A Tale of Two Sermons

Matthew 7:15-23 15 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 “Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 “So then, you will know them by their fruits. 21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. 22 “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’

I am examining two sermons that deal with the last three verses of this passage. These two sermons reach very different conclusions as to the meaning of the passage.

One sermon, given by Dr. James R. White, concludes that the passage is about maintaining some sort of “balance” between salvation by works and a libertarian gospel and being sure that there is consistency between what one is saying and what one is doing. It warns of people who say one thing with their mouth but there is no “corresponding reality in their life”.

The other sermon, given by Dr. John W. Robbins, concludes that the passage is about false teachers who rely upon their works as their defense in the final judgment before Christ and mention not a syllable about Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. They say nothing to indicate that they believe that Christ is their savior. They are called lawless and sent to hell because they used the law in an illegal way. They did not do the will of the Father because they did not believe the one whom He sent (Christ). Their condemnation is due to their proclamation of and belief in a false gospel.

The theology underlying these two very different conclusions regarding the meaning of this passage can be traced to something that happened decades ago.  A controversy arose in 1944 and continued until 1948 centering on the suitability of a certain candidate for ordination in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  The Presbytery of Philadelphia had voted to ordain the candidate and several professors from Westminster Seminary raised objections on various grounds in a complaint filed with the Presbytery.  The candidate for ordination was Gordon H. Clark and the professors were supporters of the views of Dr. Cornelius Van Til, hence the disagreement became known as the Clark-Van Til Controversy. It began when several professors from Westminster Seminary attempted to block the ordination of Gordon Clark to the position of teaching elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The controversy continued for some five years and concluded with Clark’s ordination being approved by the presbytery. The main participants in this controversy have had their theological offspring and much of the disagreement that took place so long ago continues today. 

In his forward to the book The Clark-Van Til Controversy, John W. Robbins wrote:

The four major doctrinal issues at stake in the controversy were (1) the meaning of the “incomprehensibility” of God; (2) the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility; (3) the doctrine of reprobation versus the “sincere offer” of salvation to the reprobate; and (4) relationship of the intellect to the will and emotions.

The Westminster professors applied to “incomprehensibility” a definition that made God unintelligible. This, according to Clark, was not the same sense in which the term is used in the Westminster Confession and various other reformed confessions.

I chose to examine these two sermons on the same passage of scripture that reach such different conclusions because one sermon was preached by a theological descendant of Clark and the other was preached by a descendant of Van Til. John Robbins was probably the most ardent supporter of Clark’s views and James White has on many occasions stated they he is not a Clarkian. While I don’t know that White has ever designated himself a Van Tilian, he has quoted Van Til’s distinctive positions with obvious approval.  He admits to not having read Clark for himself and has no intention of doing so, because of his schedule, which is admittedly very busy.

I thought a comparison of these two sermons could prove enlightening.

Robbins starts by setting the context of the three verses. He starts at Matthew 7:13 and reads through to verse 23 to show that the three verses are found in a passage dealing with false prophets. This is important to the conclusions he draws from the passage. White simply mentions that the three verses come at the end of the sermon on the mount. He briefly alludes to the two verses that follow these three verses, but does not go into detail on them or even read them. Beyond this he makes no effort to set the context of the three verses that are the subject of his sermon.

White: “The point of Jesus’ words here is not that there is something wrong with addressing Jesus as Kurios, but that there needs to be a consistency between the confession and the actions.”

White starts his explanation of the passage by stating that Jesus’ point in these verses is the need for consistency between what one says and what one does. Since these verses concern who enters and who does not enter heaven and we know that all the saved will enter heaven and all of the unsaved will not, it follows that these verses are dealing with how one is lost and by inference how one is saved. Christ speaks of a group that will not enter heaven. He infers that another group will enter heaven. White says (by rightly inferring it from the words “not everyone”) that each group is a subset of those who say Lord, Lord. His answer to what it is that saves the one group is that there is a consistency between what they say and what they do. Specifically the group that is saved both says “Lord, Lord” and does the will of the Father who is in Heaven. This is the reason they are saved while the other group is not.

