Larger Catechism, Question #30 - Dr. William Young
The following sermon was preached by Dr. William Young at East Greenwich, RI on March 17, 1991.
Q. 30. Doth God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?
A. God doth not leave all men to perish in the estate of sin and misery, into which they fell by the breach of the first covenant, commonly called the Covenant of Works; but of his mere love and mercy delivereth his elect out of it, and bringeth them into an estate of salvation by the second covenant, commonly called the Covenant of Grace.
May God be pleased to grant his indispensable aid as I direct your attention to the Epistle of Titus, chapter three, verses 4 to 7: “But after that the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
For several sabbaths we have been considering the sad and melancholy doctrines of the Fall of man and the consequences of the Fall of our first parents, whereby our race has been brought into an estate of sin and of misery. And, we have been considering not only the various elements in the sinfulness of that estate, but also of the misery of that estate both in this life and in the life which is to come. It is necessary that a foundation be laid in the proclamation of the Word of God in this matter. There are those, many indeed nowadays in what are called evangelical circles, who will hear nothing except the gospel of grace, and who don’t want to hear anything, or at least very little, with respect to the sin and the misery of man. But this is to fail to see that the gospel of grace has no meaning unless that gospel is proclaimed to those who are sinners, to those who are under the wrath and the condemnation of God, and who are condemned to that misery which their sin deserves. It’s only when we see how low we have fallen that we are in the position to appreciate what the wonder and richness of the grace of God is, that delivers sinners out of such a state.
Well, we come now to the transition from the account of man’s sin and misery to the glorious redemption that God has been pleased to work. We have this transition set forth in Question #30 of our Larger Catechism. The question is raised: Doth God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery? And the answer is given: God doth not leave all men to perish in the estate of sin and misery, into which they fell by the breach of the first covenant, commonly called the Covenant of Works; but of his mere love and mercy delivereth his elect out of it, and bringeth them into an estate of salvation by the second covenant, commonly called the Covenant of Grace. Now this statement of our Larger Catechism sums up the teaching of many passages of Holy Scripture, and one those passages is found in our text. We take particularly in this connection verses 4, 5, and 7 of the text, “But after the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost…That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
We may divide this subject of the deliverance of man’s fallen state into three portions: First, its source; Secondly, its negative and its positive character; and Thirdly, its means. The source of the deliverance we have in the words of verse 4: “But after that the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man appeared…”. In the language of the Larger Catechism, it is the “mere love and mercy of God.” We have the opposition between the negative and the positive elements of this deliverance in the words, “not by works of righteousness that we have done that he saved us”, and positively, we have mention of “the washing of regeneration, renewing of the Holy Ghost”, justification by the grace of God; and also, adoption is in the words that, “we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life”. And the means by which this deliverance is wrought is summed up under the heading of the expression “the covenant of grace”, as the language of the catechism puts it, “…by the second covenant, commonly called the covenant of grace.”
Well, first the source of man’s deliverance is God’s mere love and mercy. Think of the contrast between God’s dealings with the angels that sinned, and his dealings with the human race, who descended by natural generation from our first parents, Adam and Eve. We have it in 2 Peter, chapter 2, verse 4, that God spared not the angels that sinned, but he cast them down into hell. There was no provision whatsoever of salvation made for Satan, or made for those angels which fell with him. God dealt with the fallen angels simply in strict justice, and we deserve nothing better. Neither Adam or Eve, nor any of their natural posterity who were represented in the covenant of works, not a single one of us deserved any other destiny than that which was assigned to the fallen angels. That God has, as a matter of fact, seen fit to deal otherwise with the children of men is simply a matter of free mercy, simply a matter of the goodness, the kindness and the grace of the Lord God. So, we have the great fundamental truth here as our text puts it in the kindness and the love of God our Savior towards man. This is the source of the great deliverance from sin and misery that has been wrought.
