Confessional Subscription Levels in the Church

Introduction


Subscription Defined and Summarized

Subscription must be defined and summarized relating to the different subscription levels. First, what is a subscription? In his book, Robert Gonzales Jr., says, “In ecclesiastical parlance, however, the term ‘subscription’ or ‘subscribe’ refers to one’s affirmation of, agreement with, and commitment to a fixed body of doctrines or articles of faith that are officially representative of a local church’s or denomination’s beliefs.”[2] Here is a good starting point for understanding what subscription means. Scripture provides the church with a sure and steady anchor. Scripture is to be the true north, the one constant, but confessions provide a navigational tool for understanding the Scriptures.

It is easy to see why a confession is important, but it is not as easy to see how much of it is appropriate to utilize and how much the congregation must understand and agree. Carl Trueman draws a distinction when he says, “Second, we need to understand that subscribing to a creed or confession does not mean that we believe every phrase in the document was as well expressed as it could have been or that if we wrote it today we would use exactly the same vocabulary and phrasing.”[3] Level-headed Baptists will not hold the confession to the status of God-breathed, so in this distinction, there is room for negotiation. As Trueman says, confessions are ecclesiastical documents, and can, therefore, be adjusted to suit the needs of a local church or denomination. It is essential to understand the difference so that the well-intentioned does not injure the conscience of another. If one subscribes to a confession at a lower level than someone believes it should be, that is not the same as throwing out parts of the Bible someone does not like. With all this in mind, the next step is to identify the most common levels or types of subscriptions, and derivations are abundant so that this paper will focus on the most central.

Before listing the types of subscriptions, some terms must first be understood. Two Latin terms pertain to how someone views a confession. The first is quia-subscription, which means subscribing to a confession because it is biblical. The second term, quatenus-subscription, means insofar as it is biblical. Gonzales states, “Traditionally, the first is associated with tighter views of subscription and the second with looser views.”[4] He says that some forms involve a combination of both ideas. Additionally, there are nuances to subscription levels that can involve exceptions, sometimes called scruples, meaning some individuals might take exceptions to certain words, phrases, or even the promoted doctrine. It does not necessarily imply a rejection of the confession or a particular statement, but it has abstinence in view. Lastly, a confession must be taken in good faith with sincerity. The congregation and leadership must have a firm commitment to the confession. The Latin term Animus Imponentis refers to the intentions of the mind or heart, but in this case, it is a corporate, i.e., a church or denominational viewpoint, and this covers a wide path of confessional latitude. Next, the different subscription levels are reviewed and summarized.

Absolute Subscription

If one were to survey all the confessions since the church age began, one would find a lot of them. The answer to this seems obvious. It is a product of time and developing standards. In their book, Fairbairn and Reeves say, “At one level, all theological statements are local. That is, all such statements are influenced by the particular situation they arise and the problems they address. This is true of the biblical writings themselves, which is why we insist on ‘context, context, context’ as we interpret the texts.”[5]

            Absolute subscription is heavily context driven. In this view, the confession is taken as it was originally written with no variation, as this is the earliest form of subscription, and it seems obvious why given the period in which its adherents lived. They were the original writers of the confession they subscribed to. If they needed to reject a doctrine, it would have quickly occurred at the time of the writing. Outside of strict orthodox sects, absolute subscription is uncommon.

Historical Subscription

The historical subscription is like the absolute subscription, except the subscriber must agree to the intent of the original writers of the confession. The difficulties seem apparent, for how can someone living in the 21st century know the intent of someone in the 17th? The written words provide the intention of the writer’s thoughts. On this, it seems logical. If somebody is going to subscribe historically rather than absolutely, there would have to be some change, but it is not easy to ascertain what that might be. Gonzales avers, “Apparently, then, the historical view requires one to agree not merely with the basic sense of the words, propositions, and doctrines in a confession, but also with all the metaphysical and epistemological viewpoints of the confession’s authors or signatories.”[6] That proves the historical subscription to be a difficult position for those outsides of the ability to read minds.