White: So do you see the balance? Do you see if we allow all of the word of God to speak, there is this beautiful balance? On the one hand works salvation, all those gospels, those false gospels that put everything in the hand of man. Not possible. Can’t be. We have to have the divine Savior. We need to have the sovereignty of God. We need the hand of God. It has to be God’s work, very clear. On the other hand those people that present a salvation that is primarily just a tipping of the hat toward God. Showing up to church once in a while…. “Lord, Lord did I not do this? Did I not do that? I have faith but my faith cannot demonstrate its existence.” The Word says, “I never knew you. Depart from me.” Can that kind of faith save? The answer is no.

The verses say nothing about these many false teachers who say “Lord, Lord” being the type that just show up at church once in a while. They are presented as having done “many wonders in your [Christ’s] name”. Christ does not dispute this.

Robbins: First, these are not pew warmers.  These are not people who come on Sunday and do nothing the rest of the week. They have prophesied. They have taught. They have cast out demons and they have worked wonders. These are not pew warmers. These are not empty professors as you might have been led to believe by verse 21. These are not folks who say something and do nothing. These are folks who do the greatest works among men. They have preached they have prophesied, they have cast out demons, they have worked wonders.  These are the greatest works among men that these folks have done. And these folks are not exaggerating either. This is the last judgment. They’re not standing there lying.  And there’s no suggestion that they are. Christ doesn’t answer them and say you didn’t do any of these things. He does not correct them. This is a report of what they have done. This is a report of what they have done. So their profession is not a profession without works. They have been extremely active and they have done the greatest works among men. Now we can further learn from their question here that they were church-goers.  Notice that they after all these works they have done the phrase: “we have done this in your name”.  These are not pagans. These are not people who are ignorant of the name of Jesus Christ. They have done these works in the name of Jesus Christ. They have preached, they have prophesied, they cast out demons in the name of Jesus Christ. These are not folks in Africa who never heard the name. These are not folks in Greece before the time of Christ that never heard the name. These are not people who were uninformed of Christ. These were folks who did all these deeds in the name of Christ. And these deeds are extraordinary. These deeds are extraordinary.

Robbins asks: If Christ will send these people to Hell, what hope is there for us?

And then answers: And the Christian answer is if we rely on our own works, we have no hope. The Christian answer is if we rely on our own works we have no hope. At the last judgment the defense of these church leaders these are active folks, these are not people who come and are not active in the churches. These are active folks. At the last judgment their pleas will be their works. That is what they are saying “look at what we have done.” “Look at what we have done” and Jesus says, “Depart from me you who work lawlessness.” “Depart from me you who work lawlessness.” If these folks are sent to hell, then certainly our works cannot be the basis of our entering into heaven.

The verses do not mention these false teachers believing the Gospel. White claims these people say “I have faith but my faith cannot demonstrate its existence”. The ones spoken of here clearly have faith in their own works. That faith is demonstrated very clearly in their questioning of Christ. The people in these verses clearly believe that the works that they have done in Christ’s name entitle them to Heaven. These works are what they offer in their defense at the last judgment. White seems to miss the point that these people do not mention having faith, but they do have faith. Their faith is real. The reason their faith is non-saving is not some missing ingredient of the faith, it is the object of the faith. The object of their faith is their works and these works are spectacular.

Even though these false teachers profess to believe that Jesus is the Lord, they do not profess belief in the Gospel. They do not profess to believe that Christ died for their sins. They do not confess that they are sinners in need of a savior. Their defense in the final judgment is their own works. That is the object of their faith. They do profess to believe something regarding Christ, that is his deity, but a belief in the deity of Christ is not enough to save anyone. Professing to believe the Gospel does not save anyone. Believing the Gospel is something that can be done only by the elect and only after they have been born again.  Believing the Gospel saves.

White: Well as I thought about this text we have an illustration in the next two verses, but there’s another section of Scripture that came to my mind as I thought about these people who say one thing with their mouth but there is no corresponding reality in their life. That was James chapter two. This is the exact same emphasis that James makes in James Chapter 2 when he talks about people who say they profess faith but there is no corresponding reality in their life. And James asks the question in 2:14 “can that faith, the spoken faith, when you ask, what’s the evidence of your existence?, has no evidence to offer, save?”