Now, this grace appears first of all in the eternal decree of election, and of this we have spoken previously in connection with the teaching of the Larger Catechism on the eternal decrees of God. God has from all eternity determined and made a choice from among the descendants of our first parents those who he would bring out of the state of sin and misery and into the state of salvation by a Redeemer. This is the foundation: this is the source from which all saving blessings flow to those upon whom the Lord has thus been pleased to show mercy. We will not dwell upon God’s eternal decree at this point, but we recognize that it is supposed in the great redemption that God has been pleased to bring to pass – this much we do well to note and that is, that God has the sovereign right to have mercy upon whom he will he have mercy, that there is to be no complaint that God condemns any because of his sin. But it’s a wonder, it’s a marvel, that God should have mercy upon any, and the marvel that God should show mercy carries with it the fact that it is optional upon God’s part as to whom he will show mercy. Mercy is not a debt that is due to any sinner whatever; but the exercise of mercy is only of the free grace of God.
Now that’s the foundation, and it’s on that foundation that we have set forth both the negative and the positive aspects of the deliverance. Negatively, it is a deliverance out the state of sin and misery; positively, it is the bringing of the elect into a state of salvation. Both elements are in our text, as we have observed, and both elements are in that marvelous summary of the gospel that we have in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” You notice the foundation is there, “ God so loved the world.” We will not digress now into talking about universal terms like “the world” in the Scripture, but the eternal love of God, I believe the eternal electing love of God ultimately, is set forth as the foundation of the salvation that God has wrought.
And now, what does the foundation consist in? It consists in the love of God and its manifestation in the gift of the eternal Son of God, the Savior of sinners. For “whosoever believeth in him shall not perish”. There is the negative side. We are all sinners who deserve to perish, but those who believe upon the name of the Son of God shall not perish. They are delivered from this state of ruination, from the perdition into which they have fallen. But then positively, you have the words, “but have eternal life,” the possession of that promised inheritance is the positive work of the Lord God in applying to elect sinners the redemption that has been purchased by Christ.
So, we have deliverance here, not only from misery, we have deliverance from sin. We have deliverance here not only from the guilt of sin, but also from the power of sin. And, so in the 85th Psalm we have the precious promise where pardon of sin is given, but there is also that note in verse 8 that mercy is not to be abused by those to whom it is shown, “….but let them not turn again to folly.” So our Savior, expressing his gracious word apart to the adulterous woman, added the words, “Go and sin no more.” “Thy sins are forgiven thee, Go and sin no more.”
Now positively, the elect are brought into a state of salvation. And salvation is threefold, to be sure. We have in Scripture language such salvation spoken of sometimes in the past, and sometimes in the present, and sometimes in the future. And in the words of the text itself, I think we have all of these, at least by way of implication: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us.” He saved us, well, there’s the past tense! And what God has wrought in his mercy in saving sinners has led to a present state in which they are saved and there is the future hope as we have it in verse 7: “That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
We can look upon the positive elements of salvation in terms of the way our catechism further develop this thesis. There is, to be sure, effectual calling and regeneration to begin with; and verse 5 speaks of the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Ghost. We had occasion to point out in baptismal services that while an allusion to the administration of the sacrament of baptism may be found here, it’s not the outward washing with water that produces the pardon of sin. But the text speaks very definitely of the washing of regeneration and of the renewing of the Holy Ghost. It’s the inward work of the Spirit of God that alone can apply the blood of Christ to a poor sinner and wash away their sin. Deliverance both from the guilt and from the power of sin is the work of the Spirit of God.
And so then verse 7 speaks of justification, “being justified by his grace”. It also speaks of adoption, and says that we should be “heirs according to the hope of eternal life”. So we may think of the various questions in our Catechism under this head in the questions dealing with justification, adoption, and sanctification, and also the several benefits that flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification. In all of this we have the work of redemption in its positive application in the present life. We have the hope of those who are adopted and the preparation that is made for eternity in their sanctification. All of this is in order that on the Last Day, that glorious sentence of justification may be pronounced before the assembled multitude of men and of angels. All, only because of the obedience unto death of the Lord Jesus Christ. Only because of the finished work of Christ are sinners pardoned, and they are reckoned to be entitled to the enjoyment of the heavenly inheritance. So that the positive blessings of salvation culminate in the eternal blessedness, and the eternal enjoyment of God whom they have, and whom they will continue eternally to glorify.