Full (or Strict) Subscription

While the full subscription view does not hold a death grip on the confession, it carries a strict confessional and doctrinal stance. It runs close to the absolute subscription and only allows exceptions for words or phrases. R. Scott Clark, a Presbyterian scholar, and James Renihan, a Reformed Baptist, are the leading proponents for this position. Clark appears to hold the confession to that of Scripture. He says, “It is not that the authority of the confessions is ‘very nearly tantamount to that of Scripture,’ but it is tantamount to that of Scripture, assuming that a given confession is biblical and intended to be subscribed because (quia) it is biblical.[7]

System Subscription

System subscription is the next subscription level moving from the right (conservative) to the left (liberal). As the absolute and historical subscriptions appear starch and rigid, the full and system subscriptions allow for some leeway. The system differs in that it allows more than words or phrases. It allows the subscriber exceptions to non-essential doctrines or propositions. What exactly constitutes an essential doctrine or proposition might be in the eye of the beholder, but it appears the intention is in the right place to allow for the system of a confession to operate within a church but not place an undue burden on its congregants and leaders.

At least on paper, system subscription appears to seek a balance that offers flexibility without compromising consistent orthodoxy, although not everyone sees it in the same light. Lecturing at a 2009 Conference, John Fesko makes these remarks, “[A] number of things that I have read over the years have shown that some people are of the opinion that system subscription inevitably leads to some form of liberalism or doctrinal demise in a number of different church settings throughout the history at least of the Presbyterian church.”[8] Fesko explains that the most important thing about understanding the full approach to system subscription is how it works out in practice. Waldron rightly states, “Liberty is not the right to do as I please. Liberty is the right to do as God pleases without fear.”[9] Internal motivating factors and a call to seek the right balance are within all the subscription levels.

Substance (of the Evangelical Faith) Subscription

The next level of subscription is substance (of the Evangelical) which continues to loosen its grip upon the strictness of the earlier levels. Substance Subscription requires adherence to core doctrines of the evangelical faith contained within the confession and an expressed commitment to the doctrines and a belief in them. Generally, this level does not require a declaration of the exceptions in the confession. One of the concerns with this level is that it becomes a slippery slope. What are the core doctrines, and who is the definer of them? Exactly where can lines be drawn legitimately?

            Stan Reeves, in his updated translation of the confession, provides some valuable insights:

Such a time-tested statement of biblical doctrine can give us clarity beyond our present level of study. Here is how it works. As we study the various doctrines articulated by the confession, we find that the confession faithfully summarizes the teaching of Scripture in these areas. Then we realize the countless godly pastors, theologians, and churches sharing these same convictions through the centuries have held that they are part and parcel of a biblical system of doctrine that is summarized by the confession.[10]            

In like manner to the Scriptures, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16), confession twisting is possible. Not every chapter will carry the same weight as Chapter 1 on the Holy Scriptures or Chapter 3 Of God’s Decree, but it is not easy to make quick and easy decisions about what is and what is not a core doctrine. All decisions need careful handling.

Substance (of the Christian Religion) Subscription

Rarely does a broadening of terms produce a more orthodox value system. It generally tends to slide down the slippery slope. Not only does it slide, but it slides quickly, which is the case with this form of substance subscription. In general terms, “of the Christian Religion” appears to be a solidly fundamental viewpoint.[11] What the term has come to mean is theological liberalism.

            Gonzales defines this level and pulls no punches as to the dangers involved, “The step of subscribing to a confession as containing the substance of the evangelical faith may lead to the further step of reducing the “essentials” to broader fundamentals or tenets of the Christian religion. This very loose form of substance subscription is where many of the mainline denominations landed in the twentieth century. Gonzales describes how quickly the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) quickly descended into full-blown liberalism.            

Similarly to the previous subscription level of the Christian Religion, it leaves open doors for various interpretations. Gonzales provides a compelling case of how quickly the liberal slide can happen. In 1910 the PCUSA decided that five articles of faith were essential and necessary to the Christian faith.[12] Fast forward to 1977, and the PCUSA found it challenging to condemn homosexuality as a sinful act that would result in eternal condemnation.[13] While the liberal slide is the most likely, it is also possible to slide into a more extreme version of fundamentalism.[14] Some churches appear on the surface to be in the fundamentally balanced orthodox camp and make a claim to the 1689 Confession. However, in practice, they twist it to their own destruction, picking and choosing the best doctrines that fit their needs. These practices often work themselves out in a more rigid society, but the rigidity is ruled by the leadership in the church that has a tendency to disregard doctrines they dislike, not necessarily doctrines that are unbiblical. [15]

Application for Leaders and Members

Now that the different subscription levels have a working definition how should they be implemented at the church level? Is it appropriate to demand the same level of understanding from a seasoned church leader as a new convert? Fortunately, there is a considerable amount of latitude on both topics. The Scriptures do not provide explicit instructions on implementing such a document into the church’s life; however, they provide specific parameters that can guide along the path.