White and others who claim to believe in justification by faith alone, but either don’t define faith or define faith so as to add an element to it that is completely ambiguous if it is not works,  are fond of bringing up the second chapter of James as evidence that there must be this ambiguous element in faith to make it saving. In other words, it is not the object of belief that makes it saving, it is some element of the faith itself.  White does not define faith in this sermon.  It is certainly false to say that one can be saved by a profession of faith and it is a profession of faith is that is being spoken of in James.   White’s sermon nowhere mentions the Gospel. He nowhere discusses what must be the object of saving faith.  He tells his listeners about a kind faith that he says does not save.  He does not define saving faith or tell his listeners what kind of faith (alone) does save (apart from works).

Robbins, on the other hand, does mention the Gospel.

Robbins: (Christ is) talking here about people in the Christian churches. They have done these things in the name of Christ. What they don’t mention is the summary of the Gospel which Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians 15 verses 1 through 4. If you’d like to turn there and follow along I’ll read that to you.

First Corinthians fifteen one through four. “Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you — unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures”.

These many church-goers, these many church leaders will not breath a word of this. They will not say Christ died for my sins. They will say I have preached, I have worked miracles, I have cast out demons. They will not profess the Gospel.

White acknowledges that these folks are not without works, but they apparently have the wrong kind of works.

White: Because there is no evidence that these people are lying. They didn’t. So you see we would be wrong to think that when Jesus talks about the difference between saying and doing that just any old doing is what he has in mind. It’s not the idea of doing activities and being religious and doing good works. Remember the doing was the doing of the will of the Father. Some might say, “ah, then we leap out of Matthew 7 over to John chapter 6 and people say, “what must we do to work the works of God?” Jesus says, “This is the work of God that you believe on him whom he has sent”, therefore, we don’t have to worry about activities and actions at all. I’m always a little uncomfortable when they do a lot of context hopping. Yes in response to those who want to work the works of God, Jesus offered a corrective. You can’t really work the works of God until you do the first thing he demands of you and that is have faith in the one whom he has sent. But keeping the right balance (the biblical balance) between profession and activity absolutely vital.

Dr. White is “a little uncomfortable when they do a lot of context hopping”. Then he explains that Jesus didn’t answer his questioners, he, instead, “offered a corrective”. What did he correct? I am not sure. They (the crowd) did not make a statement that might require a “corrective.” They asked a question. It was not a rhetorical question (which might be taken for a statement and require correcting). It seems to me that Jesus simply answered their question. According to White, Jesus was telling them “You can’t really work the works of God until you do the first thing he demands of you and that is have faith in the one whom he has sent.” He is, according to White, telling them first you must have faith, and then afterward you can work the works of God. But look at what Christ really said:

“This is the work of God that you believe on him whom he has sent”.

It is interesting that White equates believing with, in his own words, having faith.  His sermon seems to insinuate that faith is something other than simple belief.  Christ is very clearly saying that believing the one He sent is the work of God. After the previous piece of eisegesis, White explains the importance of maintaining the right (biblical) balance between profession and activity. Note that the John 6 passage does not deal with anyone’s profession. White accuses those who leap out of Matthew 7 over to John chapter 6 of reaching the conclusion: “therefore, we don’t have to worry about activities and actions at all.” Since we don’t know who “they” are to whom he refers, it is difficult to know if that is the conclusion they draw or the one that White, himself, would draw if he simply read the verse for what it clearly says. Perhaps this is why he finds it necessary to twist the verse: a simple reading leads him to a conclusion he does not like. Christ earlier advised the crowd to “work” for the food that endures to eternal life. It was in reference to this that the crowd asked the question. Christ’s answer implies that the work (of God) that results in eternal life is believing (the one he has sent).

Robbins:  At first glance, verse 21 seems to be saying that the decisive difference between those who are excluded and those who are admitted into the Kingdom of Heaven is the difference between empty professors and actual doers of the Word. It is not those who say, “Lord, Lord,” but those who actually do the will of the Father, who are admitted into Heaven. In verse 21, Jesus seems to be making the same distinction that James makes in 2:14: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” The contrast in James is between a person who says something with his lips, but does not give evidence of his faith by his works. But, unlike James, Jesus does not explicitly mention belief in verse 21; he mentions doing and saying, asserting that doing the will of the Father in Heaven is required to get into the Kingdom of Heaven, but saying “Lord, Lord” is not enough.

