In the last chapter of his introduction to Systematic Theology, Salvation Belongs to the Lord, John Frame asks the “So what?” question. Given the rich variety of biblical teaching, how should it be put to use? So his book ends with ethics. While his comprehensive discussion on this topic can be found in his Doctrine of the Christian Life, here Frame provides his readers with three biblical reasons for a life of Christian obedience and good works:
The History of Redemption. Scripture uses basically three means to encourage believers to do good works. First, it appeals to the history of redemption. This is the chief motivation in the Decalogue itself: God has redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, therefore they should obey.
In the New Testament, the writers often urge us to do good works because of what Christ did to redeem us. Jesus himself urges that the disciples “love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). Jesus’ love, ultimately displayed on the cross, commands our response of love to one another. Another well-known appeal is found in Col. 3:1-3:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ died, we died to sin; when he rose, we rose to righteousness. We are one with Christ in his death and resurrection. So those historic facts have moral implications. We should live in accord with the new life, given to us by God’s grace when we rose with Christ. See also Rom. 6:1-23, 13:11-12, 1 Cor. 6:20, 10:11, 15:58, Eph. 4:1-5, 25, 32, 5:25-33, Phil. 2:1-11, Heb. 12:1-28, 1 Pet. 2:1-3, 4:1-6.
So the Heidelberg Catechism emphasizes that our good works come from gratitude. They are not attempts to gain God’s favor, but rather grateful responses to the favor he has already shown to us.[i]
But our focus on the history of redemption is not limited to the past. It is also an anticipation of what God will do for us in the future. God’s promises of future blessing also motivate us to obey him. Jesus commands us, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33).[ii]
This motivation emphasizes God’s control, for history is the sphere of God’s control, the outworking of his eternal plan.
The Authority of God’s Commands. Scripture also motivates our good works by calling attention to God’s commands. Jesus said that he did not come to abrogate the law, but to fuilfill it, so
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:19)
So in their preaching Jesus and the apostles often appeal to the commandments of the law, and to their own commandments, as in Matt. 7:12, 12:5, 19:18-19, 22:36-40, 23:23, Luke 10:26, John 8:17, 13:34-35, 14:15, 21, Rom. 8:4, 12:19, 13:8-10, 1 Cor. 5:13, 9:8-9, 14:34, 37, 2 Cor. 8:15, 9:9, Gal. 4:21-22, Eph. 4:20-24, 6:1-3, 1 Thess. 4:1, 2 Tim. 3:16-17, Tit. 2:1, James 1:22-25, 2:8-13, 1 Pet. 1:16, 1 John 2:3-5, 3:24, 5:2.
God’s commandment is sufficient to place an obligation upon us. We should need no other incentive. But God gives us other motivations as well, because we are fallen, and because he loves us as his redeemed children.
This motivation reflects God’s lordship attribute of authority. We should obey him, simply because he has the right to absolute obedience.
The Presence of the Spirit. Thirdly, Scripture calls us to a godly life, based on the activity of the Spirit within us. This motivation is based on God’s lordship attribute of presence. Paul says,
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Gal. 5:16-18)
God has placed his Spirit within us, to give us new life, and therefore new ethical inclinations. There is still conflict among our impulses, but we have the resources to follow the desires of the Spirit, rather than those of the flesh. So Paul appeals to the inner change God has worked in us by regeneration and sanctification. In Eph. 5:8-11, he puts it this way:
for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.
In the following verses, Paul continues to expound on the ethical results of this transformation. Compare also Rom. 8:1-17, Gal. 5:22-26.
So Scripture motivates us to do good works by the history of redemption, the commandments of God, and the work of the Spirit within us, corresponding to God’s lordship attributes of control, authority, and presence, respectively.
-John M. Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord
[i] This motivation is not what John Piper calls the “debtors’ ethic,” in which we do good works in a vain attempt to pay God back for our redemption. We can, of course, never do that, and we should not try to do it. See Piper, The Purifying Power of Living by Faith in Future Grace (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 1995), and the summary discussion on pp. 33-38 of Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2002). But gratefulness, nonetheless, is the only legitimate response to the grace God has given us in Christ.
