James tells us in 1:22 that the person who hears God’s word without doing God’s word is engaged in self-deceit. Obviously, self-deceit is subtle. How are we to know when we are self-deceived in our walk with the Lord? According to James, we are successfully lying to ourselves when our lives do not change according to the pattern of the Word we have heard.
James’ principle derives from the very nature of biblical doctrine. Doctrine always does something in the life of the one who truly believes it – see 1st John 3:1-3 for a beautiful case in point. As Reformed Christians, we embrace what have come to be called “the doctrines of grace.” It stands to reason that people who believe the doctrines of grace ought to be increasingly gracious people. Let’s briefly consider these truths and what will be increasingly true of us if we believe them.
The doctrines of grace are summarized into five headings and planted in the acronym TULIP: Total Depravity – In our fallen natures, sin permeates our entire being. Unconditional Election – We do not deserve, nor can we in any way earn, salvation. God chooses to save whom He will according to His inscrutable, sovereign grace. Limited Atonement – Christ’s death actually saves those whom the Father sent Him to save; His work did not merely make salvation possible. Irresistible Grace – God’s saving grace conquers the rebellious hearts of those who come to faith in Christ and makes them willing to believe. Perseverance of the Saints – God will not let those whom He saves fall from that salvation; He will most certainly shepherd them on to glory. Let’s consider each point as a doctrinal root from which will grow particular practical fruit, fruit indicating freedom from the self-deceit against which James warns us.
T – We who proclaim the total depravity of man have particular reason to pray like the Psalmist: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” (Psalm 141:3). We who proclaim that it is only by the patient, progressive work of God’s Holy Spirit that we understand God’s truth, ought to be patient with people who do not grasp truths that are Spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14).
U – We who preach Unconditional Election must feel our unworthiness to be its subjects. Simply put, this doctrine crushes pride. To paraphrase Pastor Alistair Begg from one of his sermons at Cedarville College (now University) in 1998: “When I say that I am called and kept, there ought to be a break in my voice and a lump in my throat.”
L – We who proclaim Limited Atonement must be limitless in our zeal to preach to all people. Because this principle sounds paradoxical, a few brief comments are in order.
At the seminary where I serve as an adjunct professor, I have the privilege of teaching Reformed Theology to students from non-Reformed backgrounds. Among non-Reformed Christians, this doctrine in particular so often incites what I call a theological gag reflex. For many Christians, it stands in stark, sickening opposition to basic principles they were taught about God, love, and human freedom. This doctrine must be taught clearly because of its importance, and oh so carefully because of its emotional import, with an emphasis on the impenetrable mysteries surrounding it. For a very helpful overview of this doctrine and its parent doctrine, the Covenant of Redemption, see J.I. Packer’s introduction to Herman Witsius’ Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, ( Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1990).
Contemporary conventional wisdom says that a strong view of God’s sovereignty is inimical to zeal in evangelism. “What’s the point of evangelizing if God has already determined who will be His in heaven?” Heavy- hearted Christians, perhaps thinking of as yet unbelieving loved ones, feel deflated at the thought of Christ’s having died only for an already determined number of people. However, Scripture presents the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation as the purest and most powerful motivation for evangelism.
One of Scripture’s greatest calls for evangelistic preaching is sounded in Romans 10: “ . . . for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved . . .And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” Paul’s strident missionary appeal comes right in the midst of Romans 9-11, one of Scripture’s clearest proclamations of God’s sovereign prerogative in saving whom He will. For Paul, affirming God’s sovereignty in salvation did not paralyze his evangelism, it propelled it. So, too, for the Lord Himself as He tells us in John 10 of “other sheep” for whom He will give Himself and who will come to Him as a result (John 10:14-16). Not knowing who these sheep are, the church is to passionately proclaim Christ to all people.
Another practical fruit of this doctrine, again counter-intuitive to contemporary conventional wisdom, is deep compassion for the lost. Reformed Christians who glory in the polemical force of Romans 9-11 must also feel the emotional weight of these words and be driven to the humility they demand. Remember, Paul begins this section of Scripture by describing his anguish over his unsaved countrymen! If we are to sincerely scale the doxological heights Paul reaches at the end of Romans 11, we must first join him in heartbreak at the foothills of that mountainous praise.
I – We who insist that’s God’s saving grace is irresistible must not try to scream people into the church. Sadly, Reformed Christians as a whole have the reputation not so much for affection for Christ as aggression and even anger in proclaiming Him. But angry aggression calls into question whether we actually want the victims of our volume to be saved. Passionate preaching may include a loud voice, but it does not preclude a listening ear and a patient heart toward those who hear it.
P – We who believe that God will preserve us in our faith until our faith becomes sight must urge one another on in the living out of our faith. He who will complete the good work begun in us calls us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, because He is the One at work in us (Philippians 1:6, 2:12-13). To James’ point, part of our working out this salvation is our caring in Christ’s name for the needy and defenseless. Such “pure religion” proves by works that we are being preserved in the salvation we received by faith (1:26, 2:14-26).
The doctrines of grace proclaim individually and collectively that salvation is truly and in every way of the Lord. The practical fruit of T.U.L.I.P blooms beautifully within and among those who humbly and sincerely believe the truths summarized within. None of us is a finished product of grace. But as we believe the truth represented in T.U.L.I.P. and see its practical fruit in our lives, we may know without fear of self-deceit that our sovereign, gracious God is at work within us and our fellow believers, preparing a harvest glorious beyond our imagination (James 5:7).