Again, at first glance, verse 21 seems to contradict verses such as Acts 16:31: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved…” and Romans 3:28: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law;” and Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast;” and scores more verses that deny salvation comes by doing.

This apparent contradiction in the New Testament raises a further difficulty: Does the Bible contradict itself? Many scholars say, Yes, it does. Or if they are coy rather than candid, they say the Scriptures contain “tensions,” “paradoxes,” and “antinomies.” The scholars apparently never consider the possibility that they have misunderstood the Scriptures. They are quick to attribute logical difficulties to the revealed propositions (and they always add that it is pious and humble to do so), but they do not even contemplate the possibility that they might not understand the text. That would be unthinkable! Imagine! Professors and theologians not understanding the text!

Robbins goes on to answer the question he raised about verse 21.

Robbins:  Our obedience to the law is never the basis of justification. Never, it wasn’t in the Old Testament and it isn’t in the New Testament. The Old Testament saints are saved in the same way the New Testament saints are saved by belief alone. By belief alone, but there’s still that nagging question. What does verse 21 mean? Christ had said back in verse 21 “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, but he who does the will of my Father in Heaven”. What does the phrase doing the will of my Father mean if it doesn’t mean works?

I promised earlier to try to answer this question and now I’ll try. What does this phrase mean if it doesn’t mean works? It certainly appears to mean works. He who does the will rather than he who says. Well Christ used the phrase and similar phrases as a synonym for belief. Look at John 6:40. Look at John 6:40. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life. That’s the will of the Father. John 6:28 and 29 Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”

The problem was they did not believe the Gospel. Believing the Gospel is apparently what White characterizes as “just a tipping of the hat to God”. I am not aware of what group advocates the position that one is justified by tipping one’s hat to God. There are those who believe that one is saved by praying a prayer, walking an aisle, making a choice or inviting Christ into one’s heart. All of these are things that anyone, regenerate or not, can do. However, according to Scripture, only the regenerate can believe the Gospel. The unregenerate can feign belief in the Gospel, but they cannot believe it. They can say they believe it, but they can’t believe it. It seems that White believes that the unregenerate can believe the Gospel. Since the unregenerate can believe the Gospel, something more than belief must be required. What in addition to belief is required for salvation? It is apparently something that Dr. White believes will demonstrate faith’s existence (i.e. works).  His exegesis of James comes to this conclusion.

If White is not advocating justification by faith plus works, it is impossible ascertain what exactly he is advocating.

White: But keeping the right balance (the biblical balance) between profession and activity absolutely vital. The Scriptures provide us with so many examples. We see it in James 2. We see it here. We see it in the apostle Paul in Ephesians 2 if we will just quote the whole text. I think most people in this room could probably quote from memory Ephesians 2 verses 8 and 9. But verse 10 says “for we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus unto good works which God has foreordained that we should walk in them.” That’s the relationship: salvation all of grace and that same sovereign God that saves predestines that we are to walk and live in the realm of good works. Works that are marked by a desire to glorify God out of obedience to his revealed will.

It is difficult to understand Dr. White’s point.  The same God that saves (by grace through faith that is a gift) predestines that we are to walk and live in the realm of good works.

Doesn’t the passage say God predestines the works themselves? Isn’t it clear that even these works which God foreordains play no role in our salvation. The passage makes that clear. He is trying to achieve some sort of balance between two gospels he believes are false. One is salvation by works, which he says is “not possible”. The other, apparently, is salvation without works, which he seems to deny is possible. But how can achieving the proper balance between two false gospels bring us to the true Gospel?  Why has he not told us what the Gospel is in this sermon?  Is the Gospel a message that a preacher might set before us in order that we might either believe it or reject it?  Isn’t the Gospel good news? Isn’t it information? Isn’t it the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes?  Yet I don’t find it set forth in this sermon.

