[K:JNWTS 27/1 (2012): 37-40]

Apples of Gold for a Needy People: Reading Geerhardus Vos

Jan C. Shreve

I am no theologian. I am not a pastor, nor a professor, nor an historian. I like to think of myself as fairly intelligent, and that is probably true. A genius, I’m not.

Why do I begin with who I am? Because I read Geerhardus Vos. Often. With joy. And ever more frequently, with deep understanding and emotional connection. And some find that incredible.

But, they say, Vos is hard. He is obscure. Definitely not a casual read. And, of course, there is no practical help there: even if he is correct about Biblical Theology (which he might not be), you can’t get anything from him about real life. He writes about eschatology and isn’t that just for when we die? So future, so not now, so divorced from my life.

Ah, you see, I beg to differ. Yes, Vos is sometimes hard to read. But it is worth every second it takes to wrestle his ideas to the ground. Every reading adds some eternal gem of understanding to my life. Obscure? I think not. Practical help? Yes! I find in Geerhardus Vos a balm for my soul and the deepest kind of instruction for living in my Lord here on earth. Vos’s view of eschatology profoundly impacts the here and now. This biblical view drives us to realize that our vital union with Christ implores us to live our lives on earth out of his heavenly kingdom. And this Kingdom changes the life upon which it is bestowed.

Have I read all of Vos’s work? Not even close. Do I understand all I read? Regrettably, no. But knowing there is more treasure waiting to be uncovered in Vos’s works is a profoundly exciting bit of knowledge.  Certainly, understanding the truth that Vos is communicating is easier as you become familiar with his work. But I guarantee the challenge will always remain. Vos calls you to a biblical understanding of the Kingdom of God, here and now; and that calls for some of the deepest and most rewarding cogitation about relationship—relationship with the triune God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Right here, right now— eternally.

I ask you, my friends, have we have become lazy, reading only light, easy to understand books and sermons? Do we desire to be spoon-fed, not so much rejecting as dismissing the solid food of theologians such as Geerhardus Vos? Have you allowed a cursory look at theology to satisfy you? Do you feel well fed by that which is easy? Ah, then you miss the soul stimulating, thought provoking, wonder producing results of doing the hard work involved in digging to the very core of God’s heart. I beckon you to the work it takes to understand the biblical ideas Vos so beautifully shares with those who will persist.

Geerhardus Vos’s sermons and articles have birthed in me a greater desire to live my life fully and obediently in Christ. Are you a pastor? What pastor would not want that for his flock (or for himself)? Are you a layperson? You can, indeed, understand the scriptural, life-changing truths Geerhardus Vos sets forth in his work. Indeed, Vos has drawn me into the story of my redemption in a way that compels me to awe and drops me, hard, to my knees.

It is with pleasure I invite you to partake of the feast I have begun. Begin by reading one of Vos’s sermons from his book, Grace and Glory. Speak often with those who read and understand Vos. Participate in Vos reading groups. Start a Vos reading group. Audit the “Vos Readings” class at Northwest Theological Seminary.

Perhaps you are not familiar with Geerhardus Vos and are wondering exactly what this fellow has to say. I invite you to meditate on a few quotes from Vos’s work as a short introduction to his thought to stimulate your taste for his writings. I offer here a few quotations for you to savor.

First, an appetizer from Vos’s sermon titled “The Christian’s Hope” (1 Peter 1-5).

The hope [Peter] refers to is the hope of the future Kingdom of God, the final state of blessedness, the hope of heaven, as we would call it… The Christian is a man, according to Peter, who lives with his heavenly destiny ever in full view. His outlook is not bounded by the present life and the present world. He sees that which is and that which is to come in their true proportions and in their proper perspective. The center of gravity of his consciousness lies not in the present but in the future. Hope, not possession, is that which gives tone and colour to his life. His is the frame of mind of the heir who knows himself entitled to large treasures upon which he will enter at a definite point of time; treasures which will enable him to become a man and develop his powers to their full capacity, and every one of whose thoughts therefore projects itself into the period when he shall have become of age and enjoy the fruition of his hope.[1]

Reading this, we can feel our present life paling in comparison to the hope we are invited to in Christ. Our “center of gravity” moves: we are no longer earth-bound, focused on things of this world. Our perception of the future shifts so we become in this life not just heaven bound, but heaven dwellers. Our thoughts and therefore our attitudes become pinned to the knowledge of the Kingdom to which we belong. And so our lives change. We can be content in this life in all situations. We do not strive to collect possessions and relationships to affirm who we are. We no longer need to worry over the loss of earthly possessions as if our hope would be destroyed through the destruction of them. We are set free from our dependence upon temporal things as we begin to be fed by the eternal. Having our hope set securely in the age to come, we become free to truly love our spouses, friends, and even our enemies because we now, forever, receive our sustenance from Heaven and not from the things of this world. And feasting with deep satisfaction on the heavenly food drives us to offer others the nourishment we receive that they might also dwell in the eternal.