            Carefully choosing a confession is imperative to the success of any church.[16] The choices primarily involve the Westminister Confession of Faith (WCF) or the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith (2LBCF), assuming a Protestant background. Considering whether one is a Presbyterian or a Baptist makes this a clear choice. Within the Baptist line, there are options between the 1689, the Abstract Principles, or the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. In many instances, churches will utilize two confessions in conjunction with one another, such as the 1689 and the New Hampshire Confession. Herein, it provides an opportunity for various commitment levels built into the two confessions. The 1689 is considerably more in-depth and requires a deeper understanding, whereas the New Hampshire Confession has a more streamlined approach.

            In some cases, the officers would affirm faith to the 1689 and church members would confess the New Hampshire. A second option is to have two subscription levels contained within the 1689. Officers may be required to be full or strict subscriptions, and the non-officers have a system subscription. It also bears mentioning that confessional knowledge and affirmation should not be required for church membership. The confession itself states the requirement is a credible profession of faith, and obedience unto God (26.2 of the 2LBCF). No matter the ultimate decision, it seems the best thing to provide the most flexibility without compromising a firm orthodoxy is to discuss and reach a consensus among men of goodwill. The issue is rarely the wrong subscription level, although not entirely, but is often one of the domineering personalities that must have their way. The goal for noble churchmen should be the glory of God and seek Him to bless their labors.

Conclusion

Confessions of faith and the use thereof provide countless benefits for the church if used correctly and within the confines of leaders with pure desires. No matter how great a document might be, it is difficult to control if it is in the hands of someone bent on hurtful behaviors, and this is true of nearly anything under the sun. The subscription levels of confessions create a framework for an operation that can guide and direct the church and provide a systematic method for growing in sanctification and love. When the confession is rightly honored as subservient to the Scriptures and used as a guardrail to protect the church it serves its purpose well. Then it can be trusted to keep oneself within the confines of sincere orthodoxy.


1] The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith is often abbreviated as the 1689, and this paper will refer to it as such, or abbreviate it as 2LBCF.

[2] Robert Gonzales, Jr., ed., The Confessing Baptist: Essays on the Use of Creeds in Baptist Faith & Life. (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2021), 133.

[3] Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 192.

[4] Gonzales, The Confessing Baptist, 134.

[5] Donald Fairbairn and Ryan M. Reeves, The Story of Creeds and Confessions: Tracing the Development of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 8

[6] Gonzales, The Confessing Baptist, 139-140.

[7] R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 178. Quoted in Robert Gonzales, Jr., ed., The Confessing Baptist, 141.

[8] John Fesko, “System Subscription,” Lecture 2 Transcript, accessed December 6, 2022, https://www.pncnopc.org/audio/audio-presbytery/2009-animus-imponentis-conference. Quoted in Robert Gonzales, Jr., ed., The Confessing Baptist, 147.

[9] Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. 5th ed. (Durham, UK: Evangelical Press, 2016), 310.

[10] Stan Reeves, ed., Confessing the Faith: The 1689 Baptist Confession for the 21st Century (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2012), 9.

[11] When referencing fundamental I am referring to what Packer termed Evangelicalism, not the pejorative used today to describe extreme sects of Christian Fundamentalism. J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958), 24.

[12] “Five Articles,” The doctrinal deliverance of 1910, accessed December 8, 2022, https://pcahistory.org/documents/deliverance.html. Quoted in Robert Gonzales, Jr., ed., The Confessing Baptist, 151.

[13] “The Church and Homosexuality: A Preliminary Study,” PCUS, 1977, accessed December 7, 2022, https://index.pcusa.org/nxt/gateway.dll?f=templates$fn=default.htm,

[14] Here the term fundamentalism is being used as a pejorative

[15] This is a personal observation, lived out for nine years inside of a church declaring their loyalty to the confession and living in direct opposition to many of its basic tenets.

[16] An assumption is being made that the churches being dealt with here are and will be confessional. There are reasonable statements of faith available for those not choosing the confessional course, but that is not what is being discussed in this paper.


Bibliography

Clark, R. Scott. Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008. Quoted in Robert Gonzales R. Jr., The Confessing Baptist

Fairbairn, Donald, and Ryan M. Reeves. The Story of Creeds and Confessions: Tracing the Development of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019.

