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Self Glorifying Vessels of Mercy?

August 17, 2009 3 comments

I’ve been having a rather lengthy conversation with some Arminian/Molinist acquaintances about Calvinism generally and about God not being the author of sin specifically.  Overall I think it has been beneficial in drawing out the underlying differences between the two views. In particular, I wanted to share an excerpt regarding the vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath that is rather telling:

Suppose a beautiful pot says, “Look how beautiful I am, won’t you congratulate me for being so beautiful?” And the potter then says, “You don’t deserve any credit for being beautiful because I am the one who made you beautiful; I am the one who should be praised for making you beautiful, and you have no right to claim any credit for it.”

The potter’s response, to my lights, is completely sensical.

But now exchange “beautiful” with “ugly””: The pot says “Look how ugly I am, won’t you blame me for be being so ugly?” And the potter then says, “You don’t deserve any blame for being ugly because I am the one who made you ugly; I am the one who should be blamed for making you ugly, and you have no right to claim any blame for it.”

If the potter to pot relation undercuts the pot’s ability to be praised, the same relation undercuts the pot’s ability to be blamed.

And hence, so much for a soteriological reading of Romans 9.

Derek, your statements here betray a poor understanding of salvation. By beauty and ugliness I assume you are referring to righteousness and unrighteousness (since that is the standard of salvation). Let’s plug those words back into your objection and see where it gets us:

Suppose a righteous pot says, “Look how righteous I am, won’t you congratulate me for being so righteous?” (Luke 18:9-14) And the potter then says, “You don’t deserve any credit for being righteous because I am the one who made you righteous; I am the one who should be praised for making you righteous, and you have no right to claim any credit for it.”

Now, if the righteous pot was righteous because he lived a life of perfect obedience, then he deserves congratulation (Rom 4:4). Even if it was God who willed him to live that perfect life, he still did it, so he does deserve honor. But the truth is, no pot can say “look how righteous I am” because no pot is righteous. The vessels of mercy are not made righteous, they are counted righteous. They are covered, or clothed, in an alien righteousness, the righteousness of Christ. That is why they cannot boast in their righteousness, because they have none of their own.

“Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”

I read this to mean that Abraham himself is now righteous because he believed in God.

Though Abraham believed, his mere believing isn’t what makes him righteous; because he believed, he can now take on the righteousness of Christ. So Abraham’s believing is a necessary but insufficient condition for Abraham being righteous. Do you agree?

Though, on my view, it was up to Abraham to believe or not, his act of believing itself is no work, and even though we can credit Abraham, in part for believing, the consequence of his believing-viz. taking on the righteousness of Christ, is not something Abraham can credit himself for.

I think the forensic model is helpful here. Suppose the the Judge says “someone else has atoned for your sins, do you accept?” If the defendant says, “Yes.” We can say correctly that, “He said “yes”, and therefore he as become atoned, in part, because he believed. But because the actual work of atonement was not his own, but another’s, he cannot credit himself for his own righteousness, though whether or not to be atoned was something he did choose.

You might insist: Paul says his faith is not “of himself”. In one sense this is true: Without the calling of the HS, Abraham couldn’t have had any faith-viz., the Holy Spirit is an enabling condition. But though the HS is a necessary condition, the HS’s enabling is not itself sufficient, for it is Abraham who believed and not HS; not the HS causing Abraham to believe.

his act of believing itself is no work

This is a very important point. We must understand exactly why believing is not a work, even though it is equally an act of the will of Abraham. Why is it that Paul contrasts the two so strongly? Why is faith so diametrically opposed to works?

The answer lies both in the object of saving faith and in the necessary flipside of saving faith – repentance. I would argue that the illustration you have provided is not wholly biblical and may be introducing some difficulty. Nowhere in Scripture do we see a sinner told that Christ atoned for their sin and then asked if they would like to accept it or not. What we read in Scripture is that all men everywhere are commanded to repent of their sin. They are also told that if they repent and place their faith in the work of Christ alone, they will be saved. Repentance is an essential part of saving faith. You cannot have one without the other.

I would also add that Abraham was not clothed in Christ’s righteousness as a result of his faith. Abraham’s faith was itself the putting on of Christ. I think the difference is very important. That is what is meant by faith being the instrumental cause of justification. I would also say that faith is much closer to someone (the Holy Spirit) notifying you (by monergistic regeneration) of the fact that your debt has been paid. It serves the function of a receipt for what has already been paid in full and nothing else is required.

