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Covenant Reformed News - February 2024

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Covenant Reformed News
February 2024  •  Volume XIX, Issue 22


 

The Truth Is According to Godliness (1)

Believer, there are many ways in which the devil attacks your adherence to the Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps he seeks to fill you with anger or covetousness or worry, for example, or he tries to suck you into one of the world’s moral (or immoral) crusades.

Another, more subtle, satanic ploy is the notion that all that matters is how you live, and that knowing and believing the truth of God’s Word makes little or no difference to the quality of one’s spiritual life, either your own or anyone else’s.

It is easy to understand how this appeals to our sinful flesh. According to this seductive lie, a catechumen or Sunday school student may conclude, “I do not need to study or memorize biblical material for the next class. It doesn’t do me much good.”

Others think like this: “I’m always tired. Why should I spend time and energy on reading good Reformed books and praying? It seems to make no difference to my life.”

So how is the truth of God’s Word related to practical godliness? Do the doctrines of Scripture oppose or hinder obedience to the Lord? Is biblical teaching utterly irrelevant as regards a holy life, so that there is no correlation between them? Perhaps the faith of the Reformation is of minimal help or limited worth with respect to genuine spirituality? Maybe Scripture’s teaching is merely fairly useful in promoting piety?

But what does the Word of God itself proclaim? Biblical “doctrine … is according to godliness” (I Tim. 6:3) and “the truth … is after godliness” (Titus 1:1)!

What is this saying? Scriptural doctrine accords with, is in keeping with, fits with and corresponds to godliness. Biblical teaching is conducive towards and leads to piety, for this is its natural tendency in God’s believing people by the power of the Spirit.

Not only do all the doctrines of God’s Word fit together harmoniously and reinforce each other. It is also the case that scriptural doctrine fits with and leads to practical piety, for the truth is according to godliness.

Here we need to make an important distinction between God’s truth and those who profess to believe it. Some might object, But what about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5? They lied about the amount they had gotten for the sale of their land because they sought glory of man. So how was the truth according to godliness for them? The answer is that they were hypocrites and not genuine believers!

What then, some might say, about Peter? He was a true believer, yet he denied Christ three times with oaths and cursings. Yes, but this was a temporary lapse. Later, he repented with bitter tears (Matt. 26:75) and was used by the Lord to “strengthen” the other disciples (Luke 22:32). Thus the truth is still after godliness!

What about times of church divisions? Here the blame lies with false doctrines (not the truth) and sinful behaviour by some people. The lesson to be drawn is not that the truth does not help God’s saints, but that He sovereignly uses heresies to make manifest those who are approved by Him and those who are not (I Cor. 11:19). Thus, no matter how professing Christians or professing churches may behave at certain times, the Holy Spirit declares that “the truth … is after godliness” (Titus 1:1)! Rev. Angus Stewart

 

Total Depravity and Manichaeism

Our question for this issue of the News is very interesting: “Folk who oppose the Reformed faith often claim that total depravity is nothing but a resurrection of the old heresy of Manichaeism. (Interestingly, this was also the charge of the Remonstrants against the doctrines laid out in the Canons of Dordt—see the ‘Conclusion.’) Augustine (354-430) was a Manichaean in his early years, and they claim that his views of the ‘total depravity of man’ are just remnants of Manichaeism that remained in his theology and these eventually became incorporated into the Reformed churches. What exactly is Manichaeism? And what are the clear differences between the Reformed view and that of the former?”

What was Manichaeism? Manichaeism was an ancient heresy, named after its founder, the Persian false prophet, Mani. It flourished from the third to the seventh centuries in the Roman Empire and Augustine was a Manichaean for nine years. Manichaeism was an attempt to combine the world’s religions into one system, incorporating elements of an old Persian religion called Zoroastrianism with Christianity, Gnosticism and Buddhism, with Mani being the great self-proclaimed prophet of this new religion.

Manichaeism was dualistic and fatalistic. It viewed spiritual things as good and material things as evil, but saw the outcome of the struggle between them as uncertain. This was its dualism, good and evil, the material and the spiritual, two independent and equal powers. Its fatalism lay in the teaching that ordinarily the soul of man, which is spiritual and good, is dominated by the body, which is material and evil, leaving a person helpless in the struggle against evil. It was this latter aspect of Manichaeism that attracted the early pre-Christian Augustine, since it meant that he was not responsible for the sins in which he was living.

Those who claim that the doctrine of total depravity is a carry-over from Manichaeism point to that doctrine’s view that man is evil by nature. They say that it is the same as Manichaeism’s view that the body is evil. Such critics also see the doctrine of total depravity as fatalistic, claiming that it destroys all responsibility for sin, just as did the Manichaean view of the evil body as dominant over the good soul in the personal struggle between good and evil. Total depravity leaves a person unable to do good and, therefore, they claim, without responsibility for sin.

