating man in the garden he does not disappear from the scene, leaving man to wonder how he happened to come about, but rather communes with and speaks to him.

From this simple survey that has been made of Scripture regarding God and creation, two intertwined ideas emerge: one, that God is gracious, for not only does he create man who he does not need, but he communes with that man. In this communing with man he reveals himself to man, thus, he is revelatory in his grace; he does not disappear but rather communicates with his creation.

As is noted by Berkhof “Revelation is an act of grace…” He is revelatory in his grace, and he reveals his grace; thus, a chief theme to be had is the revealing of God’s grace to man, for God’s own glory in his eternal purpose.

God reveals his grace first, merely by creating and communing with man, and second, by covenanting with that man so that they might – as The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it – have “fruition of him as their blessedness and reward” achieved by “voluntary condescension on God’s part…”

The language of the divines further reinforces the gracious aspect of God’s covenant: God condescended to covenant with man.

This covenant serves as introduction to the second gulf which exists between God and man, the gulf of fellowship. God made this initial covenant – the covenant of works – with Adam, and in this covenant he fell from his good moral standing with God: man was “driven out of the garden,” “cursed,” subject to death having “transgressed the law,” have been made subject to Satan “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” and not only this, but all of creation fell with us.

Man stands out of fellowship with God, subject to death, and under the condemnation of the lawn the light of this context the Christian may then discuss the person and work of Christ, understanding the nature of God, the state of man, and the need for reconciliation; and not only in need of reconciliation, but unable to achieve this on his own, for “nothing good dwells in me” and “the carnal min dis enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.”

The Person of Christ

As noted by Spurgeon above, a vital aspect of the Christian faith is who Christ is; and as is noted in the Westminster Confession of Faith, everything that is necessary for God’s glory or for man’s salvation, faith, and life, “is either expressly set down in Scripture,” or may be derived from them.

In looking at the doctrines of the person of Christ it is necessary to first look to Scripture, and in doing so two main things can be observed regarding Christ, the first that he is Son of God, and as such, is God, one of the three members of the Trinity; the second that he is the son of man – and as such, is a man. Thus, he is both human and divine.

The most clear indication of this truth may be found in The Great Commission as presented by Matthew, where Jesus is seen as calling the disciples to go and baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” implying that he is on equal par with the Father and the Spirit.

While this is more of an implication that Christ is God, a more direct statement can be found in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, where John begins with the statement “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and then continues “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth,” shortly thereafter clarifying that this Word is Christ Jesus (ie, the one who John bore witness about, and by noting that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”).

Thus, John addressed well the first aspect of Christ’s natures, that he is God.

Perhaps the text which best deals with the humanity of Christ is Hebrews, where the author states that “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things…” A full and straightforward statement of the duality that manifests itself in Christ can be found in Philippians, where Paul states in regard to Jesus that “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

While this verse from Philippians alone might lead to the notion that Christ merely took on the appearance of a man, when one takes it in conjunction with the rest of Scripture – in this case the verse from Hebrews 2, or perhaps the birth narrative as given in Luke – it is clear that the second person of the Trinity indeed became fully man, in the flesh. Just from the brief survey of texts given above, it can be observed that Christ was both God and man.

Saint-Athanasius-of-Alexandria-icon-Sozopol-Bulgaria-17century.jpgThe historic church addressed this issue directly in the wake of the Arian heresy – which denied the deity of Christ – and the gnostic heresy – which split the fleshly aspect of Jesus from the divine aspect of Christ. Thus the Athanasian Creed may be seen stating that Christ is “God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world.” The Westminster Confession of Faith similarly addresses the issue with its statement that: The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof… So that two whole, perfect, distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person.

Despite that such strong statements have been made by the historic church, the controversy has not completely abated with the years, and during the enlightenment and the following ‘modern’ age the question was once again raised – this time in the name of ‘reason’ and rationalism – whether Jesus was actually God or merely a man, with Protestant Liberalism taking the position that Jesus was merely a man. 

If our own human reason is our ultimate authority, then it may be reasonable to reject the more supernatural aspects of Christ. Yet, if we have a proper understanding of authority and upon what our reason rests, we will know – with Pascal – that “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.” Or with Van Til that “God makes the facts what they are to be”11 for contrary to the view that reason is autonomous, man’s mind “is surrounded by nothing but revelation.” 

In this can be seen the central theme once again of the revealing of God’s grace to man, specifically, the inherently revelational aspect of everything that we think and do.

Our mind’s are surrounded by nothing but revelation, and that revelation is revealing the grace of God, which can be seen most clearly in the work of Christ.

The Work of Christ

From the very creation of man, God condescended in his grace to reveal himself to man, and to covenant with man.

Man, having broken that covenant, broke the original fellowship with God.

The two natures of Christ as laid out above sets the stage for the work of Christ and perhaps this is best seen by analyzing why Christ was who he was; that is, why in the work of Christ he could not have been merely God, or merely man, or something else such as an angel. It has been seen that Christ is both God and man, and in looking at the work of Christ it will be seen that this is for a certain purpose.

As has been laid out, man was put at enmity with God through the original fall, and indeed all of creation was subjected to this fall. God, in the eternal purpose of his revelatory grace, sent his Son to bridge the gulf of fellowship created by man. The work of Christ in doing this is many faceted.

Alistair McGrath enunciates at least three ways in which Christ works: that he reveals God, that he is the bearer of salvation, and that he defines the shape of the redeemed life. Fairbairn discusses the death of Christ as the definition of love, and as the death of death. Or as Berkhof in section on the person and work of Christ stresses the threefold office of Christ, that in his work as mediator he acts a prophet, priest, and king, which is a reflection on the way The Westminster Confession of Faith discusses the issue, noting that Christ as the only Son of God was ordained by God: …to be the Mediator between God and man, the Prophet, Priest, and King, the Head and Savior of his church, the Heir of all things, and Judge of the world: unto whom he did from all eternity give a people, to be his seed, and to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified,and glorified.

It can be noted especially here in the Confession that Christ came to act as a mediator between God and man, for as has been said, the exists a gulf between the two. Thus, Christ came to be a mediator regarding that gulf; as it says in 1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

So, this mediation is the primary focus of the work of Christ. The ‘why’ of this work can be seen – firstly – in the eternal degree of God “foreordained before the foundation of the world”; God ordained from eternity that he should bring a people to himself “having predestined us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace…”

Secondly, the ‘why’ of this work can be seen in the gracious and merciful aspect of God, which since creation has brought about fellowship with his creation, and thus in this grace he ordained to bridge that gulf.

Thirdly, the ‘why’ of this work can be seen in the justice of God, for as has been noted, man transgressed against the law of God, and in doing so brought death upon himself – hence Romans 6:23 states that the wages of sin is death, and man has sinned. Man warranted death; as God is a just God, this sin needed dealt with, and as God is a holy God, he could not allow this sin into presence.

Thus, God ordained Christ as mediator, to serve as a substitute for the satisfaction of penalty due for man’s sins; and not merely as a substitute to remove a penalty, but to rescue man from the sin, from the devil, to bring man back into full fellowship with God.

The Person of Christ in Relation to the Work of Christ

In doing this it was necessary that Christ be both God and man.

In regards to Christ as God, it is necessary that he be God because it is the grace of God which is being revealed, and this implies a condescension on God’s part. Man cannot bring himself up to the level of God, therefore God must come down to the level of man; thus, Christ must have been God such that God would be the one descending. This was also necessary because it is as God that Christ was able to take on the infinite value of sacrifice that needed to be rendered and thereby bear God’s full wrath.