Now finally, we have in our text, and in the language that’s used to express the doctrine of the gospel in our Larger Catechism, the means of salvation as the “Covenant of Grace”. When we use that expression, the Covenant of Grace, it really amounts to nothing more than simply the gospel yes, the gospel. It’s the way of salvation that God has been pleased to ordain, that he has been pleased to provide, and that he has been pleased to apply. It’s the arrangement that God has made in order to save sinners. It is the gospel.
And now, something is being emphasized in the language of our Catechism when it speaks, on the one hand, of the first covenant commonly called the Covenant of Works, and the second covenant, commonly called the Covenant of Grace. The Westminster Divines knew as well as anybody knows that the Bible does not actually contain the words the “Covenant of Works,” or even the words, the “Covenant of Grace”. But our fathers were also well aware that the Bible doesn’t contain the word “Trinity”. But while these words may not be found in the exact language of Holy Scripture inspired by God, what is intended, what is meant by these terms as they have come to be commonly used, is purely Scriptural doctrine. We would not have any doctrine other than that which is explicitly or implicitly taught in the Word of God. And the commonly used expressions are here employed in the Larger Catechism. They are employed to set forth a most important contrast that is made in Holy Scripture. It’s a contrast that we find in our text, as you have in verse 5, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy…”.
The Covenant of Works was a covenant in which it was by works of righteousness that man would do, that man would receive eternal life. Indeed, the arrangement itself was in a certain sense the work of God’s grace, that is, that man wasn’t entitled to have any promise of eternal life made unto him under any circumstances, and that God promised to Adam that he and his posterity would have eternal life if they obeyed with a perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience. That’s the goodness of God! It’s the goodness of God that is manifested in a way that by works of righteousness that man would do, he would obtain that promised reward. But that’s not the way of the gospel!
The way of the Covenant of Works is contrasted strongly with the way of the gospel which is the way of free grace alone without the works of the law. Man is justified by faith alone, and without the works of the law. This is fundamental to the teaching of the gospel, and being justified by grace, and on account of the sole mercy of God, the appearance and the kindness and the love of God our Savior, are all intended in the text to lay the greatest stress and emphasis upon this grand peculiarity of the gospel method of salvation. The source is in the purest mercy of God. It’s mercy is not only undeserved favor, but it’s a favor to those who deserve the wrath of God, who deserve the justice, the curse of God, both in this life and also in that which is to come. That God should have mercy, should show favor unto such, and should provide a salvation which is entirely planned by him, entirely wrought by the work of Christ, and entirely applied by the work of the Holy Spirit of God makes it all of grace, from start even unto finish. And it’s this grand contrast between what would have been possible for our race if sin had never entered into the picture, on the one hand, and the only way of salvation that there is for sinners, namely; salvation by grace, and by grace alone.
Now, when the Scripture uses the word “covenant” in various places in the language of our Confession of Faith and Catechisms, we would say that the Scripture is speaking of various dispensations, or various administrations, of one and the same covenant of grace. And we shouldn’t be confused by the fact that the exact use of the word “covenant” that we find in Holy Scripture is not the same as the use of the word that we find in our subordinate standards, or that we have in our common usage. We simply must keep our minds clear with respect to the way in which that word is used, and above all, be clear that the contrast that is made in our standards is a contrast that is intended to render sharply the Biblical teaching of salvation by grace.
