Wednesday, February 20, 2013

But by Some Voluntary Condescension

This week we began a new Sunday School series at Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church. For the next few weeks we will be studying Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) Chapter 7 "Of God's Covenant with Man." WCF 7.1 reads,
The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.
Essentially what is being taught in this section is God's relationship to man in terms of obligations. Man is obligated to God by nature (i.e. by virtue of the ontological distance that exists between God the Creator and his creatures). But God cannot be obligated to man by nature. God can only become obligated to man by some voluntarily condescension on his part, which he has been pleased to express by way of covenant. So we see two aspects of God's relationship to man: (1) natural, by which man is obligated to God and (2) covenantal, by which God has obligated himself to man.

This same distinction is made in Larger Catechism (LC) 17 and 20. Man's obligation to God is a work of creation. God's obligation to man through covenant is a work of providence.

It is also assumed in Shorter Catechism (SC) Q. 1., "What is the chief end of man? A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." Here we see the two distinct aspects of our chief end: (1) glorifying God and (2) enjoying him forever, which reflect the distinction established in WCF 7.1 between the natural and covenantal aspects of God's relationship to man, respectively.

Glorifying God
Our obligation to glorify God is established by nature. Creatures owe their Creator all honor and thanks (Rom. 1:21). But even if Adam had glorified God perfectly, apart from God's special revelation through the covenant he could never have obligated God to himself. This underscores God's holiness or otherness.

Enjoying God
Our calling to enjoy God cannot be established by nature. It is established by God's voluntary condescension through covenant. God covenanted with Adam in the beginning, obligating Himself to him on condition of perfect and personal obedience, so that man might enjoy Him (i.e. "have...fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward"). This underscores God's love or personal nature.

Think about some of the astounding conclusions we must draw from this teaching:
  1. If God had never entered into covenant with Adam, Adam may have been perfectly obedient and yet God would never have been obligated to reward him in any way. God could have scrapped the whole creation at any moment without any injustice regardless of Adam's actions.
  2. While Adam could never obligate God to himself, he was nonetheless obligated to obey God and forbidden to disobey under the threat of condemnation.
  3. God has obligated himself to us through His covenant, limiting His freedom with respect to His creation. He could no sooner deny his covenant than he could deny himself (i.e. cease to be God).  
  4. God is not an impersonal tyrant in the sky, commanding us from a distance. He is personal, and He has chosen to condescend to us by way of covenant in order to dwell and commune with us that we might enjoy him forever as our blessedness and reward. How wonderful is this?!
  5. John Piper's (a pastor-scholar that I appreciate and admire) suggestion that SC 1 should be rephrased, "Man's chief end is to glorify God by enjoying him forever," (Desiring God, 1996 Edition, p. 15) fails to account for the distinction between the natural and covenantal aspects of God's relationship to man as taught in WCF 7.1, resting, as it does, on the assumption that man's glorifying God (which he was obliged to do by nature) required his enjoyment of God (which he could only do by covenant). This belies a weakness in the baptist hermeneutic with respect to God's covenant with man.  
  6. WCF 7.1 rests on the assumption that Adam was obligated to God by nature prior to the establishment of the covenant of works. However, natural (or general) revelation is nonetheless dependent on supernatural (or special) revelation for its true understanding, interpretation, and application. This fits with the doctrine of natural law taught in Rom. 2:14 and LC 17. By God's providence he uses this natural law to restrain evil in the world today among all men in common. But it cannot be understood, interpreted, and applied truly (i.e. with a view to glorifying God) apart from a saving knowledge of Holy Scripture. 
  7. Therefore Holy Scripture is the only rule to direct us in glorifying God (SC 2). Before the Fall Adam could not have glorified God apart from God's special revelation in the covenant of works. Likewise, sinners after the Fall cannot glorify God apart from a saving knowledge of the gospel (i.e. the covenant of grace), which is given in the Holy Scriptures.     

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