Fesko, John, “System Subscription.” Accessed December 6, 2022, https://www.pncnopc.org/audio/audio-presbytery/2009-animus-imponentis-conference

“Five Articles.” The doctrinal deliverance of 1910. Accessed December 8, 2022. https://pcahistory.org/documents/deliverance.html.

Gonzales, Robert R. Jr., ed. The Confessing Baptist: Essays on the Use of Creeds in Baptist Faith & Life, Conway, Arkansas: Free Grace Press, 2021.

Packer, J. I. Fundamentalism and the Word of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958.

Reeves, Stan. Confessing the Faith: The 1689 Baptist Confession for the 21st century. Second Printing, 2013. Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2012.

“The Church and Homosexuality: A Preliminary Study,” PCUS, 1977. Accessed December 7, 2022, https://index.pcusa.org/nxt/gateway.dll?f=templates$fn=default.htm,

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.

Trueman, Carl R. The Creedal Imperative. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

Waldron, Samuel E. A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. 5th ed. Durham, UK: Evangelical Press, 2016.

Chapter 9 – Of Free Will – Exposition

Chapter 9: Of Free Will

Introduction

                The topic of free will has been misunderstood and misrepresented throughout history, and it often justifies good or bad behavior. Perhaps, part of the misunderstanding of free will is man’s inability to think clearly and rightly about biblical topics outside of regeneration and a new life in Christ. One other possibility is that it contradicts their theology. Mankind tends to hold himself up as an example of goodness and overestimates his abilities. The writers of the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith recognized free will as a tricky topic or one to be held in tension. How much free will does man have compared to what God grants him? With these issues in mind, it is the goal to examine Chapter 9, Of Free Will, to exposit what God and the writers of the Confession teach about this important topic.

1. God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil. 1

1. Matthew 17:12; James 1:14; Deuteronomy 30:19

The first thing to notice about Chapter 9, Paragraph 1 is that God is the first cause of man’s[1] ability to do anything. He, being the Creator, has created man and provided man with a will. Here we see man created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). The modern version of the Confession substitutes endued with the word given, meaning God has given to mankind everything pertaining to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). The ability that God has provided is what the Confession calls natural liberty and the power of acting upon choice.

Natural liberty and the power of acting upon choice need to be defined. It is imperative to define free will and what free will is not.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary provides this:

  1. : voluntary choice or decision
  2. : freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention[2]

Most people understand they can do or avoid what they want. To have the ability to cross the street or stay put, run a red light, stop at a red light, wear blue jeans, or wear shorts. Human beings can make these natural choices without any spiritual or moral consequences. In this sense, man can make a free-will choice, and while God is sovereign over all things, He allows these choices.

Sam Waldron clarifies, “The human will is not subject to any physical necessity. Men are free. Their choices are not determined by factors external to their free, personal identities and moral natures. There could not be the human responsibility and accountability the Bible clearly teaches, unless this were the case (Proverbs 1:24 – 33; John 3:18, 19).”[3]

The Bible rejects the teaching of determinism. Britannica defines determinism this way.

determinism, in philosophy and science, the thesis that all events in the universe, including human decisions and actions, are causally inevitable. Determinism entails that, in a situation in which a person makes a certain decision or performs a certain action, it is impossible that he or she could have made any other decision or performed any other action. In other words, it is never true that people could have decided or acted otherwise than they actually did.[4]

In His wisdom, God has provided mankind with decision-making abilities and the freedom to choose certain things, and in God’s wisdom, man is also responsible for his rejection of God. He is not forced to choose or reject God; instead, God changes the heart of men so that they willingly and freely choose Him (Ez. 36:26).

There are multiple facets to God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, and both are at play. Waldron defines it well when he says, “Divine freedom (God’s sovereign, decretive will) and human freedom are not in conflict. Rather, it is only because our wills are made in the image of the freedom of God’s supreme will that our derivative wills are free. Human freedom is rooted in God’s sovereign freedom.”[5]

It is also essential to understand that free will is not libertarian or that man is autonomous.[6] While some believe they have autonomy, it is easy to prove they do not. As an example, a person must eat to sustain their life. They must work to provide a home or attend a class on time to achieve a grade. Nobody is without responsibility. Even those that reject authority and the idea of being accountable to anyone need necessities to survive, so their will is not wholly free.