White talks about some Professor of his that told him, “you can know everything about Christ, but you must know Christ.” I am not sure what this is supposed to mean. Is he suggesting we are saved byknowing” Christ, rather than by believing the Gospel? He seems to be. He is obviously alluding to some kind of non-propositional knowledge of Christ “personally” that is distinct from knowing and believing what the Scriptures reveal to us about him. Now the Gospel is information about Christ. It tells believers that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried and rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures. White seems to be saying that believing the Gospel is not enough. I say “seems to be saying” because he is not particularly clear in this sermon on a number of things. When he speaks of someone simply “tipping their hat toward God” is that supposed to represent simply hearing the Gospel and understanding it to be true?  That seems to be what he is referring to. It appears he believes the unregenerate can do this. If White is correct that the unregenerate person can, in fact, believe the Gospel, then it would follow that something else must be necessary for salvation. If White is wrong about it, then he, himself, may have a false view of the Gospel.

He speaks about Wally Tope’s illustration of good works. Wally said “you don’t say ‘bah, bah’ to become a sheep, you say ‘bah, bah’ because you are a sheep”, But is believing something that one does to become a sheep? Isn’t believing something one does because one is a sheep?  Christ said to the Pharisees “You do not believe because you are not my sheep.”

White talks about “balance”, but he talks about balancing different things in different parts of the sermon. At one point, he talks about maintaining the proper balance between one’s profession and one’s activities or actions.  At another he talks about maintaining the proper balance between two gospels he says are false.

He has Christ teaching that works are necessary for salvation, but not just any works. However, he is not clear as to what differentiates the works that these false teachers performed from the works that are necessary for salvation.

According to White these false teachers say “I have faith, but my faith can’t demonstrate its existence”.

He seems to be saying that the problem with these people was that there was some crucial aspect missing from their faith that rendered it non-saving. It is not that the object of their faith was wrong (i.e. their works), but that some element of the faith itself was missing. This missing element can only be works (remember those who lept over to John 6 from Matthew 7 and determined “therefore we don’t have to worry about activities and actions at all”) Activities and actions are works. If the missing element in the faith of these people is activities and actions and these activities and actions are necessary for the salvation of these people, how does White’s position differ from that of Rome? I don’t know. If his view does differ from that of Rome, it differs in some way that is, at least, ambiguous.

According to White this passage is not saying that the object of these false teachers’ faith was wrong, it is saying their faith was missing a necessary element or ingredient that would render it saving. It is not that their faith was misplaced, but rather deficient in some other way. He says that faith in order to be saving must give evidence of its existence and it is because these many folks’ faith did not demonstrate its existence that they were lost. Yet the passage states that these folks had works, in fact, quite marvelous works. White says that this shows that not just any works will do. So according to White these folks had works, but they were the wrong kind of works. He does not tell us exactly what was wrong with the works these folks performed except that they were apparently not “doing the will of the Father”, which apparently has nothing to do with believing the one He sent.  It (the will of the Father) is something that one can only do after believing the one He sent.  Even though White tries to indict these folks as the type who were only “showing up to church once in a while.” The passage gives no such indication. It seems more likely that these folks were leaders in the church. The works they performed were certainly very impressive. I think that most people would have looked at the works they performed as evidence that their faith was genuine. These are certainly not those who are without works, but the works that these folks performed were not evidence that their faith was genuine according to White. They prophesied, cast out demons and did many wonders (not just a few), but these works were not evidence of the existence of their faith. What kind of works would qualify as proof of the existence of their faith? The only thing White mentions is going to church more than once in a while, but I am certain he thinks there is more required than that for their works to qualify as evidence of their faith which would render it saving. He talks about his own experience and what’s in his heart:

There’s everything right with always keeping in our mind, “not everyone who says, but the one doing”. What’s the desire of my heart? The desire of my heart is to be the one doing the will of my Father who is in heaven. I want that to mark my every action. Is that my passion? What really excites my heart? Pleasing God or pleasing myself?

Didn’t these people in the passage believe that their actions were pleasing God? They seemed to. Why else would they point to them as evidence that they should be allowed to enter heaven? Don’t you suppose that doing these works excited their hearts? I would suggest that the folks were quite passionate about the importance of the works they were performing. I think it would be helpful if White would give us a list of the works that would qualify as evidence of genuine faith and explain the relationship of these works to the salvation of those who perform them, because this sermon seems to make these works an ingredient or element of the faith which is necessary for salvation.

It is not so strange that White should preach an unintelligible sermon, because the theologian whose apologetic system he has chosen to adopt taught that God, who is truth itself, is unintelligible. The word he used was incomprehensible, but the definition he applied to the term is unintelligible rather than immense. If truth (even that truth which is revealed in Scripture) is unintelligible, then a message that intends to reveal truth must also be unintelligible. This sermon certainly fills the bill. Unintelligibility for Van Tilians does not happen by accident.  It is actually what they aim for.

