G. C. Berkouwer on Sin: A Review Article


sinAlthough normally I would offer a brief review of a book, because of the depth and, I would argue, significance of G. C. Berkouwer’s volume entitled Sin (Studies in Dogmatics; trans. Philip C. Holtrop; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), an article length interaction is warranted.

To begin with, this volume is broken into two parts, which reflect the two volumes of the original Dutch. These parts are entitled: (1) the origin and knowledge of sin; and (2) the essence and spread of sin.

In the first section of the first part, Berkouwer goes to great lengths to address the, as he calls it, biblical a priori, which he describes as the church’s confession that “God is not the Source, or the Cause, or the Author of man’s sin. Deus non este causa, auctor peccati” (p. 27). Here, he navigates the difficulties that come with the existence of evil, and most especially sin, in relation to a God who is all-powerful.

The first option, namely, monism, he effectively dismantles, while recognizing that this presents the greatest theological temptation regarding the relation between God and the existence of sin in creation. This monism, as he terms it, is the desire to find the cause of all things, including sin, in God (p. 28). His reason for rejecting this theologically maneuver is that, once we cease to relegate sin to the abstract, bringing it, in turn, to its rightful place as a concrete reality, we cannot comfortably “speak of God’s willing of man’s sin” (p. 61) (italics original). Thus, the biblical picture is that God “condemns man’s sin and thus atones for man’s sin in the cross of Jesus Christ” (p. 65). That is to say, the concrete reality of sin directly conflicts with the biblical a priori.

This then brings him to another solution: dualism. It naturally follows that, if monism is indefensible, then dualism would appear to be proper solution to the difficult under view. “Dualism,” he writes, “proposes a primordial antithesis between two original principles (viz., light and darkness) in terms of which every form of good and evil is ultimately deduced” (p. 67). If monism is a synthesis of God and sin, dualism presents an antithesis between the two, hence its apparent validity at first glance. Upon engaging in a thorough discussion with various thinkers, such as Karl Barth, Heidegger, and the Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad, Berkouwer comes to the conclusion that, if God created ex nihilo (out of  nothing) and this creation is good, reflecting the good character of God, “the door is forever shut to all dualisms” (p. 91). When we “seek to say something about God’s creative activity, we do so with an eye to God’s goodness,” which, in turn, sets the “‘boundaries’ for his own creation” (p. 91).

Recognizing the tension that still remains after dealing with and rejecting both a monistic and dualistic answer to the problem under question, he writes:

… in no sense can we get beyond monism by means of a dualism or a dualism by means of a monism. Very deep shadows surround the monism which the Church has condemned as heresy as well as the dualism we have looked at … The one as all well as the other tries to explain away our sin and thus to eliminate our guilt (p. 98) (italics original).

Berkouwer then proceeds with a thorough discussion and refutation of the idea that the cause or origin of our sin is found in the demonic realm (cf. pp. 99-129), arriving at a true answer, as it were, to the problem.

In the final chapter of this section, entitled, “The Riddle of Sin,” Berkouwer demonstrates a keen awareness of and pastoral sensitivity to the problems attending the question under view. It would be most helpful to quote him at length:

… the spread of sin and the power of sin participate entirely in the senseless and reasonlessness of sin. Therefore, if the biblical a priori must guard the Church against the chasms of monism and dualism (or any other “explanations”), it must also guard the Church against backsliding at this very crucial juncture of her faith. Faith must know that we are cautioned against integrating sin in a crystal-clear or rational mold. We cannot give sense to the senseless. Therefore, we confess (in an anti-dualistic way) that sin is contra voluntatem [against his (God’s) will] but never praeter voluntatem Dei [contrary to the will of God] . At the same time, we understand that this non praeter does not give sense to sin. It does not rationalize the irrational or legitimize the illegitimate. It may never detract from the reality of the contra which underscores the senselessness and riddle of man’s sin (148).

In sum, Berkouwer rightly diagnoses that our attempts to understand the existence of sin in relation to God are often born out of a desire to find a rational cause or explanation for sin outside of ourselves which would thus, as he puts it, “explain away our sin and thus to eliminate our guilt” (p. 98). Therefore, the very travesty, the very heinousness of sin, is found in this: it is completely irrational and illegitimate as it is rebellion against the good and perfect creator in whose image we have been made.

Moving on to the second section of the first part of this volume, Berkouwer thoroughly engages with how we know are sin, discussing how the law reveals our sin first and then how the gospel reveals our sin. Space and time does not an allow a detailed analysis or even summary of his discussion at this point, but, suffice it to say, these chapters are rich with biblical and theological exposition and should be consulted by any preacher or teacher of the word, and, if one can stomach it, any disciple of Christ. One quote should help to illustrate this claim:

Precisely this knowledge [of sin], as enlivened by the Spirit, obliges us to speak of the “enigma,” or the “strangeness,” or the “groundlessness” of sin. The “more and more” of our knowledge, as aroused by the “strict preaching” of the law, can only deepen our appreciation for the enigma and the riddle of our sin. This enigma is really the reserve side of a true confession of our guilt. In the light of God’s grace communion is restored, and those motives which we once saw as our own “definitive excuse” are now recognized as empty and vain (p. 230).