It was necessary that Christ be God, merely because God ordained that Christ should be God – and this, in truth, is the ultimate justification for why anything should be the way it is.

If we had no further explanation as to why Christ came or to why anything regarding the relationship between God and man is the way that it is, we need look no further than that God has ordained it, and on this ground alone it is good and proper.

As C width=hapter 8 of The Westminster Confession begins “It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only begotten Son, to be the Mediator…” In regards to Christ as man, it is necessary that he be man – apart from the mere good pleasure of God – because it is man that is being redeemed.

It is man who has sinned, and it is man who is in need of punishment. Furthermore, it is man, who through his rebellion, has contaminated himself with a sinful nature.

In order to deal with sin he had to take on the nature of those who were in sin, as Berkhof states “Since man sinned, it was necessary that the penalty should be borne by man.”

Finally, Christ needed to be man in order to fulfill the role of federal headship; Christ needed to fill the same role for the human race that Adam did originally.

This can be seen in such verses as 1 Corinthians 15:22 “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive”, as well as verse 44 that “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” Naturally, in order to serve as head of mankind, it was necessary for Christ to be man.

The Ends and Effects of Christ’s Work

It has been seen thus far that God in the eternal plan of his revelatory grace, deemed it proper to create man and to fellowship with him, to covenant with him, and when man broke that covenant, to reconcile man once again back into fellowship.

Given that man had sinned against God and that man could not bridge this gap on his own, it was necessary for God to condescend once again – this time in the form of Christ – in order to bring redemption and atonement to those which He had called to be His people. The ends and effects of this redemption are multi-faceted, as has already been noted once.

While there are many ways of approaching this, one of the most precise is that offered by John Owen in his masterpiece The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. The chief effects of the death of Christ – as laid out by Owen – include the entirety of man’s being brought back into the fellowship of God.

It includes first, reconciliation to God, by removing the enmity between us; second, justification, by taking the guilt of our sins, pardoning them, and freeing us from the power of them; third, sanctification, by removing from us the pollution of our sins and renewing in us the image of God; fourth, adoption, with all the privileges thereof; and lastly, these effects bring us into final glory with God in heaven.

Thus: “The death and blood-shedding of Jesus Christ hath wrought, and doth effectually procure, for all those that are concerned in it, eternal redemption, consisting in grace here and glory hereafter.”

Christ does not merely stop at the cross, once the legal penalty has been paid for our sins and he has taken our place, but rather continues through and through all aspects of the Christian life.

It is the death of Christ that provides the initial reconciliation and pardons our sin, and it is also that which frees us from our sin.

Yet merely pardoning us from our sin and freeing us from it would still leave us contaminated with the sinful nature we were wrought in, and such sin a holy God could still not allow into his presence, thus Christ also removes that contamination and sets our image anew.

The how of coming into God’s presence is similarly answered here, for it is through adoption, and this by joining with Christ as his body, who we have already established as the the federal head of mankind.

Christ does not merely pay the penalty for our sins, but Christ joins with us and gives us his righteousness, a righteousness not our own and therefore not of any of our own merit.

As John Bunyan puts it, with Christ as our head and we as his body we may look on Christ as the public person of which the elect are a part “that we fulfilled the law by him, died by him, rose from the dead by him, got the victory over sin, death, the devil, and hell by him; when he died, we died, and so of his resurrection.”

Bunyan here provides a more nuanced perspective than Owen, noting the exact way in which we are reckoned as one with Christ by God, by being reckoned as the body of Christ, whose righteousness we are given, and in whom we fulfill all aspects of the law which we cannot fulfill of ourselves. Bunyan here also echoes back to the more classic view of the early church fathers victory over Satan, which in turn can find a base in Hebrews, which states that “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.”

As is noted by Donald Fairbairn, this power of Satan was rooted in the fact that “we had alienated ourselves from God through our sinfulness.”

The death of Christ removed Satan’s power by removing that alienation. 

Christ both sacrificed himself for our sins and in the pardon and redemption that was wrought, brought victory over sin, and Satan, who try to hold us captive to that death.

In this we can bring the entirety of the death of Christ’s effects into a succinct whole; that of God incarnating himself as the federal head of man in Christ, and through the death of this Christ that God’s people might be united with him as his body, his righteousness as theirs and him bearing the punishment for their sins, the effect of which is the freedom from sin and removal of the gulf between God and man, which thereby provides victory over Satan, and sets man on the path of moral righteousness by removing the contamination of his sin.

In all of this can be seen the revelatory grace of God’s eternal purpose. The revelation and the grace are intimately intertwined, for it is the grace which is revealed and it is gracious that God is revealed.

It is revealed in that God became incarnate, and it is at the same time gracious in that in doing so God condescended once again to covenant with man. Through the death of Christ God reveals his grace by showing us that he will condescend to save those who are unworthy, and ungodly, and actually does so.

It is gracious, furthermore, in that God had not need of revealing himself or providing this grace, but rather it was merely of his own good pleasure and for his own glory, according to his own eternal will. This is not merely a historic fact which finds its home in the 1st Century AD, but it is a truth which has a continued effect all the way into the present and is still impacting God’s chosen people today.

Christ in the Contemporary and Personal Context

The person and work of Christ is still one which is able to cause debate in today’s world.

Protestant Liberalism is still alive in various forms, reducing Christ to a good role model or – in its more postmodern aspects – to nice narrative to inspire our lives, an existential starting point in how we define ourselves.

A proper view of the person and work of Christ removes the pluralism and relativism of postmodernism by stressing that God has definitely revealed himself, and that God’s revelation is truth, and if Christ is who he said he was and did what he said he did, then only Christianity can be true. Not only this, but the person and work of Christ also has a real effect on the practical world of ministry, church life, and personal devotion to Christ.

The person of Christ gives us a real grounding in history. As was said by J. Gresham Machen, all of the ideas of Christianity could be found another religion, but there would in no Christianity in that religion “For Christianity depends, not upon a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an event.”

It is this event, the death resurrection and ascension of Christ, upon which Christianity hinges.

It has a practical effect, for it decides for us what sort of gospel it is that we will preach.

We do not preach a gospel that is merely a call to act like Christ or only to social action, therefore we don’t call people to rest on their own actions. We do not preach a gospel that merely puts Satan on equal par with God, and has God paying a ransom to Satan, and therefore we can trust that God alone is in control.

We instead preach a gospel that depends on the grace of God as revealed in the Scripture, that the Son of God who is God came as a man to take our sins upon himself and thereby save us both from the penalty of those sins and the sins themselves, while giving us his righteousness.

It produces a profound humbling of the people of God, and in light of their changed life drives them to good works. It changes the church life because we are concerned not merely about the body and about its health or wealth, but about the soul and its everlasting abode.

These truths change our personal devotion because it allows us to know that our sins have been taken and that we have been made anew. It condemns our old self and gives us a great hope and a great life of our new selves; we do not have to worry about our selves failing, for our as Bunyan notes our righteousness is in heaven, such that it is not ourselves that effect or affect it. The comfort of this is such that “Now did my chains fall off my legs; indeed I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away.”

Because Christ was God, we are assured that his actions had their intended effect; because Christ was man, we are assured that we are intended recipients of that effect.

As Spurgeon has already been quoted as saying, in knowing who Christ is, and what Christ has promised, when may then expect this of Him.