Lastly, these choices are not forced or bound by nature to do good or evil. These choices are legitimate. They are not predetermined as determinism defines them, nor are they without consequence. The choice to commit an evil act land squarely on the shoulders of the one who made it. While the old statement, “The devil made me do it,” has some validity, since mankind’s natural inclinations are bent toward evil, it does not relieve them of responsibility.

2. Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom and power to will and to do that which was good and well-pleasing to God, 2 but yet was unstable, so that he might fall from it. 3

2. Ecclesiastes 7:29 3. Genesis 3:6

“And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16—17).

God’s command to Adam was clear. Adam lacked for nothing. God provided all of Adam’s needs and only gave one regulation. He was forbidden from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Is it reasonable to believe that God had equipped Adam with the ability to obey? In paragraph 1, the Confession states that mankind is not forced to do good or evil. God provided Adam with an opportunity. Do this, and you will live. Do this, and you will die.

K.A. Matthews provides clarity,

“The prohibition against eating the fruit of the “tree of knowledge” gave Adam opportunity to worship God through loyal devotion. Luther likened the tree to “Adam’s church, altar, and pulpit. Here he was to yield to God the obedience he owed, give recognition to the Word and will of God, give thanks to God, and call upon God for aid against temptation.”[7]

Adam’s choices were real choices. He has been given God’s command not to eat of this one tree, and as Matthews articulates, he can call upon God to help in his temptation. If Adam had rejected the serpent’s lies and confronted his wife, he would have pleased God. God provided the testing of his faith, but Adam failed the test.

It is also significant to understand that Adam’s world was good and very good (Gen. 1:31). In other words, the world had not yet experienced sin. Adam holds a unique position in humanity as the first human being and the first in a state of innocence, as the Confession says. He was uncorrupted by sin but not incorruptible. As humanity’s federal head, Adam would represent all of mankind and his posterity. Paul summarizes this in Romans 5.

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—” (Rom. 5:12).

Adam’s act of rebellion ushered sin into the world, and with the entrance of sin, God’s words, “you shall surely die,” echoed forth.

“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18—19).

God’s testing period for Adam ended in failure. His trespass condemned the whole human race under sin, yet God promised a Redeemer. His obedience and righteous acts will save sinners from their sins.

Adam proved his instability by failing to keep the command, and just as the Confession states, he fell from this state of innocence and became a transgressor of the law. Adam had the power to choose good, but instead, he chose evil.

3. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; 4 so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, 5 is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto. 6

4. Romans 5:6, 8:7 5. Ephesians 2:1, 5 6. Titus 3:3-5; John 6:44

While it is clear from the Confessions’ first two paragraphs on free will that mankind makes legitimate choices in life, these choices are without coercion. What is the difference between man’s “morally neutral” decisions and the free will decision to follow the Lord? There is no relationship. Paragraph three transitions to a post-fall condition and sets up a clear dividing line between everyday decisions and the decision to follow Christ.

It all begins with a promise from God to Adam that if he remains obedient, he will live, but should he disobey God’s commands he will surely die (Gen. 2:17). As the narrative of Genesis progresses to Adam’s rebellion, the immediate consequence of his disobedience appears. God pronounces curses upon him and the woman, but Adam does not drop dead.

It is worth a short detour to look at how Adam did indeed die, but not in the immediate. The Confession lays out free will in a progressive manner. Waldron says, “The first paragraph defines free will. Paragraphs 2 – 5 deal with the different states in which it exists. These move from the state of innocency, where it is marked by instability, to the state of glory, where it is marked by immutability. As finite, ethical beings we do undergo a moral and ethical development.”[8]

What sort of death occurred in Adam and all his posterity? Matthew Henry remarks on one way in which Adam died,

Thou shalt become mortal and capable of dying; the grant of immortality shall be recalled, and that defence shall depart from thee. Thou shalt become obnoxious to death, like a condemned malefactor that is dead in the law” (only, because Adam was to be the root of mankind, he was reprieved); “nay, the harbingers and forerunners of death shall immediately seize thee, and thy life, thenceforward, shall be a dying life: and this, surely; it is a settled rule, the soul that sinneth, it shall die.”[9]

Of course, Adam eventually died in the flesh, but a spiritual death occurred within Adam and all his posterity. The doctrine of original sin. Paul writes in Romans 5 as one of the proof texts the Confession provides, but a few verses later describe this death that passes to all.

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12).

