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The Dutch Reformed Perspective: Herman Bavinck

Bavinck has many good insights, but often fails to let those insights govern his understanding of ethics. Unlike Watson, he constantly stresses that "Christ is our sanctification."179 Again and again he emphasizes that sanctification must not be conceived of as "a legal sanctification, but is and must remain an evangelical sanctification."180 Faith accomplishes both justification and sanctification - not justification by faith, but sanctification by law.181 For Bavinck, therefore, sanctification is,

so inseparably related to the person of Christ that we cannot receive it except in communion with Christ himself; and this is, viewed from our side, only to be obtained and enjoyed through a true faith.182

The tension arises when Bavinck states that,

even though it is altogether true that the law remains as the rule of life for the Christian, still the gospel never derives the exhortations to a holy war from the terrors of the law, but derives them rather from the high calling to which believers in Christ are called.183

Bavinck tries to maintain a centrality of the gospel:

according to the order which God himself has appointed in the church, the promises of the gospel precede the commandments of the law . . . It is according to this order alone that a true moral life is possible.184

In his brief look at the "New Commandment," however, Bavinck sees it as "New" because - unlike the Old Covenant where "the church and the nation coincided" - believers and the world are to be distinguished in the new age.185 He seems to ignore the crucial historical pattern, "as I have loved you," referenced by Christ in connection with his New Commandment. And, though he does see a priority to the gospel, he still sends the believer back to the Ten Commandments as a "brief summary of the Christian ethic and an unsurpassed rule for life."186 It is an unfortunate choice of words since the New Testament clearly sets forth the love of Christ as the "unsurpassed" act that has become our norm and rule of conduct.187

As we have shown, Christ came to fulfill the law so that his people could be released from its bondage. It is now his work and his words that have become the starting point in Christian ethics. Bavinck's inconsistency again comes to the fore when he rightly observes,

In short, we should have to record all the moral exhortations in the New Testament if we were fully to summarize all the imperatives set forth to encourage believers to a holy walk. But the passages cited are sufficient to indicate that they are all derived from the gospel and not from the law. Irrespective of whether the apostles are addressing themselves to men or to women, to parents or to children, to masters or to servants, to women or to maids, to rulers or to subjects, they exhort them all in the Lord.188

Bavinck's reliance on the law for a "brief summary of the Christian ethic" is not as great as Watson's, but any reliance is inappropriate. As long as we turn to the Decalogue for any part of our ethic, we will have a tendency to miss, or at least play down, the most significant motivation for right behavior - the love of God displayed in Christ's vicarious death and resurrection. That redemptive event is the believer's new exodus from slavery to sin - an exodus that not only brought a New Covenant and a New Commandment, but that issued a death sentence to the Old Covenant as well as to all of its rules and regulations. In the final analysis, the issue of ethics is not one of content as much as "redemptive-historical" priority.189 If Jesus is our starting point for salvation, must he not also be our starting point in godly behavior?


Footnotes:

179. Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1977, pp. 473, 476.

180. Bavinck, p. 479.

181. Bavinck, pp. 480, 481.

181. Bavinck, p. 480.

183. Bavinck, p. 481.

184. Bavinck, p. 483.

185. Bavinck, p. 486.

186. Bavinck, p. 489.

187. Kaye, pp. 84-85.

188. Bavinck, p. 482.

189. Ridderbos, p. 286.


This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 49-50.