John Calvin on Infant Baptism


Wherefore, there is no difference in the internal meaning, from which the whole power and peculiar nature of the sacrament is to be estimated. The only difference which remains is in the external ceremony, which is the least part of it, the chief part consisting in the promise and the thing signified. Hence we may conclude, that everything applicable to circumcision applies also to baptism, excepting always the difference in the visible ceremony…”Institutes, Bk4, Ch16

Letter IIn the fourth book of his Institutes, Calvin begins a discussion on the church. Calvin puts forth two marks of the church “the preaching of the word and the observance of the sacraments,” and included in the sacraments is the institution of baptism.

One of the objections which had been raised against Calvin’s was that paedobaptism is not found explicit in Scripture and is therefore not valid, that it is something devised by men rather than by God.

The above quote is the heart of Calvin’s rebuttal.

Calvin bases his defense on an appeal to circumcision in the Old Testament, stating that “prior to the institution of baptism, the people of God had circumcision in its stead.” He analyzes what the two sacraments are meant to represent, what it is that is at their essence. He concludes that they have the same internal meaning, namely, that it points to the forgiveness of sin and to the mortification of the flesh; that is, they both have their foundation in the promise of regeneration.

Once it is established that the two sacraments symbolize the same inner truths, Calvin notes that the only thing then differing is the external ceremony – that is, how those truths are applied in each case. In light of this Calvin concludes that everything which pertains to circumcision should therefore also apply to baptism.

In regards to the debate concerning paedobaptism this forms the backbone of the argument for the baptism of infants. The key point is that throughout the Old Testament circumcision was used by the people of God as a sign of their first entrance into the church, professing their allegiance to God, and most importantly that the people applied this sign to not only themselves, but also to all of their children (to include infants). Hence Genesis 17:10, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.”

If it is objected that baptism is a sign of penitence and faith, Calvin points out that the same was true of circumcision.

Calvin’s argument goes, then, that since circumcision and baptism convey the same notions – and perform the same office – concerning the individual’s relationship with God, what applies to one applies to the other. Since circumcision applied to infants in the Old Testament, baptism must therefore include infants in the New Testament; “since the Lord, immediately after the covenant was made with Abraham, ordered it to be sealed in infants by an outward sacrament, how can it be said that Christians are not to attest it in the present day, and seal it in their children?”

Although infant baptism is not explicitly illustrated in the New Testament Calvin points out that it is implied when the Biblical writers speak of families being baptized (Acts 16:15, for instance).

This, of course, does not rule out the baptism of those who convert to the faith, for just as those who were brought into the nation of Israel in the Old Testament were circumcised upon entry, so those who enter into the new covenant of Christ are baptized upon entry (what would be popularly termed the ‘believer’s baptism‘).

He thus concludes: “Wherefore, if we would not maliciously obscure the kindness of God, let us present to him our infants, to whom he has assigned a place among his friends and family, that is, the members of the Church.”


Two or Three Uses? – The Law in Luther & Calvin

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Letter WWithin the realm of Christian theology there are many fiercely debated topics. One such topic is the question of the how the Law is to be understood in the Christian faith, especially in the light of the gospel and in the life of the Christian.

Taking on this task, Reformation thinkers Martin Luther and John Calvin both put forth ideas of how the Law is to be understood within Christianity.

When given a cursory reading, it will be noticed that Luther put forth two different uses of the Law, whereas Calvin put forth three, a distinction which has caused a fair amount of dispute between Lutheran and Reformed theologians to this day.

In order to gain a better understanding of this doctrine is helpful to compare and contrast these two great thinkers’ views on the topic, paying careful attention to how and why they draw the distinctions that they do. For John Calvin, it will be necessary to analyze his Institutes of the Christian Religion, where he lays out what he sees to be the three uses of the Law. For Martin Luther, it will be necessary to first look at his Commentary on Galatians, where he lays out what he sees to be the two primary uses of the Law; with this done, it will also be necessary to look at various other of Luther’s writings to discern whether or not he indeed limits the use of the Law to those two areas.

Because Calvin is more systematic in his approach to the topic of the uses of the Law, it will be helpful to discuss him first, and thereby gain a solid understanding of the field to be analyzed; with this done we can consider how Luther compares in his writings, both explicitly and implicitly.

John Calvin’s Three Uses of the Law

What the Law Refers To

In discussing Calvin’s uses of the Law, it is first necessary to discern what it is that Calvin refers to when he refers to the Law.

For this one may turn to the seventh chapter of the second book of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, where Calvin begins his in-depth discussion of the Law. Here Calvin states explicitly that ‘the Law’ he understands to refer to “not only the Ten Commandments, which contain a complete rule of life, but the whole system of religion delivered by the hand of Moses.”

This definition of the Law is given in the context of pointing out that the Law is not something that exists merely as a negative, detracting from the hope of Israel for Christ. Rather, Calvin argues that this was given through Moses for the sake of ‘renewing’ the Abrahamic promises, to be seen as “types and shadows of corresponding truth.” Thus Calvin begins his discussion of the Law by pointing out that the Law is not a bad thing. Indeed, Calvin goes so far as to say in reference to the religious aspect of the Law that “the fullness of grace, of which the Jews had a foretaste in under the Law, is exhibited in Christ,” in reference to the priestly offices that they would come to inhabit.

After this ceremonial and religious aspect of the Law, Calvin goes on to discuss the more explicitly moral aspect of the Law, which serves to point out the fact that eternal life awaits perfect obedience of the Law. By this the Law serves to show that the people fall under the curse, the result of which is “despondency, confusion, and despair.” Regardless, Calvin notes, the fact that perfect obedience to the Law is nowhere to be found does not mean that the Law has therefore been given in vain, for through justification by faith the people learn to embrace the goodness offered in the gospels.

The ‘office’ of this moral law, Calvin continues, itself consists of three parts, which is where one enters fully into Calvin’s understanding of the three uses of the Law.

Three Uses of the Law: Serving as a Mirror

In beginning his discussion on the three parts of the moral law, Calvin first points to the use of the law as it exhibits “the righteousness of God – in other words, the righteousness which alone is acceptable to God.”

Pointing out what righteousness is acceptable to God in turn convicts and condemns the people of their pride and serves as “a kind of mirror” in which “we discover any stains upon our face” such that the people will observe their own impotence, iniquity, and the curse and consequence of those. This aspect of the Law is that aspect experienced by those who are “sinners not yet regenerated.”

In continuing his defense of the Law, Calvin points out that the fact that the Law serves to only condemn does not detract from the excellence of the law, since the reason the Law is insufficient for salvation is because of our lack of obedience, and thereby not any fault in the Law itself. The Law if further not marred because God has declared that his end goal is not to “allow all to perish” but to that he might take mercy upon them by turning them to the mercy offered in Christ.

Thus, the first use of the law is that it serves as a mirror, showing mankind their iniquity and convicting them of their subsequent condemnation, and through this driving them to take refuge in the mercy of God in Christ.

Three Uses of the Law: Serving as a Curb

The second use of the Law, Calvin argues, is that through the fear of punishment that it might “curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.” These individuals have their behavior curbed, Calvin argues, not because their hearts are changed or they are “inwardly moved and affected”, nor do they change their behavior in order to better please God. Rather, they are restrained through the force of “terror and shame”, terror of the punishment which will come to them if they act against the Law, and the shame which will be attached to their actions. 

This outward restraint does not lead to an inward change of heart; just the opposite, due to having to restrain themselves Calvin argues that they become even more hostile to God – the Lawgiver – more inflamed, such that they “rage and boil”, ready to break out whenever the fear of the law is gone.