Our questioner is right in claiming that the Remonstrants (Arminians) charged the Reformed churches with Manichaeism at the time of the Synod of Dordt. This charge is addressed in the conclusion to the Canons. The Remonstrants said, “That the doctrine of the Reformed churches concerning predestination, and the points annexed to it, by its own genius and necessary tendency, leads off the minds of men from all piety and religion; that it is an opiate administered by the flesh and the devil, and the stronghold of Satan, where he lies in wait for all, and from which he wounds multitudes and mortally strikes through many with the darts both of despair and security; that it makes God the author of sin, unjust, tyrannical, hypocritical; that it is nothing more than interpolated Stoicism, Manicheism, Libertinism, Turcism; that it renders men carnally secure, since they are persuaded by it that nothing can hinder the salvation of the elect, let them live as they please; and, therefore, that they may safely perpetrate every species of the most atrocious crimes; and that, if the reprobate should even perform truly all the works of the saints, their obedience would not in the least contribute to their salvation …”

“Stoicism, Manicheism, Libertinism, Turcism” are all different forms of fatalism, the wicked notion that our actions are predetermined either by some imaginary deity or by our evil nature, so that it makes no difference how we live or act and that we cannot be held responsible for what we do. “Interpolated … Manicheism” is Manichaeism reintroduced in a new guise, the charge levelled by the Arminians against the five points of Calvinism as taught in the Canons of Dordt.

Our focus is on the doctrine of total depravity and the charge that it destroys human responsibility, encourages carnal security and lets men live as they please. These charges are false and the doctrine of total depravity is not interpolated Manichaeism. We, with other Calvinists, hold the doctrine of total depravity because it is biblical, not as some hold-over from Manichaeism.

The scriptural doctrine of total depravity is found in such passages as Genesis 6:5, Psalm 14:2-3, Jeremiah 13:23, John 3:5-6, Romans 3:9-19 and Ephesians 2:1-3. It teaches that “all men are conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto, and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation” (Canons III/IV:3). This spiritual death and depravity came on all men “for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). The passages show that there is a world of difference between Manichaean dualism and fatalism, and the biblical doctrine of total depravity.

The differences are especially these five.

(1) Manichaeism is dualistic, teaching that evil exists independently and is equally powerful with good, so that the struggle against evil is always uncertain or hopeless. The Bible teaches that, though God is not the author of sin, sin and evil are decreed by Him, as are all things, and are entirely under His sovereign direction and control (Eph. 1:11). In the struggle against evil, therefore, God and His grace will certainly triumph, for He rules it and uses it for His own holy purposes.

(2) Manichaeism has nothing akin to the Bible’s doctrine of man’s fall through disobedience to a divine command (Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12-21). Scripture teaches that man’s depravity, though a matter of his nature, is not part of his original creation, for God created man good and after His own image (Gen. 1:26-27; Ecc. 7:29), with man’s depravity being divine punishment for his disobedience, the death threatened in Genesis 2:16-17 (cf. Eph. 2:1). Man’s depravity, too, is under God’s control.

(3) Manichaeism denies man’s responsibility. God’s Word is clear: Man’s depravity is the result of his own disobedience and for it he is responsible, as he is for his actual sins. His spiritual inability is his own fault. In Psalm 51:1-5, David confesses not only his actual sin, but the fact that he was shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin. Our depravity, then, is not an excuse for sin or an encouragement to live as we please, as the Manichaeans suggested, but something for which we are accountable, and something from which we must be delivered, and can be delivered, only by the grace of God.

(4) According to Manichaeism, its good god took no part in the creation of matter, and so the world and the human body are possessed of evil/darkness. Contra Manichaeism, it is not just man’s physical body that is evil but the whole of man’s nature: soul, spirit, mind, will and body. Nor is the body evil because it is material. Man’s body was created good by God, and in body and soul he is redeemed and delivered when God saves him. The problem is not that man has a body which is inherently bad, but that man, with body and soul, has fallen into sin and needs to be saved. This is the reason why the Son of God assumed our complete human nature, including a body (Heb. 10:5; 2:16-17), that He might deliver us, body and soul, from the dominion of sin.

(5) Given Manichaeism’s dualism, and its false views of man’s creation, body, fall and responsibility, it is not surprising that its doctrine of human deliverance and salvation is totally different from, and opposed to, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Manichaeism teaches that man needs to be delivered from his body and only in that way will he be saved from evil. That has no relation to the teaching of Scripture, but is a pagan and heathen notion. Death is all that is needed for salvation from evil in Manichaeism and there is no need of God or His grace. The Bible teaches that God delivers us from evil through the cross and exaltation of Jesus, and that by grace we experience and receive a complete transformation of our nature, both body and soul, a spiritual rebirth and transformation that is a miraculous work of God known only by faith. We are new creatures in Christ (II Cor. 5:17) and even our lowly bodies will be changed into the likeness of His glorious body (Phil. 3:21).

My depravity is not, therefore, something to which I may appeal as an excuse for my sins, but something which must be confessed as the source of all my evil-doing and my own fault, and against which I must struggle all my life long. Nor is the struggle against evil, as I experience it, hopeless but, turning to the Lord Jesus in faith, I go on unto perfection (Heb. 6:1), trusting that the good work God has begun in me will be finished in the day of Christ (Phil. 1:6). Rev. Ron Hanko

Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
83 Clarence Street, Ballymena, BT43 5DR • Lord’s Day services at 11 am & 6 pm
Website: https://cprc.co.uk/ • Live broadcast: cprc.co.uk/live-streaming/
Pastor: Angus Stewart, 7 Lislunnan Road, Kells, N. Ireland, BT42 3NR • (028) 25 891851  
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Last modified on 07 March 2024

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