Van Til in his An Introduction to Systematic Theology wrote of his colleagues and followers:

It is precisely because they are concerned to defend the Christian doctrine of revelation as basic to all intelligible human predication that they refuse to make any attempt at “stating clearly” any Christian doctrine, or the relation of any one Christian doctrine to any other Christian doctrine. They will not attempt to “solve” the “paradoxes” involved in the relationship of the self-contained God to his dependent creatures.

I think the key difference between Clark and Van Til is their view of logic.  Van Til maintains that logic is created rather than eternal.

Van Til:  The laws of logic as God created them in the universe were not broken by sin, but man’s ability to use them rightly was weakened…

Clark believes that logic is the way God thinks and therefore eternal.  The difference between these two views is enormous.  If logic is eternal, it is an attribute of God who is truth itself.  Logic and truth are inseparably connected.  Logic is an attribute of truth itself.  On the other hand, if logic is part of the creation, as Van Til maintains, then it is not part of God’s nature.  If, as the WCF claims, God is truth itself, then logic is not an attribute of truth.  Truth can contradict itself.

White on his podcast quotes with approval Van Til as saying that if someone believes that God thinks according to the laws of logic, they are inferring that the laws are an abstraction above God to which he must submit.  That concept is as ridiculous as saying that the reason God cannot lie is that there is some law above God by which he must abide.  God cannot lie because his very nature is truth.  God does not contradict himself, because to contradict the truth is to lie.

Logic is the image of God in which man was created.  Reason is the difference between man and other creatures.  Logic is the reason that man is without excuse for exchanging the truth of God for the lie.  My dog cannot be held responsible exchanging the truth of God for the lie, because he is not the image of God. He does not have the ability to reason.  What may be known about God has not been made evident to him by God.  He is not without excuse.

It is my opinion that those who decry logic do so because of their hatred for truth.  Logic leads them to conclusions they don’t like when it is applied to Scripture.  It leads them to a God they do not wish to worship, therefore, it is to be avoided at all costs.  But if what they arrive at, when forced to apply logic to the Scriptures is repugnant to them, to what other than a hatred for truth can it be attributed?  A hatred for God, who is truth itself, rules the natural man.  The regenerate man is not perfected overnight.  He is progressively set free from his hatred for truth and God over time.  I don’t know that I can conclude that everyone that decries logic is unregenerate, but I think it is fair to say that the denigration of logic is a product of the remnants of the natural man (i.e. the flesh) if a regenerate man engages in it.

These two sermons present a clear contrast between two schools of thought.  Scripturalism, the philosophy of Gordon H. Clark, starts with the truth of Scripture as its axiom and proceeds to deduce a consistent world view from its propositions.

It is more difficult describe Van Til’s philosophy because it is not neatly defined.  It is purposely vague.  Vagueness is not a quality of truth.

According to Clark, “What cannot be clearly stated is not meaningful.”  These two sermons serve to illustrate the difference in the philosophies behind them.  Robbins’ sermon is very precise.  It is easy to understand the point of his sermon whether one agrees with his conclusion or not.

White’s sermon lacks precision.  It is difficult to agree or disagree with his conclusion because it is difficult to understand what the point of his sermon is.  This actually follows the Van Tilian ideal of refusing to make any attempt at stating clearly any doctrine of Scripture.

Perspicuous or Useless?

The Bible is perspicuous or it is useless. I read an article on Doug Douma’s blog A Place for Thoughts in which he made the preceding statement . It’s not like I didn’t already know that was true. It is one of those things that ought to be obvious, but isn’t to everyone. Seeing it stated so bluntly really had an impact. That statement really served as food for thought to me.  Those who advocate a Bible full of paradoxes, antinomies, tensions and mysteries are really advocating for one that is not perspicuous. and, therefore, useless.  The same ones who endorse the concept of a Bible that lacks perspicuity also promote the idea that precision in stating the doctrines derived from it is not something to be desired.  They argue that since the Bible is not clear, it is unbiblical to state any doctrine with clarity.  It is this type of thinking that leads to fuzzy definitions of important words that are part of crucial doctrines such as justification by faith alone.  If we don’t know what faith is, we don’t know what justification by faith alone means.