Paragraph 3 provides the proof texts that indicate this spiritual death. Ephesians 2:1 is a prime example stating mankind is dead in his sins and transgressions. In this deadness, the Confessions states mankind is without any power to convert himself. He has not had the free will to will himself to God. Romans 3:11 says, “no one understand; no one seeks for God.” The simplicity of this statement is evident. The Spirit of God must move and draw, or man stays dead in his sin.

The quotation of John 6:44 is appropriate as Jesus said, “unless the Father draws him.” The drawing is never forced or compulsory; it is a work of the Spirit that makes a man willing. Calvin provides a succinct view.

“True, indeed, as to the kind of drawing, it is not violent, to compel men by external force; but still it is a powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, which makes men willing who formerly were unwilling and reluctant.”[10]

While it is essential to understand the inability to respond to God without God’s help, it is equally important to realize this does not provide man with a pass should he never come to Christ. The gospel invitation is a sincere invitation for all to come to Christ. Those that remain in their sin and rebellion do it willingly, which is the topic of paragraph 4.

4. When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He frees him from his natural bondage under sin, 7 and by His grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; 8 yet so as that by reason of his remaining corruptions, he does not perfectly, nor only will, that which is good, but does also will that which is evil. 9

7. Colossians 1:13; John 8:36 8. Philippians 2:13 9. Romans 7:15, 18-19, 21, 23

Paragraph 4 is a progressive step in Chapter 9 that relates to post-conversion. God converts a sinner. He takes him from his sin and moves him out of darkness and into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9). There is a full-on change to him or her; they are now children of God. They have been justified and sanctified[11] by the blood of Christ.

Where he once was enslaved to sin (John 8:34), he now becomes a slave to righteousness (Rom. 6:16). The natural inclination or proclivity toward sin has now been radically altered toward godliness. The sinner has now become a saint and begins to live in the light of the gospel.

Ezekiel prophesied this new reality in chapter 36.

“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ez. 36:26—27).

The change wrought by God in the heart gives a new attitude, affection, and an entirely new perspective. The outward evidence is obedience to the commandments of God. It does not mean perfection, for that would be impossible (1 John 1:8), and as the Confession continues to expand, evil still resides in the heart of the converted.

In many fundamental or strict orthodox circles, obedience tends to mark the status of justification. Mercifully, the Lord has provided a clear revelation that faith is never dependent upon works, but works will proceed from faith. The recent rise of Federal Vision Theology has reignited the debate about the law and gospel distinction. It can create confusion in the minds of many, especially in churches where overly zealous pastors attempt to assist the Holy Spirit in His work of sanctification toward the people. The tendency is to make judgments regarding salvation purely based on external measures. The Confession addresses this concern in Chapter 17, paragraph 3.[12]

In summary, the paragraph states that believers can fall into grievous sins for a time, but God will renew and preserve them in Christ to the end. Here is a powerful statement about the Divine grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Man looks on the outside, but God looks upon the heart (1 Sam. 16:7).

Caution must be extended toward those acting in rebellion. The state of their salvation should be a two-way street. Dr. Brian Borgman preached an excellent sermon on not being overly righteous or overly wicked, providing context to the balance that needs to be maintained.[13] The ditches are steep on both sides of the narrow path. Avoiding licentiousness is just as important as avoiding legalism; they are both wrong and dangerous. The Confession addresses these concerns and provides the right balance if understood correctly.

True disciples, followers, and believers in the Lord Jesus Christ look forward to the day they are free from sin and the troubles of this present world, and that is the topic of the final paragraph of Chapter 9.

5. This will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to good alone in the state of glory only. 10

10. Ephesians 4:13

Ongoing sin will continue within the life of a believer. Paul spent a good portion of Romans chapter 7 relaying how this internal battle continues to rage. There will be no ultimate peace until glorification or the act of being perfected after physical death in this world.

The Confession writers tell us that man’s will is made perfectly and immutably free. The struggling believer is made whole. As the believer once saw dimly, he will now see clearly. The rags of sin are exchanged for those final garments of white that are perfect, in Christ, and unchangeable. Sin reigns no more. It is finally and totally eradicated in glorification. It is the ultimate consummation of the beauty in Christ.

Christians have a calling to do good in this world. They are to be light in a dark place and impact the society around them. Throughout history, Christians have sought to help the sick and indigent free slaves and stand against the horrors of abortion. The good done by Christians in these contexts are imperfect, and God only recognizes their good works as works done through Christ (Matt. 25:40). Works outside of Christ carry no eternal merit because it is impossible to please God outside of faith (Heb. 11:6).

