By Dr. William Young
Both opponents of the views of Gordon H. Clark and undiscriminating epigones have sometimes regarded him as an unbelieving intellectualist with no interest in vital religion other than the adamant opposition to it. A superficial reading of Faith and Saving Faith and some of his other writings may occasion such a misunderstanding of Clark’s actual intentions. To be sure, as did Machen, he saw the pressing need to protest against the rampant anti-intellectualism that not only had eroded secular education and pervaded modernist religion, but was infecting the evangelical churches and threatened to undermine the foundations of professing Calvinism. But it does not follow that he intended to obscure truths that have been stressed by experimental Calvinists, such as the necessity of self-examination or the difference between the sound believer and the gospel hypocrite. Nor can his insistence on doctrinal orthodoxy be fairly taken to imply a denial of the free offer of the gospel. Any awareness of his actual practice as well as that of Floyd Hamilton should dispel the unworthy suspicions, not to speak of false charges, that either of these two witnesses in our dark and cloudy day failed to maintain the destructive effects of sin on the human mind or the commands and invitations to sinners in the overtures of the gospel. No doubt like other Supralapsarians, in his opposition to Arminian free-will and Amyraldian universal grace, Clark at times maintained positions that some have illogically taken to involve a denial of truths that he often took for granted and would explicitly state when called upon so to do.
The recent posthumous publication of Sanctification should be of service in dispelling such misconceptions of Clark’s position. The discussions on hope and zeal, p. 90 ff., are particularly illuminating. The depth of sound experimental piety appears in such statements as, “Even a hope of heaven may be evil, as it is when grounded in some supposed human merit,” and “One might alter a verse and say, Lord, I hope, help thou my hopelessness,” as well as “like hope there is a false zeal, that is a zeal for the wrong object.” The requirement of self examination in I Corinthians 11:27-29 is repeatedly asserted: p. 51 f., pp. 64,85. The air might be cleared if such terms as ‘subjective,’ ‘objective,’ ‘experience’ and cognate words were banned from the language of Canaan. They could perhaps be reserved when precisely defined, for professional philosophic discussion, while the truths taught in Scripture were insisted upon in unambiguous locutions, and likewise soul-destroying errors were refuted. In the present confusion of tongues it is all too easy to suppose that Clark’s incompatible with the emphasis made by Puritans, Dutch Second-Reformation Calvinists and American Presbyterians, like Archibald Alexander on what they might call the ‘subjective experience’ of the ‘objective’ truth revealed in the Word. Genuine Calvinists, holding the Head and contending for the faith once delivered should shun disputes about words that do not profit.
A doctrinal and experimental issue arises in the opening chapter on conversion and repentance. After the important observation that “regeneration initiates the Christian life . . . something only God can do,” the words follow: “but the first conscious human activity is faith.” While this is often the case, in the life of many regenerate persons there is a period of conviction of sin and deep humiliation preceding the conscious act of believing in the Savior. Such was taught by 17th century New England Puritans, in the 18th century by J.C. Philpot of the Gospel Standard, and by many Dutch experimental Christians. The saving faith which is the immediate effect of regeneration is better seen not as an activity of man, but as a gracious state of the soul, or infused habit as it has sometimes been called. Such, I believe, is the precise sense of “the grace of faith” spoken of in WCF XIV,1. This conception of habitual faith is expounded in his work on the Heidelberg Catechism by Alexander Comrie, the Scot steeped in the piety of Boston and the Erskines, who became the champions of strict Calvinism in the Church of Holland. The expression of this grace of faith in the conscious activity of believing may be preceded by a shorter or longer period of preparation subsequent to regeneration in the narrow sense of the word.
This view of grace of faith also agrees with speaking of faith as a seed in those regenerated in infancy and others who are not capable of the conscious exercise of the acts of saving faith. It further makes for a sense of justification by faith that does not make the divine sentence of acceptance and acquittal even logically consequent on any human activity or form of works. As to faith in act, Clark correctly insists that “faith, human activity as it is, is still a gift from God,” p. 2, but he does not state that this act of believing is the exercise of that habit of faith immediately produced by the Holy Spirit. The habitual state does not require the understanding of the Word which the act of believing presupposes.