If our definition of faith contains an element of works, it makes Paul’s distinguishing of faith from works meaningless.  Gordon Clark says “unless one knows the definition, he does not know what he is talking about.”  He always emphasized the importance of defining terms.  After all a proposition is the meaning of a declarative sentence.  A series of words without meaning is not a proposition.  Gordon Clark believed in propositional revelation.  Truth (or falsehood)  is a property of propositions alone.  The propositions of Scripture together with their logical implications reveal the whole counsel of God.

On the other hand those who promote a Scripture that is less than clear like Van Tilian John Frame write things like, “Scripture, for God’s good reasons, is often vague.  Therefore, there is no way of escaping vagueness in theology, creed, or subscription without setting Scripture aside as our ultimate criterion.” Frame prefers vagueness to precision of thought.

Elsewhere he writes, “Scripture, does not demand absolute precision of us, a precision impossible for creatures…. Indeed, Scripture recognizes that for sake of communication, vagueness is often preferable to precision…. Nor is theology an attempt to state truth without any subjective influence on the formulation.”

What is belief?  Belief is assent to understood propositions.  Clark and his followers (I am one) hold that belief and faith as used in Scripture are one and the same thing.  The difference between ordinary faith and the faith which justifies is the object of faith.  The object of saving faith is the Gospel.

The opposing view maintains that the difference between ordinary faith and saving faith is some additional component to simple belief.  Whatever this component is, it is confusing to anyone who holds the idea that truth is non-contradictory.  Every illustration given to this additional component is confusing unless it is acknowledged to be good works, but those who hold this view will not acknowledge anything of the sort.  Faith is broken down into three parts usually characterized by the three Latin words: notitia, assensus and fiducia.  Notitia and assensus correspond with understanding and assent in English. These two components  combined amount to belief.  According to those who support the three-fold explanation  The supposed additional component which must be added to belief to turn it into saving faith is fiducia which, they say, corresponds with trust in English.

These three Latin words first appeared as the three essential components of saving faith in the writings of Philip Melanchthon in the 16th century.  These three words are not found in Scripture because it is not written in Latin.

The position that saving faith is composed of understanding, assent and trust becomes redundant if trust and belief are the same thing.  If trusting a bank or a person amounts to assenting to certain understood propositions concerning them, then adding trust as a component of faith adds nothing.

Gordon Clark points out that fiducia comes from the same root word as fide, so that  defining faith as notitia, assensus and fiducia is tantamount to defining it as understanding, assent and faith,

One thing that is certain, efforts to define the component that supposedly separates “mere” belief from saving faith are as vague as the Bible these folks assert and just as useless.  They are as unintelligible as the unintelligible written revelation their unintelligible (or as they would put it incomprehensible) God has supposedly given us that we might obtain (analogical) knowledge from it.

I admittedly have no idea what analogical knowledge is and how it differs from genuine knowledge.  I also do not know what a square circle is.  I don’t think this lack of understanding on my part is really my problem.  Analogical knowledge (like square circles) is what one gets from a Bible that is not perspicuous and can only produce imprecise and vague doctrines.  An imprecise definition of faith is not far behind such a view of Scripture.  The problem is not with a definition of faith that is redundant, such as defining faith as understanding with assent plus trust, the problem is the ambiguous definition of trust.  The problem is that it is impossible to distinguish trust from works in the imprecise definitions and illustrations supplied by the advocates of vagueness.

Vagueness is not a virtue.  A vague Scripture cannot reveal anything but vague doctrines.  This is not a good thing regardless of what those like Frame may propose.  Understanding is essential to faith, because one cannot assent to what one does not understand.  Supposedly assenting to a proposition one misunderstands is really assenting to a different proposition, because a proposition is not a declarative sentence, it is the meaning of a declarative sentence.  Unless one understands the meaning, one cannot assent.  Assent implies understanding.  The very nature of vagueness is that the meaning is unclear, indefinite or uncertain.  One cannot assent to vague propositions, because they cannot be understood.

Saving belief and saving faith are the same thing: voluntary assent to certain understood propositions clearly stated in Scripture regarding the atonement.




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