Which Systematic Theology is Best?
I have often been asked the question, "What Systematic Theology (ST) do you find most helpful?" Over the past decade I have recommended, among others the works of Calvin, Turretin, Bavinck, Hodge, Berkof, and Grudem. More recently I have come to the conviction that there are two volumes of Systematic Theology that stand head and shoulders above the rest--but not for their comprehensiveness. They don't go into the distinction between pre-, post-, and a-millennialism--though they certain speak to the issue of general eschatology. They don't deal with the nuances bound up with the Cessationist vs. Continuationist debate--though they clearly speak to the matter of revelation. They don't get into the minutiae of infra- vs. supra-lapsarianism--though they speak volumes with regard to the eternal counsel and decree of God. The never go into the five camps regarding original sin in American Presbyterianism; but they distinctly express what the Bible teaches concerning original sin. They do not deal directly with the Murray-Kline debate concerning the place and role that the Mosaic Covenant plays in the Covenant Theology--though they do explain the nature of the Mosaic Covenant in the history of redemption (with its types, shadows and ordinances of the Covenant of Grace), as well as the nature of the Law as being the form of the Covenant of Works. If you haven't guessed already, I am speaking about the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity. The more I read our Reformed Confessions, the more I realize the value of knowing the incredibly robust theology they contain.
This is not nescient traditionalism or elitist sectarianism--it is a coming to the realization that the theology of our Reformed and Puritan forefathers is far more nuanced and developed than many modern theologians would have us believe. For instance, consider the care with which the Divines approach the definition of "repentance" in Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.87:
Q. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.
The Divines do not simply say, "Repentance is hating sin and turning from it." Sadly, this is how many of the relatively few churches that would even mention repentance, have it defined from their pulpits. But the Puritans understood the distinction between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow, and the difference between legal and evangelical repentance. Therefore, they write, "Repentance unto life, is a saving grace..." Notice that they first observe the element of grace in the act of repentance. No one can repent, unless God grant it graciously. It is not something that we have within us, or something that we can simply stir up. Next they write, "Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin..." Here, the Divines focus on the fact that the sinner must become conscious of his sin prior to turning from it. They continue, "Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ..." Here is the missing link to so many attempts to define repentance. The Divines would not, for one moment, bypass the Gospel. It is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance. It is the love of the dying Christ that melts the hard heart. It is the Gospel that must drive our repentance. This is a beautiful example of the Gospel-centered nature of the Confession of Faith. One more example will suffice.
The Third Use of the Law
It is common, in conservative Reformed circles, to hear ministers emphasize the third use of the Law. Usually when it is stated, it comes across something like this: "The Law is a rule of life and obedience. Christians are called to keep the Law." This is a reductionist approach to what the Puritans address, with great care, in Larger Catechism Q 97. There they write, "Of what special use is the moral law to those that are regeneration? (In other words, "What good is the law to the believer?")" The answer, "Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet, besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them: How much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience."
"In the prefatory statement, the Divines connect the moral Law with the Covenant of Works. There is an undeniable relation between the Law and the Covenant of Works. The unregenerate are still under the moral Law as a Covenant of Works. There is no denying the fact that it is broken. There is no denying the fact that they cannot keep it to obtain the blessings promised for perfect obedience to it. But it is still in place. The moral Law given to Adam in Eden and Israel as Sinai, is one and the same Law. The statement of the Divines does not say that the Mosaic Covenant, in its entirety, is a republication of the Covenant of Works. But it does intimate that a relationship between the Moral Law and the Covenant of Works, and the Law given in the Mosaic Covenant and the Covenant of Works exists, for the unregenerate whether Israelites or otherwise. The regenerate are "delivered from the moral Law as a Covenant of Works." It no longer remains a Covenant of Works for those who have been savingly united to Jesus Christ; but, it remains a Covenant of Works for unbelievers. They remain under the curse of the broken Covenant of Works as well, by their union with Adam. They also attempt to be justified by the Law. This is why the Pharisees and Scribes sought righteousness by their own attempts to keep the Law of God. There is a psychological and spiritual dimension to the relationship that the unregenerate sustain with regard to God's Law. Because we are from Adam by nature, we, by nature, constantly seeking to obtain life in the way that Adam was called to obtain it prior to the fall. This is not God's intention for us, after the fall. In fact, it is the greatest dishonor to Him when we try to bypass His grace with our works. But it is the way that we as self-righteous sinners respond to the moral demands of God place on Adam in Eden and Israel at Sinai.
The next important belief expressed in this prefatory statement is that believers are neither justified nor condemnedâ€ by the moral law. Their obedience to the Law of God plays ABSOLUTELY NO ROLE in their justification. Their disobedience to it plays ABSOLUTELY NO ROLE in their condemnation. How can this be? It is because of the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone merits justification for His people. He alone takes the condemnation for all their lawlessness. He is a complete Savior who justifies His people perfectly, once and for all, by His finished work.
Perhaps the most striking thing about all three answers supplied in Larger Catechism questions 95-97 is that the moral law, in each of its uses, points men to the Person and work of Christ. This is something that is frequently overlooked by those who wish to so ardently stress the obedience that the third use of the Law calls for in the life of believers. The Divines are not so quick to move away from the finished work of Jesus on our behalf in their expositions of the various uses of the moral law. In all three catechism questions they return to Christ. The moral Law, helps [bring all men] to a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and of the perfection of his obedience (Q. 95); is useful to awaken the consciences [of unregenerate] to flee from wrath to come, and to drive them to Christ (Q. 96); and is useful for the regenerate to show them "how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good" (Q. 97). The Westminster Divines show that the Law drives us out of ourselves and back to Christ. They explain that the Law magnified the finished work of Jesus. We should not ever get beyond the finished work of Christ. Even in heaven the finished work of Christ is the theme of our songs and praises. It is the basis for our eternal life not our obedience to the Law. By that law, we are neither justified nor condemned.
Question 97 expresses what is commonly called the third use of the law (Tertius Usus Legis). The Divines certainly express the use of the law as binding the elect to express the same [i.e. thankfulness to Christ for fulling the law and taking the curse of the law in their place] in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience. But they immediately make it the "rule of obedience" in their answer. They start with the Gospel. The Law continues to show believers their need for Christ. It is first, and foremost, useful for believers, to show them "how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good;" secondly, "to provoke them to more thankfulness;" and finally "to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience." The obedience that the Law calls believers to render, should only be understood in relationship to the redemption that we have in Christ. It should only and ever be an expression of the thankfulness we are bound to give Christ for fulfilling it and enduring the curse thereof in our stead. If we miss this step, we will inevitable look to our performance in regard to the demands of the law, instead of looking to Christ."1
These two examples serve to highlight the incredible care with which the Reformed Confessions approach theology. If you are eager to grow in your knowledge of sound doctrine, 1) read your Bible, and 2) study the Reformed Confessions. They are anything but a dry, boring, non-essential, antiquated, irrelevant, ivory-tower waste of time.
1. The section quoted was taken from a previous post, "Understanding the Law and Its Uses."