In spite of the fact that this aspect of the Law doesn’t avail in changing the hearts of those who are under it, Calvin argues that it too is still a good thing. This goodness comes not from the impact of the Law upon those whom it inflames, but on the overall good of society. This is so because through restraining these individuals society’s peace is “secured by a provision but for which all things would be thrown into tumult and confusion.”

Furthermore, even though the unregenerate might not be driven to holiness by this aspect of the Law, Calvin argues that it does train those who will eventually be converted in how to “bear the yoke of righteousness.”

That is, it gives them a sort of head start in what it is like to live as a Christian. Lastly, this use of the law for these individuals keeps them from “giving full scope to their passions, and thereby utterly losing all desire after righteousness.” Calvin here argues that the law keeps the yet-to-be-regenerated individual from giving in fully to their passions and thereby retaining in them at least some desire for righteousness. This is such that should God not immediately bring an individual to salvation, he may prepare them for salvation by cultivating that rightful fear which a child ought to have of their Father.

Thus, in its second use, the law serves both the good of society in restraining individuals from wicked behavior as well as cultivating in some of those individuals the discipline and fear that they should rightfully have when they eventually become children of God.

Three Uses of the Law: As a Rule of Life

In his commentary Calvin notes that there is a tendency for theologians to relegate the entire use of the law to the increase of transgressions as presented in Galatians 3:19. He goes on to note that Paul speaks of the law as profitable for doctrine and notes that “the definition here given of the use of the law is not complete, and those who refuse to make any other acknowledgment in favor of the law do wrong.”

Following his discussion of the uses of the law as a tool for turning people toward reliance on God and as a tool for curbing behavior which would be harmful to society, Calvin turns toward what he refers to as the ‘principal use’ of the Law, and what is known in theology at large as simply ‘the third use of the Law’.

This use of the Law differs from the previous two uses in that while the first two uses of the Law apply – in Calvin’s system – primarily to the unregenerate, this third use is the Law as it is applied to the regenerate, to believers who are already following God.

In speaking of this use of the Law, Calvin begins by pointing out that believers already have the Law written on their hearts along with a desire to obey God. In light of this state of believers Calvin says that there are still two different ways that the Law can be useful for them. The first of these ways is that the Law is still the “best instruction for enabling them daily to learn… what that will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow.”

That is to say, study of the Law increases the wisdom of the believer in regards to what the will of God for them is. The second of these ways is that through meditating on the Law, Calvin asserts that the believer will be further motivated toward obedience and further drawn away from the temptation of sin; this can perhaps be best summed up in Calvin’s statement that “If it cannot be denied that [the Law] contains a perfect pattern of righteousness, then, unless we ought not to have any proper rule of life, it must be impious to discard it.”

In this the Law no longer serves to condemn the believer – even though they still cannot live up to it – but it points believers toward the goal to which we strive and exhorts them in this task, exhorts them in the task of working towards perfection as a rule of life.

From what has been observed it can be seen that Calvin allotted three uses to the Law. Firstly, it serves as a mirror to show us our unrighteousness and drive us toward dependence on God. Secondly, it serves as a curb to keep those who wish to do evil in check through fear of the punishments associated with the Law. Thirdly, it serves as a rule of life for believers to follow, instructing them in the will of God which they seek to follow.

One of the areas of note here is that in Calvin’s approach to understanding the different ways in which the Law operates, he places a great emphasis on the the Law as it applies to the unregenerate versus the Law as it applies to the regenerate. Thus, the first use applies to the nonbeliever, to drive them toward God. Similarly the second use applies to the nonbeliever, to curb their wicked desires. The third, contrary to these, applies to the believer, giving them a guide to Christian living.

Martin Luther’s Two Uses of the Law

While Calvin is very systematic in his approach to the Law, Luther is somewhat more sporadic and – indeed – pastoral and periodic, addressing his concerns more in response to a given issue rather than developing out each of his ideas in strict logical fashion.

For this reason it is necessary to look at a variety of Luther’s works, centering around his Commentary on Galatians, in which he presents his case for the two different uses of the Law.

Law and Gospel; Active and Passive Righteousness; Sinner and Saint

In looking at Martin Luther’s use of the Law, it is helpful to see how it is that he relates the one notion of the Law to the other of the Gospel, what he calls the active righteousness of the one to the passive righteousness of the other.

Luther begins his Commentary on Galatians with a discussion of the various types of righteousness. After a brief mention of the civil righteousness of abiding by the laws of the state and the ceremonial righteousness of the manners taught by parents, Luther enters into a discussion of the righteousness of the Law – as exemplified in the Ten Commandments – and the righteousness of faith.

These latter two types of righteousness differ from one another in that the righteousness of the Law is what Luther refers to as an active righteousness, a righteousness which actively seeks to fulfill God’s Law. Luther notes this active righteousness as being in vain, through which “sin is made exceedingly sinful.”

In realizing the vainness of this active righteousness, the person then turns to embrace the passive righteousness of Christ. Thus, the unbeliever is to oppressed with the Law until they are “thirsting for comfort”, at which time the Law is removed and the Gospel is placed before them. In turn, Luther argues, both Law and Gospel are necessary, but “both must be kept within their bounds” where the righteousness of the Law applies to the ‘old man’ and the righteousness of faith to the ‘new man’.

This notion is imperative to properly understanding Luther’s understanding of the Law, for the ‘old man’ and the ‘new man’ does not merely refer to the unregenerate and the regenerate.

Rather, the ‘old man’ and the ‘new man’ exist both within the believer, hence Luther states that “a Christian man is both righteous and sinner, holy and profane, an enemy of God and yet a child of God.” In the same way he asserts: “both these continue whilst we here live. The flesh is accused… bruised by the active righteousness of the law; but the spirit reigneth, rejoiced and is saved by this passive and Christian righteousness.”

Further on in his commentary he builds upon this notion, asserting that though he commits sins, these do not plague his conscience since he knows he is in Christ; instead he directs the chastisement of his sins towards his body, making the point that the Law cannot touch the conscience, though it may be directed towards the flesh.

It is only with this dual nature of man in mind that one may move on to understand the way that Luther appropriates the Law.

Two Uses of the Law: The Civil Use

When it comes time for Luther to discuss the nature of the Law in a more systematic manner, he states that there is a double use of the law. This first use, he argues, is the civil use. The civil use, simply put, is that the law is given in order to restrain sin. This restraint of sin does not lead to righteousness; rather, the very fact that there are sin to be restrained is signal that the individual is unrighteous, for it is only person who is prone to sin who needs to be threatened against sinning. Thus, this first use of the Law is “to bridle the wicked.” For this purpose there have been created governments and civil ordinances, ready to bind the person who acts against the law. While this use of the law does not produce salvation, it does provide for the public peace and “the preservation of all things.”

Two Uses of the Law: The Spiritual Use

Following his discussion of the civil use of the law in his Commentary on Galatians, Luther then turns to discuss what he calls the ‘theological’ or ‘spiritual’ use of the Law.

This use of the Law, as Luther argues, is that it is used in order to reveal to man his sin and his contempt of God, and in turn reveal the judgment and wrath which the man deserves from God. This use, Luther argues, is “the proper and the principal use of the law.”

The purpose of the law is thereby to terrify, to “rend in pieces that beast which is called the opinion of righteousness.” That is, the purpose of the law is to defeat the pride of the individual, to reveal sin, and to make the individual feel the burden of the law so that they might despair.

This use of the law Luther connects with God’s work at Mount Sinai, the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments, which “brought that holy people into such a knowledge of their own misery, that they were thrown down even to death…” On top of this use of acting as a mirror, one finds in Luther’s other writings that he is willing to connect the law driving the individual “to despair of himself” with the result that it causes them “to seek the help which he does not find in himself elsewhere.”