[ii] This is what Piper calls “future grace” in the works cited in the previous note.
In his chapter on the task of the church John Frame defines a missional church as one “where missions and evangelism are not just activities of the church, or departments of the church, but everything is focused on the advance of the gospel.” In light of this definition he clarifies some specific tasks that mark a missional church:
[W]hat goes on in the missional church? Basically three things (there’s that number again!), Worship, Nurture, and Witness. Each of these finds its justification in the Great Commission.
Worship is acknowledging the greatness of our covenant Lord. This is the goal of mission. Why do we want to save people? Ultimately the answer is, so that they will glorify God, so they will worship him. Jesus says that throughout history, God has been seeking worshipers (John 4:23). That’s what missions is, God seeking worshipers.
The Bible speaks of worship in broad and narrow senses. The narrow sense is public, corporate worship, what the Jews did in the temple, and what Christians do in their weekly gathering to celebrate the Resurrection. The broad sense is the sense of Rom. 12:1-2: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Notice here the language of sacrifice, holiness, worship. But the worship here is not the weekly worship of the Lord’s Day. Rather it is a worship we perform all the time, as we seek to live godly lives. When we glorify God, it is a living sacrifice; it is true worship.
In regard to worship in the narrow sense, Old Testament worship was primarily a worship of sacrifice. The sacrifices of animals, grain, oil, and wine pictured Christ’s sacrifice, taught the people the ways of God, and brought God and the believer together for fellowship. New Testament worship, I think, is rather different, since our sacrifice for sin is complete in Christ. New Testament worship moves from the seventh day to the first day and, appropriately, is essentially a celebration of the Resurrection.
Three principles are especially important in the biblical teaching about worship: First, worship must be biblical. Jesus upbraided the Pharisees for following their own traditions rather than the word of God (Isa. 29:13, Matt. 15:8-9). Worship is for God’s pleasure, not our own, and so everything we do in worship must have a biblical basis. In Reformed theology, that idea is sometimes called the “regulative principle.”
Second, worship should be God-centered and therefore Christ-centered. Look at the Psalms, how they constantly dwell on God’s nature and actions. In the New Testament celebration of the Resurrection, of course the theme is “”Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12). That does not mean, of course, that we should never think about ourselves in worship. In Ps. 18, the first personal pronouns “I,” “me,” “my” are found around 70 times. But Ps. 18 is a profoundly God-centered Psalm. The Psalmist is aware of his own needs, but he knows God is his only hope. He is aware of himself as someone who trusts only in God’s mercy.
So, third, worship is edifying (Heb. 10:24-25). This is not opposed to God-centeredness, for God wants people, like the writer of Ps. 18, to grow through worship and thus to be blessed. 1 Cor. 14 is the only extended treatment in the Bible of post-resurrection Christian worship, and the whole emphasis of the chapter is on edification. Paul tells the Corinthians that they should not speak in tongues in worship without interpretation, because speaking in unintelligible language does not edify. It doesn’t help anybody. For that reason, the Protestant Reformers declared that worship should no longer be in Latin, but in the vernacular languages of the people: German, French, English, and so on. I believe that we need today to take some pains to make our worship clear, understandable to people in our communities. Our language and music should communicate to the mind and the heart. In my judgment, this principle encourages contemporary worship expressions, both contemporary language and contemporary music.
The second specific task of the missional church is Nurture, or Edification. See how easily this task follows from the first! Nurture is preaching, teaching, counseling, pastoral care, ministries of mercy. Because sin continues in the lives of the regenerate, the church needs to bring us again and again to repentance. It needs to turn us away from pride and self-satisfaction, so we will be humbled, so that we will turn again and again to the all-sufficiency of Christ.
This is not only the work of the clergy. It is the work of all of us. Paul asks those who are “spiritual” (that is, all of us, regenerated by the Spirit) to restore people who have fallen into sin (Gal. 6:1). We should do it in a spirit of gentleness and guard ourselves, lest we also be tempted. When you correct a brother or sister, don’t do it from a high horse. Correct as one sinner talking to another, in the love of Christ.