The second part of the book deals with areas more commonly associated with hamartiology such as the essence of sin, the gravity and gradation of sin, the unpardonable sin (blasphemy against the Holy Spirit), and original sin. Just as with the first part of the book, this part, comprised of two sections (the essence and spread of sin), is filled with rich biblical and theological exposition. Even if one were to disagree with some of Berkouwer’s conclusions, one couldn’t help but be impressed with his breadth and depth of knowledge of the biblical teaching on sin as well as the theological discussions surrounding the topic.

Although virtually all of this book is helpful and of significant value for the interested reader, the chapter dealing with the gradation of sin, especially in light of recent discussions regarding homosexuality, will prove most insightful. Also, although not as prominent of an issue in our day, Berkouwer’s discussion of the so-called unpardonable sin is insightful, if at times unclear and inconclusive.

Regarding his treatment of original sin (under the section, “the spread of sin”), the reader may find a desire for clarity unmet. Berkouwer interacts with the realism of, most notably, W.G.T. Shedd and the federalism of Jonathan Edwards, John Murray and others. He rejects both of these understandings of the doctrine of original sin, though at times he seems to prefer realism to federalism as he reiterates at multiple points the strength of the former’s objections over against the latter’s.

The closest Berkouwer comes to a solution to the complexity that is original sin in which he is satisfied is in his brief discussion of ‘corporate personality,’ i.e., the inclusion of a group in an individual, or, all humanity in Adam (p. 514). Now, one can’t help but feel that this is quite close to the federalism which Berkouwer appears to reject. But, it must be remembered that Berkouwer is vigilant to avoid any cause of sin which would mitigate one’s apprehension of their guilt and therefore their need to confess their sin. So, while the reader may find his lack of resolution with regard to original sin anticlimactic, one must remember that the motive underlying this is a noble one, which is expressed again and in even clearer terms in the concluding chapters of this volume.

To conclude this review article, Berkouwer’s volume on the topic of sin is a robust and rich volume indeed. He leaves virtually no stone unturned, as one contemporary reviewer of the volume noted. He is conversant in the biblical data surrounding the topic as well as the historic debates and the contemporary quagmires, even if he does not neatly resolve every issue or offer something convincing for every reader. It is unfortunate that, for whatever reason, Berkouwer has been neglected in recent times as he was truly a man of significant theological learning. It would be my hope that this review would spark someone’s curiosity to seriously engage this forgotten giant again; and, if they did so, this would be a fantastic place to start.


A Postlude to ‘Union with Christ – An Analytic Attempt at Understanding’

In light of the relative opaqueness of my last post, I thought it would be helpful to add some additional remarks to clarify and expound on some points.

Before I say anything further, it must be stated that while it is probably clear to the reader that, of the two, I prefer the WTS position, which places union with Christ as logically prior to and the cause of all other soteric benefits, over and against the WSC position which argues for, at minimum, justification being the cause of all other soteric benefits, I must stress that there position is not heretical or even sub-orthodox. The men who articulate the WSC position I greatly respect and, to a certain degree, I find their argument persuasive.

A comment from Michael Horton (2011: 708) will serve to illustrate my primary concerns addressed by my previous post:

I am suggesting that we view all the items in the Pauline ordo as constituting one train, running on the same track, with justification as the engine that pulls adoption, new birth, sanctification, and glorification in tow. “Those whom he justified he also glorified” (Ro 8:30). This means that we never leave the forensic domain even when we are addressing other topics in the ordo besides justification proper.

My problem with this statement is that by making justification, as Horton puts it, “the engine that pulls” all other soteric benefits is to abstract justification from the person of Christ therefore depersonalizing it. Justification and indeed all other soteric benefits are unintelligible apart from the person who brings them to us, namely, Christ. Moreover, by placing the “new birth,” or regeneration, as logically subordinate to and caused by justification admits of incoherence, esp. when union with Christ is divided into forensic and renovative categories, which I sought to demonstrate in my prior post.