Other Uses of the Law in Luther

It is noteworthy that in his Commentary on Galatians, Luther only points to two uses of the Law. Yet, if one looks to his other writings, a larger picture begins to appear. Thus, in  Against the Heavenly Prophetsone may find Luther writing of the five different articles of the Christian faith. The first is the law of God, the second the gospel. The third article is what Luther calls ‘judgment’, which is “the work of putting to death the old man”, and it is followed by the fourth article of “love toward the neighbor”, and a fifth article to “ proclaim the law and its works” to the “crude masses” such that they will “know what works of the law they are to do and what works ought to be left undone”; yet these works are not put before the Christian “as if one through them were upright or a sinner.”

Luther does not answer directly here the question of how one is to put to death the old man, or where one might look to discern what it is to love one’s neighbor, yet in his Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors he gets closer to doing so, stating that the “third element” of Christian life is “the doing of good works”; works which include “to be chaste, to love and help the neighbor, to refrain from lying, from deceit, from stealing, from murder… [etc].” Here Luther lays out at least four of the ten commandments as the ‘doing of good works’ which is an element of Christian life.

One may also turn to the most practical area of Luther’s writings, his catechisms.

Here Luther’s addresses the Ten Commandments in the life of the Christian, instructing his readers that they should not act contrary to the Commandments, that God promises blessings to those who keep the Commandments, and that Christians should “gladly do according to His commandments.”

In his Larger Catechism he then states that the one who knows perfectly the Ten Commandments will be able to “counsel, help, comfort, judge, and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters.” He later follows this statement up with the assertion that the Ten Commandments are “the true channel through which all good works must flow,” that doing these works will result in God’s blessing, and that “everyone is to make them his daily habit in all circumstances.”

Yet in contrast to this there is also the idea present in Luther’s Concerning the Letter and the Spirit that since the Christian “lives in the Spirit as the law demands; indeed, he no longer needs any law to teach him, for he knows it now by heart… there no teaching or law is needed; everything happens as it should happen.”

In figuring out how these apparent works of the law can be present in the Christian life of good works, it is necessary to see a further distinction Luther makes in his writings. In his Lectures on Romans, Luther makes the point that ‘the works of the Law’ are those that take place at the urging of the law, while the works of faith are those done “solely for the love of God.”

Thus, it could be argued that for Luther the same act could be either a work of the law or a work of faith, depending on the motivation for the act; “thus we gain a genuine desire for the law, and then everything is done with willing hearts, and not in fear.”

In light of this it is not incongruent for Luther to utter statements such as the one that the Christian should call upon God “according to the second commandment.”

Similarly, when Luther adamantly asserts that there is not teaching of the law and no need for the law, it seems that this should be read firstly to mean that there is no teaching of the law-as-condemning-force.

Luther’s practical use of the Law seems to demonstrate that when Luther talks of the Christian not needing the Law to teach him due to him knowing it by heart, he seems to be speaking more idealistically, of the ideal Christian.

In all of these other writings of Luther it may be observed then: (1)  adhering to the law works nothing for justification; (2) yet there are good works to be done by the Christian, and that these ‘good works’ include acts synonymous with certain commandments of the Law, for indeed, the heart has been changed to naturally act out the Law; (3) that the Christian should abide by the Ten Commandments, which will result in his being blessed by God; (4) that it is the motivation behind these acts that distinguish them from being ‘works of the law’, such that when done for the glory of God it is no longer law but faith.

In summing up his view on the two different uses of the law Luther states that “the law is good and profitable, but in his own proper use; which is, first to bridle civil transgressions, and then to reveal and to increase spiritual transgressions.”

The Law, for Luther, is primarily a light, but one that shows only sin and death. The Gospel, on the other hand, is a light which shows the mercy of God in Christ.

There are various noteworthy aspects to understanding Luther’s understanding of the Law. One of these aspects is the way in which Luther’s second use of the law is already contained in his first use of the law. As he said, the first use is to bridle the wicked, and the very fact that they need a bridle demonstrates that they are wicked, at least in a general way. The second use, then, narrows down this general demonstration of wickedness to terrify and convict the individual. This restriction and conviction is the extent of the Law for Luther.

Rather than go any further than this, where the Law ends for Luther, the Gospel may begin. The Law makes the individual despair so that the Gospel may come and give hope, the active righteousness of trying to live up to the law is replaced with the passive righteousness of Christ.

Most noteworthy in Luther’s understanding of the Law is that his primary focus is upon the old man verses the new man.

This is important because both the old man and the new man exist in the person of the believer. Thus, when the old man causes the individual to sin, the Law points to that sin in the life of the believer, but it doesn’t convict, for then the righteousness of Christ – the Gospel – is there to cover the sin. Yet in this it can be noted that the Law does still exist in the life of the believer for Luther, as he says: “among Christians we must use the law spiritually, as is said above, to reveal sin.”

In the writings of Luther as a whole it was observed that Luther does – in practice – use the law for more than merely keeping the wicked in check and revealing sin. He also seemed to promote good works as a Christian – works of faith – which were synonymous in content with the works of the Law, with the difference that they were done not out of the fear of the condemnation of the Law, but out of love for God and the desire to be blessed. In desiring to do these good works Luther advises the believer to meditate on the Ten Commandments, the same Ten Commandments he also equated with the righteousness of the Law.

Thus it might be observed that while in some instances Luther seems to clearly reject out of hand the use of the law in the life of the Christian, it seems that this may be in large a semantic error of Luther simply refusing to refer to this use of the law as a guide as a use of the ‘law’, for he desired to equate this with faith rather than Law.

In contrast to this it might be contended that “love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved” and that because the new man does not need the Law as an instruction, for the Law is written on his heart and he will act this out naturally and spontaneously; yet, Luther’s practical use of the Law seems to assume that the Christian can get instruction in good works from the law, and it is simply that fact that when discussing this facet Luther refrains from referring to it as the law.

Comparing & Contrasting Luther and Calvin

In comparing and contrasting Luther and Calvin there are many things which can be discussed. Perhaps the best place to start with this is to figure out where the two thinkers agree.

The first use of the Law that Luther put forward was what he called the civic use, which was noted as serving the purpose of bridling sin for the good of the society through the fear of the law. In the same way Calvin’s second use of the Law was that it served the purpose of curbing sin for the good of society through the fear of the law. In this use of the law Luther and Calvin seem to be in full agreement; there is only the relatively minor difference in how Luther points out that this use indicates the wickedness of man, whereas Calvin points out that this use serves the dual purpose of further inflaming the wickedness of man and training those who do not yet believe.

The second use of the Law put forth by Luther was what he called the spiritual use. In this way the law was used to terrify and convict people of their sin, to reveal their sin to them as in a mirror. Furthermore, whereas in his Commentary on Galatians he left the second use at that, in his Freedom of the Christian Luther alluded to the fact that this despair drives the individual somewhere besides themselves. In like manner, Calvin’s first use of the law was that of a mirror. This mirror shows people their unrighteousness and convicts them of their impending condemnation, and through this drives them to take refuge in the mercy of God in Christ.

While this second set of uses for the law by Luther and Calvin, both serving as mirrors, seem to be identical, there is an important distinction to note. This distinction is that – for Calvin – this mirror’s purpose rests in convicting the unbeliever, the unregenerate. Calvin’s mirror seems to only be for the unregenerate man prior to his conversion. In contrast to this, Luther’s mirror is ever present.