So the New Testament abounds in one-anothering texts (John 13:34-35, Rom. 12:10, 13:8, 15:4, 16:16, 1 Cor. 12:25, Gal. 5:13, Eph. 4:2, 32, 5:21, Col. 3:13, 16, 1 Thess. 3:12, 4:9, 18, 5:11, Heb. 3:13, 10:24-25, James 5:16, 1 Pet. 1:22, 3:8, 1 John 3:11, 23, 4:7, 11). We are to love one another, forgive one another, pray for one another, edify one another, and so on. That’s the work of everyone in the church.
How is nurture a missional activity? For one thing, unbelievers should notice how much we love one another. This is a wonderful testimony to the watching world. Second, when an unbeliever becomes a Christian, he will need immediately a lot of help from his new brothers and sisters to get started in the Christian life. As in the Great Commission, after baptism comes teaching.
Finally, the third task of the church is evangelism itself: witness to the world. Because of the Great Commission, the unbeliever must be in view in everything the church does. That’s true even in worship. Worship, in the narrow sense, is mainly for believers. But in 1 Cor. 14:20-26, Paul talks about an unbeliever who visits the worship service. He tells them that their service should be clear enough, edifying enough, so that “he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (verses 24-25).
As we’ve seen, Paul’s goal is to “save some,” and all the New Testament statements of the goal of the Christian life focus on redemption, on bringing unbelievers into the kingdom.
So all the work of the church is missional. Worship, nurture, and witness. In terms of our threefold scheme of organization, I would say that worship is normative, nurture existential, and witness situational. But always remember that each perspective includes the other two.
-John M. Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord
What is the relationship between the church and the kingdom of God? This is a thorny theological issue, and biblical interpreters have wrestled with it for generations. Here’s John Frame’s response in his introduction to systematic Theology:
In Chapter 11, in connection with the kingly office of Christ, I emphasized that the Gospel, the good news, is originally the message about the coming of the kingdom of God. Recall from that discussion that Isa. 52:7, 61:1-2, Matt. 3:2 and 4:17 all present the gospel as the news that a king is coming. The gospel, then, is the coming of the Kingdom; that is, the coming of the King to make things right. Incidentally, there is no dichotomy here between gospel and law. The coming of the King means that he will enforce his law in the world, that he will bring righteousness. That is the gospel, the good news. It is important for us to distinguish between salvation by grace and salvation by works. But I don’t think Scripture justifies a sharp distinction between law and gospel.
Now, what is the kingdom? Geerhardus Vos defined it this way: “To him (Jesus) the kingdom exists there, where not merely God is supreme, for that is true at all times and under all circumstances, but where God supernaturally carries through his supremacy against all opposing powers and brings men to the willing recognition of the same.” [Vos, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 50.] Kingdom of God is not merely a synonym for God’s sovereignty. Rather it is a specific historical program. God is always sovereign, always king in a general way. But since the fall, he must, as king, put down opposition and bring human beings to acknowledge his kingship. The Kingdom of God in the New Testament is that historical program, the series of events by which God drives his Kingship home to sinful human beings. And, of course, he does this by sending his Son as a sacrifice for sin and raising him up in victory over Satan and all the forces of evil. But even after the Resurrection of Christ the Kingdom will make further advances, as the people of God spread all over the earth to subdue men’s hearts to the rule of the King.
Where does the church fit into this kingdom program? The church consists of those who have been conquered by God’s saving power, who are now enlisted in the warfare of God’s Kingdom against the Kingdom of Satan. Those who do not voluntarily give allegiance to God’s Kingdom will be conquered by God’s judgment and, eventually, destroyed by his power.
The church, then, is, to maintain the military metaphor, the headquarters of the Kingdom of God, the base from which God’s dominion extends and expands.