The London Baptist Confession states this very well when it says:
Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness by faith, which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God.

What is repentance and how is it related to saving faith? Repent means to change your mind. It means to change your mind about who you are and who Christ is. It means to turn away from trust in yourself and place your trust in Christ alone.

Job 42:5-6
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”

This is why saving faith is so diametrically opposed to works – because saving faith in Christ’s work means abandoning all faith in your work and worth and despising yourself as nothing.

So then, to bring this back around to your original illustration:
Suppose a repentant sinner says, “Look how righteous I am, won’t you congratulate me for being so righteous?” And the potter then says, “You don’t deserve any credit for being righteous because you are not. I am the one who is righteous; I am the one who should be praised for being righteous, and you have no right to claim any righteousness of your own.”

Suppose a repentant sinner says, “Look how righteous I am” is a contradiction. It is not possible. If someone says “look how righteous I am,” they are not repentant and do not have saving faith in Christ’s work and thus are not justified. This is what Christ teaches us in Luke 18:9-14

Here is an excellent (short) statement in regards to this:
Do Protestants Believe that True Faith = Faith + Works?

“This is a very important point. We must understand exactly why believing is not a work, even though it is equally an act of the will of Abraham. Why is it that Paul contrasts the two so strongly? Why is faith so diametrically opposed to works?

”

Yeah, we’re already going to part ways from here. From my reading of Paul, we could summarize works as:

(works) = S’s living/acting in accordance with the law.

Whereas,

(faith) = S’s trust in Christ.

Understood like so, though faith and works are both what proceed from Abraham’s will, it’s simply wrongheaded to think of faith as a work because of this similarity. Faith is simply when Abraham trusts God, and works are simply Abraham’s living in accordance with the law; and this difference is the one and only difference between “faith” and “works”, and this difference itself is what constitutes their “diametric” opposition.

“The answer lies both in the object of saving faith and in the necessary flipside of saving faith – repentance. I would argue that the illustration you have provided is not wholly biblical and may be introducing some difficulty. Nowhere in Scripture do we see a sinner told that Christ atoned for their sin and then asked if they would like to accept it or not. What we read in Scripture is that all men everywhere are commanded to repent of their sin. They are also told that if they repent and place their faith in the work of Christ alone, they will be saved. Repentance is an essential part of saving faith. You cannot have one without the other.

”

Right. Who said this? My view is that Christ’s work is sufficient for atoning S’s sin on the condition that they have faith. I.e., Sinners are told that their sins will be forgiven if they repent. And this is tantamount to saying that if S trusts in Christ’s blood (which would include repentance), then he shall be forgiven.”

“[…] Lest they should turn, And their sins be forgiven them.” (Mk 4:25)

“I would also add that Abraham was not clothed in Christ’s righteousness as a result of his faith. Abraham’s faith was itself the putting on of Christ.”

I agree here, but I don’t agree with what follows.

“I think the difference is very important. That is what is meant by faith being the instrumental cause of justification. I would also say that faith is much closer to someone (the Holy Spirit) notifying you (by monergistic regeneration) of the fact that your debt has been paid. It serves the function of a receipt for what has already been paid in full and nothing else is required.”

Nope. If faith (and repentance) are conditions for one to be forgiven, then I don’t know what it means to construe faith “as the notification that your debt has been paid.” Faith, again, is S’s trust in Christ and his atonement, and the result POST-FACTO is that S’s “debt has been forgiven.”

“What is repentance and how is it related to saving faith? Repent means to change your mind. It means to change your mind about who you are and who Christ is. It means to turn away from trust in yourself and place your trust in Christ alone.

Job 42:5-6
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”

This is why saving faith is so diametrically opposed to works – because saving faith in Christ’s work means abandoning all faith in your work and worth and despising yourself as nothing.”

We both agree that faith and repentance are coextensive; one who has faith is one who repented.

I do think, however, Job’s language ought to be qualified a bit. It’s true that we are absolutely nothing without God, since only He makes our very being possible. But, insofar as we have being, even in our fallen state, we are still made in God’s image, and Christ thought that we are worthy to be saved (Christ loved as, even as sinners), and hence if we weren’t worthy to be saved, Christ wouldn’t have gone through the trouble.

