Nothing Coming Down the Pike

The question of assurance is a subset of epistemology. And that means Christians today who struggle with assurance are dealing with an extra factor that previous generations of Christians (usually) did not have to deal with. We live in a skeptical postmodern age, and so the question of knowing that you are saved is related to the question of how you can know anything.

This becomes even more challenging when we are talking about our own faith five years out. In Scripture, genuine faith in God now is necessarily related to faith in God in the future. Baptism binds the future.

“Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; And in nothing terrified by your adversaries: which is to them an evident token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of God. For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake; Having the same conflict which ye saw in me, and now hear to be in me” (Phil. 1:27–30).

Paul says that when Christians respond to persecutors with a calm and like-minded spirit, this freedom of terror is a token, a proof, a demonstration. The word is endeixis (ἔνδειξις — pardon — just testing WordPress fonts). When God gives such supernatural grace, it is a token, a sign, an indicator, that this group is going to be saved, and that one is going to be damned. This is not something that should be classed as infallible revelation (a persecutor might repent, and one of the Philippians might apostatize), but it should be classed as genuine knowledge.

So we are not talking about any kind of assurance that by-passes the need for perseverance. We cannot be assured of anything the way God is assured of things. God knows what He knows absolutely, and all our knowledge is contingent. All our knowledge is creaturely. But there are more options than having to decide between “knowing as God does” and “knowing merely that I am saved for the present moment.”

The Spirit works into us true knowledge about the future, not just the present. We know this future as we know anything else, as creatures, but we do in fact know it. This is why the Bible speaks of the Spirit as an earnest, as a guarantee (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:14). But what good is a guarantee that guarantees nothing in the future? This is why we are encouraged to know that He who began a good work in you will complete it in the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6). And this is why Paul piles up challenge upon challenge, threat upon threat, in order to teach us to taunt those challenges with the knowledge that nothing coming down the pike can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:37-39).

In short, we need two things in this, and as I see it the FV dark beers thus far are only affirming the first of the two. The first is that as we work through the New Testament, we must find a class of Christian for whom it is absolutely true that nothing can separate them — whether things present or things to come — from God’s love for them in Christ. Because they affirm decretal election, the dark beers do affirm this, unapologetically. The dark beers have been repeatedly and slanderously wronged by those who maintain they are denying this. That mistake is made because people believe this controversy has to be an old issue in new clothing. No, it really is a new issue, and needs to be treated as a new issue. It needs to be worked through patiently, asking and answering the hard questions.

So the second thing we need is this. We must also find that it is possible for this class of chosen Christian to know this fact to be true about themselves, and to draw real assurance from it. And this, thus far at least, is what I believe is missing from this new proposed paradigm. And the ramifications of what we need to work through here extend from soteriology up to epistemology. It is a big issue, and a complicated one.

As for me, I hold that an essential part of our confession of faith has to do with our place in the future of God’s people. “And of this community I am and always will be a living member” (HC 54).

21 Theses On Assurance and Apostasy

1. There are only two final destinations for human beings after the day of judgment, those two destinations being the final damnation of the old humanity in Adam, and the final salvation of the new humanity in Christ.

2. Throughout all history, God has kept a visible covenant people for Himself, intended to declare, model, test drive, instantiate, train for, grow toward, and otherwise approximate that final redeemed humanity.

3. Depending on location and era, that visible covenant people has ranged between a grotesque parody of that final redeemed humanity and a genuine approximation of it. As history grows toward its glorious consummation, the historical progress toward that final eschatological goal will be more and more unmistakeable.

4. But in either case this means that the rosters of names involved, those of the visible covenant people, and the final redeemed humanity, the elect, are not identical rosters.

5. God has always given His visible covenant people visible covenant markers. In our time of the new covenant, these markers are gospel and sacrament. God is sketching His preliminary drawing of His final redeemed humanity in charcoal — Word and water, bread and wine. It does not yet appear what the final oil painting will be like.

6. The visible covenant people therefore necessarily contains two kinds of people, regenerate and unregenerate — lines that will be used in the painting forever and lines that will be erased.

7. Christ is always present and offered in His gospel and through His sacraments. When an unregenerate covenant member does not close with Christ, the issue is his absence, not Christ’s. With their lips they approach Him, but their hearts are far away. Christ was not far away, they were far away.