This is because rather than focusing on the regenerate/unregenerate distinction, Luther focuses on the old/new man distinction, and this is a distinction which stays with the believer even after regeneration.

Therefore, while Calvin’s mirror is used by the individual prior to conversion, Luther’s mirror is used by the individual both before and after conversion, a fact which will be important when analyzing the different ways the two thinkers apply the law in the believer’s life.

With this in mind, one may then turn to the third use of the Law as presented by Calvin.

It was noted that for Calvin, this use was the one in which the law served to instruct and guide the believer after conversion, increases the believer’s wisdom in regards to the will of God. With regeneration, the individual is able to make the move from using the Law as a mirror to using it as a guide.

Luther would have been unable to follow Calvin here for a variety of reasons.

Firstly – as has been noted – Luther’s focus was not on the regenerate/unregenerate distinction. Because for Luther the old man is always there with the new man – and because the mirror applies to the old man – the individual is never fully able to put the mirror down.

Thus, for Luther, when the Law comes up it necessarily comes up as that mirror.

Because the old man is always present in the life of the individual, the Law must always serve the purpose of driving that old man to despair, that he might find relief in the Gospel.

This sharp Law/Gospel distinction is important for understanding Luther in that whereas Calvin was comfortable placing a close connection between the Law revealing sin and in turn driving the individual toward Christ (and thereby having the Gospel implicit in the Law), Luther drew a much sharper distinction between Law and Gospel; thus for Luther the most the Law could do in revealing sin was drive the individual away from themselves, he doesn’t take the next step with Calvin in asserting that it drives them to Christ.

Rather that asserting that the Law drives the unbeliever to Christ, Luther prefers to speak of the move in terms of the Law driving them solely to despair and then the Gospel coming in as a balm and a comfort.

Thus, not only does Luther have an old/new man focus over against Calvin’s regenerate/unregenerate distinction, but Luther also has a much sharper separation of the law from the gospel than Calvin.

Yet, Luther also has a stronger connection between them in another sense, for in Luther both the law and the gospel are ever present and presented together.

The old man is always present, and therefore the law must always be there to terrify, and at the same time the gospel always be there to comfort. When talking of the Christian as a whole, Luther still has a place for the law, which is, for condemning the works of the old man in the body of the believer. He does not expel the law from the life of the believer, but he takes care when referring to ‘the law’ to refer to it in exclusive reference to the old man.

While asserting that Luther cannot follow Calvin into Calvin’s formulation of the third use of the Law due to the differing angles at which each thinker is approaching the Christian system, Luther does have his own variety of this.

Whereas Calvin’s third use is the Law applied to the regenerate man, Luther’s ‘third use’ might be said to be the Law applied the ‘new man’ (though as noted above Luther would not use that language).

While this sort of use was not discussed systematically by Luther, it is implied in various of his writings. In this it was observed Luther suggesting that knowledge of the Ten Commandments made one able to make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters, that good works flowed from them, good works which would cause God to bless the individual.

Yet, while a position such as Calvin’s this might seem to roughly fit the criteria of his third use of the law, the distinction for Luther was that – at least semantically – these are not uses of the law. A use of the law for Luther would have been something that was necessarily done under compulsion, and therefore incompatible with good works or the faith of the Christian. Rather, these same works are works of faith – not works of law – even when they are centered around the same principles as the ‘law’.


In light of this analysis, it might be stated that while Calvin and Luther do have some genuine differences in their approaches to way the Law is to be used, much of this difference can be attributed to viewing the same truths from different angles and with different foci; this is to be expected, for these men existed within space and time and were reacting against their own given environments.

Though a detail of biographies was outside the scope of this study, it might be noted – for instance – that Luther was much more closely tied to his reaction against the abuses of Rome, and this reaction shaped how he focuses his theology.

On top of this difference of foci, Luther and Calvin are also separated by what it is often the hardest bridge to cross in theology, the bridge of semantics.

To a large extent the approaches taken by Luther and Calvin to the Law have the same result and are getting at the same points, but using different categories and different terminology which makes the similarities difficult to see.

Thus, Calvin uses the Law as a guide for believers, whereas Luther also in practice uses that same Law as a guide, but is careful not to refer to it in that manner due to way that he has defined ‘Law’ in his understanding; it is simply incongruent for Luther to imagine applying the term ‘Law’ to something utilized by the new man, for the Law to him can only apply to the old man.

Yet, there are still differences here, and these differences do affect the way Christians go about their lives. The way in which Luther keeps the mirror of the Law at hand, and in turn the comfort of the Gospel, has the practical result of constantly driving the individual back to the Cross for their comfort.

This can be a helpful attitude to take when dealing with sin; and yet it can also be helpful to have a guide to aid one in avoiding sin and for instructing one in how to live a life pleasing to God. Calvin’s focus is more helpful in addressing this aspect of the Law.

Thus, it can be asserted that neither John Calvin nor Martin Luther is necessarily ‘correct’ in this matter.

When they discuss the uses of the Law they are seemingly discussing the same matter, but they are discussing it in very different manners for different reasons, with different foci and different terminology. Neither has the perfect system, and neither has a defunct system; rather, each has a system which is helpful and unhelpful in turn, true and false in differing ways.

In looking back over these various uses, it can be found that they all have some legitimacy. The civic use of the law found in both Luther and Calvin is viable in either context. Calvin’s first use of the law is helpful for bringing the unbeliever to faith, and yet as it is used in Luther, it also serves a use in the life of the believer, continuing to drive them to Christ and the rest that He provides, as well as subdue the flesh; Calvin can be corrected by Luther here, in that the mirror may still have a use after conversion. Finally, with Christ as the goal, Luther may be corrected by Calvin in noting that it can be helpful for the Christian to gain wisdom of God’s will through the study of the law.

FATQ: Will There Be Free Will In Heaven?

freewill.pngLetter Today’s Frequently Asked Theology Question is: Will there be free will in heaven? If so, is there a chance anyone in heaven will ever sin? Adam and Eve communed with God and yet sinned, so how probable is it that millions of people with free will can refrain for all eternity?

The answer to this question depends a lot on what we mean when we say ‘free will.’ In general there are two different things we can mean:

1) “I can choose whatever I want” – Libertarian Free Will

Firstly there is what we might call the libertarian free will. The idea of libertarian free will asserts that a will is free when it is unbiased and completely unbound by any causality. This will is not determined by human nature, the environment, the will of God, or even our own desires (the will is the source of desires, not vis versa). These things may exert influence on the will, but they do not ultimately determine its choices.

The will is free in this sense when it has no decisive influences skewing it one way or the other. It has ultimate self-determination. It has the capacity to do anything, good or bad, left or right, chocolate or vanilla.

It is this notion of free will that is usually at the center of debates concerning determinism, of whether free will can coexist with the sovereignty of God or whether we are truly free if God knows the future, and it is this notion of free will that Jonathan Edwards dissects in his book The Freedom of the Will.

Part of Edwards’ argument is that this notion of the free will is counter-intuitive, that it just doesn’t make sense. As he explains, this notion of the free will “rests on the supposition that out of several possible courses of action the will actually chooses one rather than another at the same time that it is perfectly indifferent – perfectly evenly balanced between them – which is just say that the mind has a preference at the same time that it has no preference.” Edwards’ point is that we cannot say that the will has no preference and also say that it chooses, because the act of choosing implies a preference. The will, then, is determined by something; it is not free in this sense.

Rather than speaking of the will being free, Edwards posits that we should speak of the agent being free. The will is not self-determining, but is determined by the acting agent, by the person, by “the willing spirit.” The question, then, is whether the spirit is free, and what determines the preferences of the spirit.