So, to clarify, it is not that the Reformed ordo intrinsically results in something akin to the Roman Catholic soteriological schema but that when one interprets it in light of the renovative/forensic distinction posited by the WSC position, the result is something close to a Roman Catholic soteriology. Put simply, it is my contention that this distinction, as it relates to union with Christ, undermines the Reformed ordo and therefore a better account of the relationship between union with Christ and the ordo must be offered. Continue reading “A Postlude to ‘Union with Christ – An Analytic Attempt at Understanding’”

Union with Christ – An Analytic Attempt at Understanding

I remember when I first came across the idea that there is a debate with regard to union with Christ and the ordo salutis. I had written a paper on the theme of peace in Romans and when a friend had read it, he had one theological critique, namely, that I made justification the ground for union with Christ. This led me then to investigate further what exactly he was talking about. In this process, I discovered that there were two different views of how union with Christ related to the other benefits in Reformed thought. The first argued that justification (or forensic union) was logical prior to, or, at the very least, the cause of union with Christ (renovative union) (cf. Horton 2007: 129). The second argued that union with Christ was logically prior to and the cause of all other soteric benefits, including justification (cf. Letham 2011). For ease of reading, we will designate the former the WSC position and the latter the WTS position after the institutions which hold to these respective views. In light of this, our purpose here is to offer some further thoughts that will hopefully bring clarity to the subject

I. The Ordo Salutis and Union with Christ

It is commonly recognized in the Reformed ordo salutis, which presents the logical order of how salvation (with all that entails) occurs in the life of the believer (for a helpful visual of this, see Tim Challies’ representation), that regeneration logically precedes justification. The argument can be stated in this way: because humans are dead in and enslaved by their sin and can only do evil continually, they must be born again by the Spirit of God before they are able to place faith in Christ to be justified. To reverse the order of justification and regeneration is to capitulate to a non-Reformed understanding of soteriology (and, indeed, anthropology).

Yet, one must ask: if regeneration (which should be understood as falling within the category of renovative union) logically precedes justification, then how can justification be, at the very least, the cause of union with Christ? Perhaps putting it in logical fashion will demonstrate this problem more clearly:

(1) If regeneration, a renovative act, precedes faith, resulting in justification.

(2) Then renovative union logically precedes forensic union.

(3) Therefore, justification is not the logical ground of union with Christ.

(4) Therefore, renovative union is logically prior to forensic union.

But, the astute reader would recognize that, given this schema, an additional consequence arises.

(5) Thus, given (4), the subjective change in the believer entailed by regeneration is logically prior to and the ground of forensic union.

Putting (5) more boldly, we can say that the Reformed ordo, given the WSC position, results in something close to the Roman Catholic position which essentially asserts, using Reformed categories, that righteousness is infused in the believer at regeneration, resulting in justification.

Of course, the WSC position would not endorse the logical entailments of their position as outlined above for they would not be comfortable grounding the forensic union in the renovative nor would they be comfortable with the non-Reformed (or Reformational) consequences of such entailments. This would, in turn, leave them with two choices: either (1) abandon the logical priority that forensic union has in relation to renovative union, or, (2) abandon adherence to the traditional Reformed ordo.

But this raises the question—can the WTF position escape from the logical consequences that ail the WSC position? In order to answer this question, our theological parameters must be broadened, and, it is to this that we now turn. Continue reading “Union with Christ – An Analytic Attempt at Understanding”

Book Review: Matthew Barrett, Salvation by Grace – The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration (Phillipsburg, N. J.: P&R Pub., 2013).


This book is a abridged version of the author’s dissertation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and, as one would suspect given the title, it is a defense of the Calvinistic, or Reformed, understandings of effectual (as opposed to general) calling and regeneration.

The book’s introduction effectively sets the stage for the importance of this area of study by rightly asserting that one’s understanding of calling and regeneration decides where one lands on the Calvinism/Arminianism divide. With this, he distinguishes three distinct views which conflict with the author’s case for calling and regeneration; that is, (1) Semi-Augustinians (cf. Jacob Arminius; John Wesley); (2) Semi-Pelagianism (cf. Clark Pinnock); and (3) a modified position, which seeks a middle way between the divide. These are then the three views which he will be in conversation with throughout the remainder of the book, with most of his attention given to (1) and (2), relegating thorough discussion of (3) to the seventh and last chapter of the book.

Chapter 1, “Monergism in the Calvinistic Tradition,” is a historical overview of the defenders of monergism in the face of competing claims. The author, as one might suspect, interacts with such important figures as Augustine, John Calvin, Pelagius, and others. Here, we see how the defenders of monergism connected the doctrine to justification, the Solas of the Reformation, and the glory of God.

Chapter 2, “Total Depravity and the Bondage of the Will,” continues to interact with historical discussions pertinent to the subject at hand with more trenchant interaction with the relevant texts of Scripture.

Chapters 3 and 4 provide the biblical foundations for effectual calling and regeneration, respectively. In the course of doing so, the author also interacts with and refutes such views as Hyper-Calvinism and ideas as resistible grace.

Chapter 5, “Arminian Synergism in Theological Perspective,” deals with the nuances and variations found in the broader category of Arminian synergism. Chapter 6 then provides an analysis and critique of Arminian synergism.