-John M. Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord
John Frame answers:
Are some sins worse than others? Any sin deserves eternal condemnation. In that sense, all sins are equal before God (Gen. 2:17, Deut. 27:26, Ezek. 18:4, 33:8, Rom. 5:16, 6:23, Gal. 3:10, Jas. 2:10-11). But some sins have more harmful consequences than others in this life, and some even offend God more deeply than others. So Scripture distinguishes greater and lesser sins (Ezek. 8:6, 13, 15, Matt. 5:19, 23:23, John 19:11), unwitting and high-handed sins (Lev. 4:2, 13, 22, 5:17, Num. 15:27-30), weightier and less weighty sins. Some sins and errors deserve excommunication, as the incestuous man in Corinth (1 Cor. 6); others do not, as the vegetarians in Rome (Rom. 14). James (3:1, cf. Luke 12:48) says that teachers will be judged with greater strictness. The sins of teachers are often worse than the sins of others, because teachers can lead others astray by their errors and their poor example. Remember that as you plan to minister in the church. To whom much is given, much is required.
One sin is so bad that it is called “unpardonable” (Matt. 12:31-32; cf. Heb. 6:4-6, 10:26-27, 1 John 5:16-17). It is difficult to understand precisely what this means, but I think the best definition of the unpardonable sin is Wayne Grudem’s: “a malicious, willful rejection and slander against the Holy Spirit’s work attesting to Christ, and attributing that work to Satan.” This does not refer to a one-time thoughtless remark, but a general pattern of opposition to the Spirit’s work. At some point, the enemies of Christ reach a point in their unbelief where they are so hardened they can no longer repent. I cannot define precisely what that point is in any specific case. I will say though that if your conscience is troubled by the thought that you might have committed the unpardonable sin, you haven’t. People who have committed that sin have hardened consciences, and they are no longer troubled by such concerns.
-John Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord
John Frame on the unity between Old Testament and New Testament faith:
But consider this: the religion of the NT is essentially the same as that of the Old, centered on the Word of God. People sometimes think that the Old Testament is centered on words while the NT is centered on a wordless kind of spirituality. But there is not the slightest suggestion of this in the Bible itself. Remember how important the words of Jesus are, so that Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Remember how the apostles told people that their own words are the commandments of the Lord (1 Cor. 14:37)? Well, that shows that the New Testament is just as word-centered as the Old Testament is. And it also makes it very important for us to be able to find these words of eternal life, spoken by Jesus and the apostles. God provided a written form for the Old Testament revelation. Can we expect him to do any less for the New Testament revelation, for the fulfillment of the Old Testament?
-John M. Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord
You grow in knowledge of God as you know him more and more as Lord, as King. First, he is the one who controls all things. You will grow in your knowledge of God as you see more and more things as under his control: the present, the future, your own life, your sin, your salvation. Perhaps you think now that there is some part of your life where you are in control. You will grow in your knowledge of God when you come to see that ultimately there is no part of your life that is controlled by anyone other than God, even that little part of your life. Second, you come to know God as the one who speaks with such authority that you must obey – in every area of your life: your social life, your moral life, even your intellectual life. You will grow in your knowledge of God when you come to bring every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). Third, you come to know God as you sense more and more his presence in your life. You can’t ever escape from him. You can’t do anything that he doesn’t see. And nothing shall ever separate you from his love.
-John M. Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord, 75.
In his article titled “Introduction to the Reformed Faith,” John Frame helpfully delineates the core beliefs of Evangelical theology:
What are the main beliefs of evangelical theology? An evangelical, in my definition, is one who professes historic Protestant theology. That includes the following beliefs:
(1) God is a person, infinitely wise, just, good, true and powerful, the ultimate reality, exclusively deserving religious worship and unquestioning obedience, who made the world out of nothing.
(2) Man, made in the image of God, willfully disobeyed God’s command, and thereby became worthy of death. From that time on, all human beings save Jesus Christ have been guilty of sin before God.
(3) Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became man. He was (literally, really) born of a virgin. He worked miracles. He fulfilled prophecy. He suffered and died for our sin, bearing its guilt and penalty. He was raised physically from the dead. He will come again (literally, physically) to gather his people and to judge the world.