2) “For freedom Christ has set us free” – Christian Free Will.

There is then a more Augustinian/Calvinistic – and I would argue, Pauline – notion of ‘free will’ which asserts that the libertarian notion of a free will is imaginary (or at most, only ever existed in Adam & Eve). Here the will is always biased one way or the other, towards sin or towards righteousness; the will is biased because the spirit is biased.

Whether or not the will is free, in this sense, depends on what the will is biased towards. If the will is biased towards evil, then it is not free. It is a slave to sin. If the will is biased towards righteousness, then that is when it is ‘free’, free from its slavery to sin.

In the biblical model it must be said that the will always has desires, and a will that has a desire or propensity to choose evil is not free.

The freedom of the will is thus about propensity first, not capacity. Capacity comes second, in that propensity determines capacity. A will that has a propensity to good is incapable of doing evil, and vis versa.

A ‘free will’ in biblical categories is thus a will that has been set free from its slavery to sin and which is now biased towards serving God. At present our wills are only partially free, for we are still mortifying sin. Upon glorification (that is, in the new heavens and new earth) our wills will be fully free, that is, fully biased towards righteousness. In this sense it is better to talk about a “freed will” than a “free will.” The will has been freed from its bondage to sin.

Thus, contrary to the notion of the libertarian free will where the will is the source of desires, in the biblical understanding the desires are the sources of the will. It is the heart and the spirit that ultimately matter.

Our wills will be free in that they will have no desire towards sin and therefore no capability of sinning. A will that still held the capacity to sin would be a will that still held the propensity to sin, and as such it would not be free.

Thus I would follow Augustine‘s model as laid out in his Enchiridionwhich is further explained by Thomas Boston in his Human Nature in its Fourfold State. Commenting on these four states of mankind Augustine states that “the first is before the law, the second is under the law, the third is under grace, and the fourth is in full and perfect peace.”

These four states are therefore: (1) before the Fall, where we were ‘able to sin and able not to sin’; (2) after the Fall, where we are ‘not able not to sin’; (3) regenerate man, where we are ‘able not to sin’; and (4) glorified man, where we are ‘unable to sin’.

The new earth is not a return to the seemingly unbiased state of Adam, but it is a state better than his, a state where we are fully free from any temptation or desire to sin and fully desirous of glorifying God. When you have been fully made new by God – ie, glorified – such that your only desire is to glorify Him, then sin will be by definition impossible.

So far as the Scriptures are concerned, it is only this freedom – the freedom of the will from sin – that has any meaningfulness when speaking of the will. John Piper puts it well when he says that “instead of speaking of the will as free or not, I prefer to speak of people as free or not, because that is the way the Bible does… Christians are free from the bondage to sin and from the oppressive demand of having to perform our own salvation.”

It is therefore not so much that there will be no opportunity to sin, but that there will be no propensity to sin and therefore a lack of capacity for sin, and it is this lack – replaced with a desire to glorify God – that will make our wills truly free.

[For a discussion of how the libertarian notion of free will might coincide with the Christian faith in the amoral sphere (ie, regarding actions that lack a moral character), check out Sovereignty and Contingency in Christianity.]


The Breaking of the Wall – Alienation and [Racial] Reconciliation in Christ

Reconcile (1)‘Alienation’ is a word that has become common parlance over the past hundred years, a familiarity that was perhaps bolstered most by the writings of Karl Marx, who truly popularized the word.

Alienation can come in many forms. For Marx it was primarily economic and political; as John Stott noted, alienation is partly a “sense of disaffection with what is” and partly “a sense of powerlessness to change it,” a feeling that is widespread in the present day.

Yet alienation was a viable concept long before the writings of Marx, so much so that it is this idea which is the focus of the second chapter of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. This chapter of the letter focuses on two even more radical sorts of alienation, that is, alienation from the God who created us, and alienation from our fellow creatures.

The opposite of alienation, it might be said, is reconciliation. In turn, the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians focuses on these ideas of alienation and reconciliation; the first half focuses on the idea of reconciliation between God and man, the second half on the idea of reconciliation between man and his fellow man. Thus it could be said that the first half focuses upon vertical reconciliation and the second on horizontal reconciliation, two vitally linked reversals of the overall alienation that is present in the world.

In order to properly analyze the way in which this reconciliation plays out – with special focus upon the reconciliation of man with his fellow man in the form of racial reconciliation – it will be necessary to look at the context of the passage, at Paul’s purpose in writing this passage, and at what Paul’s meaning with certain images conveys (such as the “wall of hostility” being broken down). With this done, one may then analyze what the implications of this message are for Christians today, what it communicates in regards to reconciliation in such realms as race relations, and how the truths presented here by Paul may be useful to the individual.

Context and Purpose

In order to get a proper understanding of the truths being conveyed by Paul to the Ephesians, one must first develop an understanding of the context and of the purposes which envelop this text. First, there is the broader context of Paul’s letter.

The broader context here is that Paul is writing to the Ephesians, who were by the old Jewish system considered Gentiles. In the old Jewish system, the religious world-view had become one of exclusion, one of placing the chosen people of God – the Jews – above all of those around them. They were a group who were deemed to be set apart, to be holy; what this idea devolved into in the religious life of the Jews is what T. N. Lee suggests be described as “covenantal ethnocentrism.” John Stott perhaps best sums up this idea when he states that Israel had “forgot her vocation,” that they had forgotten that they were supposed to be a light to the nations and had instead twisted their place of privilege into a sort of favoritism which resulted in them despising those who were not of their ethnicity, “detesting the heathen as ‘dogs.'”

The Gentiles, on the other hand – that is, all those who were not Jews – had neither “part or lot in the Messianic people.” The Gentiles were alienated from the people of God, and they had never been anything other than alienated; they were considered by the Jews to be outcasts and objects of derision. This alienation was both social and spiritual; on the one hand they were alienated from the people of God, and on the other they were alienated from God himself. They were without a messiah, without part in Jewish commonwealth, strangers to the covenants of God, without any divine promise, and without the true God (Ephesians 2:12).

Even mmiddle-wall-partitionore, this division had a physical representation in the ancient world, a literal wall of separation. In Jerusalem the temple constructed by Herod the Great was built upon a platform, with individual courts for the priests, the lay men, and the lay women. Five steps below this platform was a walled platform, on the other side of which was another even lower walled platform, beyond which was the court of the Gentiles.

The Gentiles were not allowed beyond this wall into the upper courts on pain of death; for a Gentile to pass the wall was to forfeit their life. This wall was still present at the time Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians, as it was not destroyed until 70 A.D. when the temple itself was destroyed by the Romans. The presence of this division – of this alienation – is the essential background of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

In turning from this background of alienation, one may observe that the central message of the letter to the Ephesians is one of the need for unity and reconciliation, due to the already accomplished reality of that unity in Christ; that is, for the visible characteristics of the church to coincide with its invisible characteristics, namely, unity and oneness in Christ. Therefore, the grand theme of this portion of text is that Christ has destroyed both of the divisions which had previously existed, vertical and horizontal.

This can be easily seen in that Paul begins his letter detailing how all mankind has been reconciled to God, progresses through discussing how Jew has been reconciled to Gentile, continues in how we are all members of one body, and then elaborates upon this in the particular ways and relationships in which we should therefore walk in love. Paul’s purpose is to remind his readers of where they once were – residing in alienation – and then to encourage and instruct them in unity; they were once “alienated” but Christ has “reconciled us both God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:16).