Now I serve you a morsel from Vos’s sermon entitled, “Heavenly Mindedness” (Heb. 11: 9-10).

When [the writer] affirms that by faith all these things were suffered and done, his idea is not that what is enumerated was in each case the direct expression of faith. What he means is that in the last analysis faith alone made possible every one of the acts described… Whether the call was to believe or to follow, to do or to bear, the obedience to it sprang not from any earth-fed sources but from the infinite reservoir of strength stored up in the mountain-land above. If Moses endured it was not due to the power of resistance in his human frame, but because the weakness in him was compensated by the vision of him who is invisible.[2]

What a boon to our insecure, fluctuating idea of faith. Here, the biblical doctrine of faith is elucidated in a way that is personal and uplifting. We began to think scripturally about what faith is, and what is its source. Faith is no longer something we demonstrate or work for, but is a gift, flowing from the very Kingdom we inhabit by virtue of our salvation. Dare to think deeply about what dwelling in the heart of the gift of faith means. We no longer can settle for the idea that faith is only a feeling of confidence, albeit a gift from God. We must confront the idea that faith has something to do with “the vision of him who is invisible.”

Note that the focus here is on heaven, from whence this faith proceeds. It is not an earth-bound faith, given because we need it to serve God here. No, although certainly faith enables much in us. Note that faith comes from “the infinite reservoir of strength stored up in the mountain-land above”. In this age of social gospel and “personal” faith, we, who worship in Reformed churches, should rejoice that there is a theologian such as Vos that points us away from the road most traveled, i.e., faith as an objective or faith as a means to get stuff. We must understand that we don’t need “stuff” because we already possess all the riches of heaven.

This is eschatology! Not a dry, difficult system of doctrine void of comfort. Not merely a description of the world to come. But a vital, life-giving knowledge that transports us into the understanding that God’s love for his people is so deep, so eternally committed, that he has broken into our world, bringing a Kingdom built by his own hands, inviting us through a true experience of that Kingdom now, on this earth, to come up to him. He is inviting us to union with our Triune God in the present time, beckoning us to partake of that union and reap the benefits of it in our own needy souls now, even as we gaze with faith, “not from any earth-fed sources”. Ah, the driving desire to know more of our holy God is met in the writings of Geerhardus Vos.

Ready for another ‘course’? Perhaps this is the main course.  This passage is from Vos’s work with the intimidating title “The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit”.

The Spirit’s proper sphere is according to this the world to come; from there He projects Himself into the present, and becomes a prophecy of Himself in His eschatological operation.[3]

The Spirit of God, in heaven, in us, showing us himself in heaven. The divine circlet of heaven to earth to heaven. Christ, come to earth, was raised up to heaven, now sends his Spirit to dwell in man on earth who dwells even now in heaven. We gaze upward and cry, “Glory!” as our minds and hearts explode with a new understanding of what eschatology brings to us even now in this world, and we are changed. Does that excite your interest? Do you yearn to take hold of these ideas? I pray you do.

One last serving at our banquet: dessert. I leave you with two stirring sentences from “Jeremiah’s Plaint and Its Answer”.

The hidden man of the heart is the supreme religious reality that has value in the sight of God, and to Him this is so transcendently precious that He makes it the object of His chief joy. It is from there that the divine image looks back upon itself, so as to enable God to love His own in us.[4]

Our hearts yearn for love, a love that accepts and cherishes. And here we understand that we already possess that love, and more than we can comprehend. This is the very intra-Trinitarian love relationship that draws us up into heaven. This is a love that began in the Trinity from eternity and is now bestowed upon us by our Holy God who sees himself in us and loves us, in Christ, joyously. Stunning! Exhilarating! Humbling! These words are indeed apples of gold to a needy people.

I entreat you, my friends, to give your attention to the writings of Geerhardus Vos: dig deep, think hard, understand well.  Partake of the banquet of biblical truth that Vos has prepared for you. Be filled and let the tears of thankfulness flow, and in flowing, sweep you into the true knowledge of God in his Triune being, who has gifted himself to us in the here and now, in order to show us himself and his kingdom to come in which we now truly participate.

[1] Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory, Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary (1994) 142.

[2] Ibid., 106.

[3] Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (1980) 103.

[4] Ibid., 292.