We know that it is the great error of many who have been infected with the teaching that is called as “Dispensationalism,” to suppose that there are various ways of salvation. What is called the “dispensation of law”; that men are not saved by pure grace alone, but in part at least, by their obedience to the commandments of the law. Whereas, on such a view, it is only in our present dispensation that men are saved by grace alone. But we know that is not the teaching of Holy Scripture, but that the Scripture teaches very definitely that from the Fall of man until the second coming of Christ, notwithstanding the various ways in which the covenant of grace was administered in different periods of time – notwithstanding that – , there has been one and only one way of salvation. There’s been only the blood of Christ that has procured redemption for every one of God’s elect from the beginning of history until the end of time. And there is only application of that redemption by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. We know that both Abraham and King David as we are taught in the fourth of Romans, and in the Epistle to the Galatians, were men only justified by faith, that their sins were forgiven only of the pure mercy of God. There is no difference in that respect between them and the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ under the New Testament.
It’s this truth that is emphasized when our Larger Catechism speaks of the first and of the second covenants. I am inclined to take it that there is in the back of this a rejection of what has been called the “Three Covenant Theory”. This theory puts the covenant of works not simply against the covenant of grace, but it divides up the covenant of grace, as it were, into two covenants, not in the purely scriptural use of the word, but with a more dispensationalist use of the word, which remarkably enough it seems at the time of the Westminster Assembly, some fell into. There were those who spoke of two covenants of grace, a covenant of grace that was made with the Jewish people in which there was some works; and the pure covenant of grace that is made with us in the age of the gospel.
Well, the Westminster Divines rejected any distinctions of that sort, as well as the three covenant notion that some apparently were propounding at the time. They made this sharp division between the Covenant of Works where Adam had the ability in his nature as created in the image of God to obey the law of God perfectly and the Covenant of Grace. We have become bond slaves to sin, and there is deliverance from that bondage only in the redemption purchased by the Lord Jesus Christ . That deliverance makes free those who put their trust in him. He pardons their sins and gives unto them the gift of the Holy Spirit who works within them a new heart and a new life, and who continues to work in the heart and in the life of the child of God in this present life, notwithstanding all of our provocations and backsliding. We may be unfaithful, indeed, very unfaithful, but the Lord remains faithful to the promise that he has given.
Well, we’ll leave the subject at this point this morning. We will return to the great subject of the covenant of grace in a number of the subsequent questions of our Catechism, first explicitly, and then not under that label, but under the various branches of the application of Redemption. May the Lord be pleased to grant his blessing. Amen.
Eternal One, thou art the Sovereign over all thy creation and hast the right to do what thou wilt with thine own. We would bless thy great and holy name, that thou hast not left us as thou didst leave the angels that sinned, but that thou hast been pleased to make manifest thy grace and thy mercy, in the provision of salvation from thy wrath and from thy curse in the perfect work of the Redeemer, of the God-man, who had in his divine nature the power to offer a full satisfaction to thy justice, and in his human nature has made satisfaction for man who has sinned. We bless thy name for the Lord Jesus Christ and for the Holy Spirit who doth apply to sinners that great redemption. Do thou, O Lord, grant, we would beseech thee, that we might be found having recourse only to that gracious provision that thou hast made. May we not make any claim to possess any works of righteousness that we have done, but may we look unto thy mercy alone.
Do thou, O Lord, grant thy blessing, we would beseech thee, upon the children of thy children. May they seek thee earnestly, and may they seek thee early, and may they be found of thee, and may they be blessed and be used of thee. Remember those, Lord, that rule over us. We would pray that they would be found acknowledging thee to be not only the source of all righteousness, of also of civil righteousness, but may they acknowledge thee as being the One who has exalted the Lord Jesus Christ even above all heavenly powers, and has granted him as Mediator all power in heaven and upon the earth. Go before us now and undertake for us. Bless us, Lord, in this thy holy Sabbath day, and do thou take away the sin and iniquity also in our endeavors to serve thee. Pardon us, cleanse us, we would beseech thee, for Jesus thy dear Son’s sake alone. Amen!