The Wall of Hostility

As has been noted, the central theme of this passage of Ephesians is of moving from alienation to reconciliation. One of the key images that Paul uses to describe this movement is that Christ “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (Ephesians 2:15). There are various possible meanings which one can attribute to this image. For instance, if one were a Gnostic, one might interpret the wall as referring to the comic barrier separating heaven from earth.

Most directly, the verse itself makes reference of the “commandments expressed in ordinances,” that is, the ceremonial law; thus John Calvin concisely asserts “this obstacle was the in the ceremonies.” From this approach, the vertical and horizontal reconciliation is best summed up by Charles Hodge when he states that: “The abolition of the law as a covenant of works reconciles us to God; the abolition of the Mosaic law removes the wall between the Jews and Gentiles.”

Yet further still, the ceremonial laws found their power in the Jewish temple, and in turn, one might easily draw a connection from the “wall of hostility” to the wall of the temple which literally kept the Gentiles out, the wall which kept them from accessing the Jewish ceremonies. As was previously stated, this wall did not fall until after Paul wrote this letter; this creates a parallel of sorts to the way in which the temple itself did not fall until this time, despite Christ assertion that he would rebuild it in three days (John 2:19). This means that the wall being referenced is not merely the literal wall, but rather it is being used as a literary image. When this literal wall is used as a literary image, it becomes more clear that when Paul referred to the wall he was referring to the “the wall as symbolic of the social, religious, and spiritual separation that kept Jews and Gentiles apart.”

The breaking down of this wall, therefore, refers to social, religious, and spiritual reconciliation of the Jews and the Gentiles, as exemplified in the removal of the ceremonial laws and the eventual destruction of the literal wall of the temple. Whereas before there was division, Christ removed the wall, and brought everyone together in unity, the result of which was the creation of “one new man in the place of the two, so making peace” (Ephesians 2:15). Thus, as John MacArthur puts it “spiritually, a new person in Christ is no longer Jew or Gentile, only Christian.”

The two groups were reconciled, where to ‘reconcile’ is defined as effecting “peace and union between parties previously at variance.” In reconciling the two groups Christ created in himself a common identity, a new group which would not be defined by ethnic features but by faith in Christ, and he did this through “his flesh,” through his death. Yet further still, when Paul speaks of “one man” and “one body,” he is in fact referring to an entirely new humanity; it is much broader than merely a breaking down of the barrier between Jew and Gentile, it is a breaking down of all barriers which divide the people of God from one another: divides of class, of sex, of nationality, of race. This much can be seen when this passage is taken in the light of such verses as Galatians 3:28, which asserts that there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Contemporary Implications

While the removal of the distinction between Jew and Gentile does have enormous consequence in and of itself for us as contemporary Christians – for otherwise the vast majority of us could not count ourselves amongst the people of God – it also has implications beyond the mere (yet glorious) fact that it allows for our salvation. As was shown above, Christ not only broke down the barrier between Jew and Gentile, but broke down all divisions which attempt to establish themselves in the body of Christ, divisions which still seek to establish themselves today. One of the most notable contemporary examples of this is the racial division which has so long plagued the modern world, yet as has been and will be shown, Paul speaks to the healing of this divide.

Looking back at the context of what was being written, if any group seemingly had the right to be ethnocentric, it was the Jews. They were the chosen people of God, the one He had made His promises to and set His covenant with. Douglas Sharp notes that sociologists and anthropologists define ethnicity as “a sizable group of people who share a common history, geography, language, religious tradition and way of life that are transmitted as learned behaviors from generation to generation”; the Jews had their own pure version of all of this.

As Bryan Chapell points out, from the Jewish point of view there were only two races of people: the Jews and everybody else. That is to say, no division of nationality or skin color, no class distinction or cultural barrier has ever been “more absolute than the cleavage between Jew and Gentile was in antiquity.” The alienation between the Jew and the Gentile was the division par excellence. Thus, in breaking the barrier between Jew and Gentile, Christ broke the strongest earthly division there was to break, and in doing so both set an example and demonstrated that such divisions have no place in the body of Christ.

In response to this, it is our duty in the modern world to work towards casting down these barriers where they might present themselves, such as in the great need for racial reconciliation. We have become one body – one humanity, one family – in Christ, and thus we must love one another as brothers; yet one cannot love somebody and restrict them, oppress them, or treat them differently. Instead we must work to build up our fellow brothers in Christ, to remove the barriers that our ancestors put in place and that a great number of us now benefit from and even in some cases perpetuate (if only through our self-sustained ignorance). As Chapell states: “Paul will no longer allow any sense of ‘you’ versus ‘us’; it’s all ‘we’ and ‘us.'” This means that our shared identity in Christ must take precedence over all else, and in turn, racial prejudice cannot be tolerated, for as we draw closer to God we necessarily draw closer to one another.

Thus, Paul’s words are of eminent relevance to us today, for in addressing the widest distinction – that between Jew and Gentile – all other distinctions are included. Yet not only are Paul’s words a motivation to work for the social justice of racial reconciliation, but it is also of practical benefit in guiding the believer. For one, passages such as this can be used in order to show that they cannot consistently live as a Christian in hostility towards their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ; thus, if they are living in hate or prejudice, they can be called to accountability by the Word of God. They can be shown their sin to be what it is.

If the individual is needing guidance in understanding what to make of the divisions in the world around them, this can be used to show what God’s final will is for those divisions, namely, their destruction. Perhaps most importantly, this passage can be used to convey to the individual where their ultimate identity resides. If one is to live a fulfilled life it is imperative that one know where one’s identity resides, and as Paul shows here, that identity resides with Christ. Yet it doesn’t reside there on its own, it resides there with that of the of the person who is of a different nationality, of a different race, of a different gender. Salvation is a group affair; the individual cannot exist in isolation nor can they find their identity in isolation. This is not to say that we have no other identity, but that those identities cannot take precedence over our shared identity in Christ.


There is much work to be done in the task of racial reconciliation, yet the first step towards that end is the realization that working for said reconciliation is a necessary part of our life as believers as commanded by God. Racial reconciliation – as well as other forms – are not an option in the Christian life, they are a duty; the invisible church is unified, thus it is inconsistent for us to promulgate disunity within its visible representation. As was stated by John Stott “Men still build walls of partition and division like the terrible Berlin wall, or erect invisible curtains of iron or bamboo, or construct barriers of race, color, caste, tribe or class,” which means that “divisiveness is a constant characteristic of every community without Christ.” Note, that they are a characteristic of every community without Christ; they must not be part of a community with Christ, and we must work to make it so.

These issues of alienation from our fellow man, of divisiveness and of pride, of not being reconciled to one another, are still very present today, and the place that we must begin doing away with them is in the Christian community, for if they cannot be dispelled there then they cannot be dispelled anywhere. We must not let ourselves become like the early Jews in their ethnocentrism, but must fight for the unity of the body of Christ. There are some things that the Scriptures tell us to forget, such as when somebody hurts us, but one of the things that we are commanded to remember is that we were once alienated and have been reconciled (thus Ephesians 2:11 begins “Therefore remember”); we cannot forget what and where we were before God’s love reached us.

We have been reconciled to Him, yet if we are to draw closer to him we must necessarily draw closer to one another, for these two types of reconciliation happen together and inseparably through our faith in Christ. If reconciling alienated groups from one another was one of the things accomplished by Christ’s death on the cross, this being “brought near by the blood of Christ” of Ephesians 2:13, then we will wonderfully exalt the Lord when we strive for a greater ethnic diversity and harmony in our personal lives, in our church communities, and in society at large.