A consequence for the concept of conversion is that a person may be passively converted as having the grace of faith, while in his conscious life repentance may be in the foreground as an exercise of that habit. In such a case, the weak believer may lack assurance of his regenerate state and not dare to close with Christ as freely offered in the gospel. Such an unhappy condition is not a norm for a sound conversion, but may be a fact. The bruised reed and smoking flax may thus call for the tenderest pastoral care. We may in brief conclude that however varied the events of conversion may be, the activity of believing always proceeds from a habit of grace imparted by the effectual work of the Holy Spirit.
These somewhat technical points are not meant to minimize the author’s Scriptural account of conversion and repentance, which is followed by a pointed discussion of the aberrant theories of Pelagius, the Council of Trent and John Wesley. The account of Wesley’s perfectionism is highly instructive. It is refreshing to read that Romans 7:22 could only be said of a regenerate person, when even Calvinists have been led astray by the interpretation of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. But if it is suggested that most Calvinists take Hebrews 6:4-6 to state a condition contrary to fact, I rather think that the exegesis of John Owen has been generally adopted by those who hold the perseverance of the saints. In any case, the passage does not help the Arminian, p. 27.
The chapter on Bishop Ryle and assurance is worthy of close attention. In addition to the appreciative while critical treatment of Ryle’s doctrine of sanctification, the remarks about assurance show that Clark was no stranger to the realities of experimental religion. The difference between assurance and careless presumption or temporary faith is implied on p. 37. The fact that assurance is a gift of God and that the responsibility of believers are both asserted, while searching questions are raised but not answered at the close of the chapter, p. 39. In reply to one of these it may be said that writers like the Westminster Divine Anthony Burgess in hisSpiritual Refining have forthrightly faced the question of distinguishing a valid from a false assurance. Pages 39-45 on perseverance state the doctrine of the Confession of Faith and support it by Scripture from both testaments. Why the powerful passage from Romans 8:35-39has been omitted is puzzling, and on p. 41, surely Psalm 84:4-7 was quoted on the preceding page, the typographical error being copied in the Scripture Index, p. 104. The expression ‘eternal security’ is rejected in favor of the Augustinian term ‘perseverance,’ while the former is commonly on the lips of semi- or three-fifths Arminians, the force of it as employed by them is more properly Arminian. We are not told how the perplexities of assurance are partially answered by the doctrine of perseverance. Part of the answer perhaps is that some who have only temporary faith do not persevere to the end. What Louis Berkhof calls ‘temporary faith’ is said to be so little temporary as to last a lifetime, p. 37. Clark is evidently aware of the need for further analysis of assurance and its relation to perseverance.
The sacraments are discussed under the head of sanctification, for they are means of grace and not empty signs. The reformed view is developed in opposition to ritualism as well as other unscriptural positions. Particularly interesting is the treatment of the question, whose children are to be baptized? Clark favors the baptism of children whose parents are not communicants, while rejecting the admission of the unconverted to the Lord’s Supper. While argument from the extension of the covenant to a thousand generations is hardly acceptable, p. 63 f., the position that there are different qualifications for admission to the two sacraments has been powerfully defended by Dr. John Kennedy of Dingwall in The Days of Our Fathers in Rosshire, pp. 193-161. Clark correctly rejects Presumptive Regeneration as the basis for infant baptism, but appears to favor Presumptive Election, while he grants that this does not fully answer the question as to the efficacy of baptism, p. 68 f. The answer finally arrived at is in terms of the unity of the Covenant of Grace. Lutherans would hardly care to call their doctrine of the presence of Christ in the Supper by the Romish term ‘Transubstantiation,” as is suggested, p. 77. Their position may be unintelligible, but verbally it admits the substance of bread and wine after consecration.
An interesting observation connected with idolatry is that “not only does the Bible condemn three dimensional statues, but Numbers 35:52 includes pictures as well,” p. 88. The Ten Commandments are called “the supreme document on sanctification,” p. 85 and the detailed exposition of the Decalogue in the Larger Catechism is commended. In the concluding quotation of John 17:17 , “Thy” is unhappily replaced by “your” in addressing the Most High. This is contrary to Clark’s regular practice in his writings, including the present book.