Once the believer departs the present world and enters the kingdom of heaven, there will be no more pain, no more suffering, and no more struggle with sin. The will of the glorified believer will entirely focus on worshipping the redeemed Savior. They will forever be in the image of Christ as sons and daughters.

As John describes the final victory scene in Revelation, he says there be no more pain, no more tears, and no more death. Sin is the cause of all these, and when sin is vanquished, only beauty remains, and man’s free will has been wholly created new in Christ and glorification.

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).


[1] For ease, the term “man” will be substituted for mankind or used interchangeably. The term includes male and female.

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/freewill

[3]Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 5th ed. (Welwyn Garden City, UK: EP Books, 2016), 166.

[4] https://www.britannica.com/topic/determinism

[5] Ibid., 166.

[6] https://www.gotquestions.org/libertarian-free-will.html

[7] K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 210–211.

[8] Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 5th ed. (Welwyn Garden City, UK: EP Books, 2016), 166—167. 

[9] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 9.

[10] John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 257.

[11] Sanctification has an immediate effect (1 Cor. 6:11) but will also be ongoing (Heb. 10:14) in a progressive fashion, so this is not to say the sinner is fully sanctified.

[12] 3. And though they may, through the temptation of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins, and for a time continue therein, 9 whereby they incur God’s displeasure and grieve his Holy Spirit, 10 come to have their graces and comforts impaired, 11 have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded, 12 hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves, 13 yet shall they renew their repentance and be preserved through faith in Christ Jesus to the end. 14

[13] https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=1030221944157927

Their Devotion, God’s Design – Acts 2:42-47

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

God’s Wisdom – James 3:13-18

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3:13–18).

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill – Lessons Learned?

I’m nearing the end of listening to the podcast series on the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It has struck me to the core in more ways than one. I’ve recommended it on Facebook multiple times, but I feel like an echo chamber doing so. I can hear myself shout it from the mountain tops but I’m not sure anyone hears.

Why does this affect me so much? Because I lived through and went through a similar experience but on a much smaller scale. Smaller in terms of it was a small church, but larger because it was a small church. What I mean is that we were not in some distant relationship to the issue like many at Mars Hill. Of course, there were those there that probably had it worse than us. They experienced firsthand the abuse Driscoll dished out, and then they lost their jobs, they lost their church, and they lost their friends in one failed swoop.

I see how narcissists simply move on. They do damage, they defend, they deflect, and then they trample. It’s easy for them. It was easy for Driscoll. He has moved on. He is now pastoring a new flock in the Phoenix metro and most of them probably have no clue who he is or what he’s done. He’s a great storyteller, as the podcast has repeatedly told the listener, and he really is. I went to Mars Hill once while in Seattle and it was really cool at the time.

Yet, Mark moves on. He left the bus after it had rolled over many and left a mountain behind it. Narcissistic leaders are not new, and sadly Driscoll isn’t the first and he certainly won’t be the last. What motivates these people? I don’t know, but it is probably insecurity. It probably stems from Daddy or Mommy wounds. Maybe it’s from childhood trauma or a sense of bravado that needs to be the center of attention. No matter the cause it’s a real thing, and when these guys get into a leadership position, and they always end up in leadership positions, they tend to steamroll people and leave dead bodies in their wake.

I wish I could write more. I wish I could write more eloquently about the issues, and about how the damaged people are still damaged, and yet the Driscoll’s of the world move on. We were “lucky” I suppose. We didn’t depend on them for our livelihood, and we had other friends. We landed at other solid churches, and we never blamed God or questioned our faith. We questioned people, and we should question people, because it’s the people doing ungodly things that hurt others, not God Himself.

And the hope is that God uses it for blessing others. How can we forget those that have suffered far worse than us? How can we forget what Paul went through at the hands of others, or our Lord Jesus Christ so that we might receive His benefits? I don’t think I’m like Jesus by the way, but I want to be. I will work at it, and I’ll work at being able to be a blessing to those that have suffered at the hands of an authoritarian leader. If God sees fit to use me this way.

If you haven’t, I encourage you to listen to this whole series. It is really done remarkably well, even to the amazing production level that Driscoll himself sought. How ironic.

No matter what seek Christ and stay close to Him. He is a comfort in the deepest storms. He is worthy of our earthly suffering. No matter what.

Kevin