”So then, to bring this back around to your original illustration:
Suppose a repentant sinner says, “Look how righteous I am, won’t you congratulate me for being so righteous?” And the potter then says, “You don’t deserve any credit for being righteous because you are not. I am the one who is righteous; I am the one who should be praised for being righteous, and you have no right to claim any righteousness of your own.”

Suppose a repentant sinner says, “Look how righteous I am” is a contradiction. It is not possible. If someone says “look how righteous I am,” they are not repentant and do not have saving faith in Christ’s work and thus are not justified. This is what Christ teaches us in Luke 18:9-14”

I agree this all true for anyone who is saved by grace. My original issue is that if God unequivocally causes men to sin, then he cannot blame them for sinning, and if God unequivocally causes Job to be righteous, for instance, then he cannot be praised. So if someone goes to hell, it’s because they freely sinned and because they rejected Christ, and they deserve such a fate because God did not unequivocally cause them to reject Christ.

If we weren’t worthy to be saved, Christ wouldn’t have gone through the trouble.

Again, what disgusting pride!

Ezek 36:
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name…I will vindicate the holiness of my great name…And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.

I don’t know what it means to construe faith “as the notification that your debt has been paid.”

This is because you don’t understand the atonement and you reject monergistic regeneration.

My original issue is that if God unequivocally causes men to sin, then he cannot blame them for sinning

Ok, then just go back to my original response, and Paul’s:

So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”

and if God unequivocally causes Job to be righteous, for instance, then he cannot be praised

Yes He can, and for all the reasons I just laid out, including the fact that Job is not MADE righteous. He is counted righteous.

Yes He can, and for all the reasons I just laid out, including the fact that Job is not MADE righteous. He is counted righteous.”

It’s clear from the account that Job not only had faith like Abraham did, but unlike Abraham, he lived completely in accordance with whatever the law required of him:

“[…] and that man was blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil.” (1:1)

I take the “blameless” and “upright” part of the conjunction to be describing Job’s works: he never did anything wrong and did everything correctly. If your not convinced that this is right, then the whole narrative loses it’s potency, for Job’s friends are trying to find the one thing Job did wrong to explain his misfortune. That is, they are trying to construe what happened to him as an instance of God’s justice, as opposed to the unjust suffering of an unequivocally innocent man.

I take the “feared God” part of the conjunction to be describing Job’s faith in God.

So, on my account, God deems Job “blameless” because it was up to Job whether or not to sin (God didn’t unequivocally cause his blamelessness), and hence, we think Job is praiseworthy.

But, counterfactually, suppose that Job did sin yet feared (had faith) in God. He would then be in Abraham’s “camp”, where his faith would be “accounted to him for righteousness.”

Looking at the big picture.

I think that everything is causally dependent on God, in the sense that anything whatever is made possible by God’s existence.

So suppose that Adam resisted the temptation of the Serpent, or suppose, as is actually the case, that Job didn’t do anything wrong. We can praise Job and Adam because it was up to them whether or not they decided to be good. We can praise them because of their choices. They can say, rightly, that “God won’t punish us for our sins, for we have none.” Of course, they still must acknowledge that God is what made their righteousness possible, so they could never say, even if they never sin, “We don’t need God because we made the right choices.” Any righteous man who never sins still would acknowledge that his righteousness is derived from God.

But suppose that Adam sinned, like he actually did, and that Job sinned, though he actually didn’t. Because they sin, and God didn’t cause them to sin, then God rightfully punishes them with death, “for the wages of sin is death.” Paul’s whole story, I think, is this: even though they didn’t live in accordance with the law, they can be saved by grace, and take on an alien righteousness, if they have faith. Suppose that Adam has faith; then he will be saved. Suppose Job doesn’t; then, for the sins he chose to commit, and for rejecting Christ’s blood, he shall forever be left in his sin and the natural consequence that follow from it- i.e., damnation.

So at the back of this particular rejection of Calvinism lies pure Pelagianism and a refusal to despise oneself and repent in dust and ashes. In this instance, I agree with Ronald W. Di Giacomo when he says:

Now why won’t they [accept Calvinism]? Because the matter is ethical, not intellectual, that’s why. God has blinded the Arminian to the glorious doctrines of grace, which is why they say things like: “How can God find fault, for who can resist his will?” I’m afraid that Arminians don’t recognize that Romans nine is speaking to them.

Molinism – problems, problems, problems