Chapter 7, “The Failure of Recent Attempts at a Middle Way,” interacts with authors who appear to affirm both Arminian and Calvinist views of calling and regeneration (or some combination of this approach). In essence, the author argues here that while some of the theological moves of these ‘middle ways’ are admirable, they fail to move past the Arminianism which they take care (albeit insufficiently) to distance themselves from.

This book is a comprehensive defense of effectual calling and regeneration written at an intermediate level. This would be a helpful book for the reader who is hoping to gain a thorough grasp of the arguments and issues surrounding monergism or for a seminary course dealing with the same. This would also be a good book to remind one already versed in the topic of the various nuances that accompany the subject. Despite its intermediate level of prose, it is accessible to the average lay reader who is willing to take their time (although they should probably do so with their Bible open). Beyond this, there are some helpful discussions even for the scholar or educated laymen (e.g., original sin; the relationship between effectual calling and regeneration; and, the role of faith in justification). We would highly recommend this book for these reasons.

Book Review: Hugh Martin, The Shadow of Calvary: Gethsemane, the Arrest, the Trial (1875; reprint, Banner of Truth, 2016).

hugh martin

A very helpful collection of sermons, starting with the Garden of Gethsemane and ending with Jesus’ Trial, which is rich in biblical insight and deep in pastoral and devotional application. I found myself deeply moved by this book on numerous occasions. It’s clear that the author meditated deeply on the gospel as revealed in the life of Christ.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who both wants to meditate deeply on the life of Christ (who took on the form of a servant even to the point of death [Phil 2:7-8]) and be spiritually nourished, admonished and encouraged by this same life. Beholding the God-man Jesus Christ is food for the soul and poison for the flesh as Martin so powerful reminds us.

Book Review: John Owen, The Person of Christ: Declaring a Glorious Mystery – God and Man (1678; reprint, Christian Heritage, 2015).

person of christ - owen

John Owen is arguably the theological genius par excellence of English Puritanism. Whatever one thinks of this assessment, this is clearly the case with his work on Christology, entitled by him ‘Christologia.’ Here, the reader does not find a mere standard treatment of Reformed Christology; rather, what one finds is a treatment of the person of Christ that is doxologically rich, theological penetrating, and continually nuanced.

Beyond this, it is clear that there is an apologetic undertone to this volume. Owen does not make explicit which school or schools he is addressing, but, just as with most of treatments of Christology, he is concerned to demonstrate the importance of Christ’s divinity, humanity, and the hypostatic union. Yet, in doing so, he puts on display his genius and the warmth of his devotion to Christ by demonstrating the importance of these essential Christological truths to such areas as, e.g., God’s revelation of himself, the entire counsel of God, God’s working ad extra (in creation and redemption), and, God’s redemptive love.

It would be the recommendation of this reader that one take this book slowly (and indeed devotionally) with a willingness to work through parsing the oftentimes difficult theological prose, for, in doing so, the reader will be invited to enjoy with Owen the deep devotion to and love for Christ which so clearly exudes from his treatment of the person of Christ. Now, if one is looking for a basic understanding of Reformed Christology, this may not be the best starting place; but, after one is comfortable with those basics, this should be at the top of one’s list as it has the proper doxological aim and theological depth one would hope to find in a truly Christ exalting work on the person of Christ.

Book Review: Michael Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).

Horton, new

The purpose of this book is to explicate an explicitly covenantal account of Reformed soteriology. The first part of the book deals the forensic aspect of salvation, which, in the main, boils down to justification for Horton. The second part deals with the renovative aspect of salvation.

Although this book is written in a relatively engaging manner, it is an advanced, scholarly work. That is to say, there are a variety of concepts and discussions which presuppose at least an intermediate level of understanding, at least in some places. As such, it proves to advance the discussion with regard to Reformed soteriology in numerous places, e.g., the relationship between regeneration and effectual calling; and, the place of theosis in Reformed soteriology.

One of the potential drawbacks of this book is that it is in many places largely polemical, arguing with such interlocutors as the New Perspective, the Finnish School, and Robert Gundry, to name a few. Of course, one would expect such interactions in a scholarly book, but, it can prove to be heavy, cumbersome reading at times, especially if these competing views are not in the purview of the reader. But, it must be stressed on the other hand that some of the issues he addresses in his polemical mode are extremely helpful for navigating the current contexts, especially regarding such issues as a proper reading of Pauline soteriology and the validity of affirming the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

If one wants an introductory text to Reformed soteriology, this is not the book for you; but, if one wants to engage with a book which seeks to explicate the same in the face of competing contemporary voices, this is a must read. Moreover, although this text is arguably more polemical than constructive, when it is constructive, it, in this reader’s opinion, significantly contributes to and advances Reformed and more broadly evangelical soteriology.