8. When covenant members who are not elect are erased from the preliminary drawing, this means there was something wrong with their presence there from the beginning. God is all wise, and so their presence was no mistake. At the same time, that presence does not function at all like the presence of the elect.

9. Because the covenant markers can be abused by unregenerate covenant members, these covenant markers cannot be a ground of assurance. True evangelical faith can and should use them as a means of assurance, but never as the ground of assurance.

10. Covenant markers can never be a ground of assurance because unbelief and/or apostasy can be hidden and secret. Countless hypocrites have had all their external papers in order. If externals were a ground of assurance, then hypocrites could have true assurance. But a true Christian is one inwardly, and real baptism is of the heart, by the Spirit.

11. Believers who struggle with assurance should constantly be encouraged by pastors, family and friends to look to Christ wherever He has promised to be — in the proclaimed Word, in His people, in the sacraments, in the reading of Scripture and prayer.

Down at the Pool Hall

Warfield’s little book The Plan of Salvation is one of the few books that I have read three times. The first time was in 1988 when I was first becoming a Calvinist, and it was no doubt part of that bumpy but wonderful process. I read it again the next year. I read it a third time just a few years ago, and this leads to a needed retraction.

I interact with that book in several of my own. The first book is “Reformed” Is Not Enough, published over a decade ago, and the second is Against the Church, published late in 2013.

In RINE, my assessment of Warfield is fairly critical. “But I do want to argue that Warfield was being inconsistent here…” (pg. 86). And then a bit later I say this:

“According to Warfield’s definition, to have the covenant dispensed in ordinances and to have them be spiritually efficacious, is sacerdotalism. But this is the Westminster Confession, which he claims is anti-sacerdotalist. And so it is, but the inevitable conclusion is that there is something wrong with Warfield’s definition” (pg. 88).

When I first read this book by Warfield I really appreciated it. But a little over a decade later, when the Federal Vision controversy was heating up, I had picked up a more jaundiced view of him on this point from my circle of friends down at the pool hall. Before letting that jaundiced view show up in RINE, I ought to have gone back to review Warfield’s book more thoroughly than I did.

Then, a few years ago, when various events conspired to make me go “wait a minute,” I went back and read Warfield through again. My retraction is this. I don’t believe that Warfield was being inconsistent with the Westminster Confession on this question of sacerdotalism and his view of “immediate” grace. I don’t believe that I was being inconsistent with the Confession either, in either of my books, but I do believe that I was not being fair to Warfield in RINE.

And so what you see in Against the Church is my attempt to vindicate Warfield against his critics on this point — which is obvious enough if you read that section. What is not obvious, unless you have a better memory than I did, and what should have been obvious to me, was that in print I had been one of those critics. There should have been a footnote or something in Against the Church, issuing a retraction then.

And so here are two retractions. I do not believe my assessment of Warfield in RINE was accurate, and I also believe that this retraction ought to have occurred in Against the Church, not a year later in 2015. My apologies.

Future Grace

The evangelical hinge is not whether sacraments accomplish the blessings they speak of. The issue is whether they accomplish every blessing they speak of.

The sacraments, like the Scriptures, like the gospel itself, like the very existence of the Church, are eschatological. The words of baptism are future-oriented — from that moment forward, the baptized person is to be reckoned my brother or sister. The words of institution at the Supper are future words. “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Cor. 11:26). We baptize and we commune leaning forward. Every Lord’s Day we break bread toward the end of the world.

In the meantime, the Church is God’s salvation community in the world, and there are two ways to come into this community. The first is real conversion. When someone is truly converted, and he comes into the Church, he receives all that the Church contains, or ever will contain (which is to say, Christ). Faith — and only faith — enables a person to inherit this complete future. Listen to Paul talking about this very thing when speaking of the riches of a true heir — “whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:22–23, ESV).

If I am Christ’s, and Christ is God’s, then everything is mine. That includes — in Paul’s express words — the future. This means that if my future is not salvation future, then at some foundational level, my present is not salvation present. From this simple reality, all evangelical theology flows.

A Helicopter on the Front Lawn

This last week my friend Peter Leithart did some musing out loud about some problems that he identifies as resulting from an emphasis on the “legal status” of righteousness. One post, “How to Say, ‘I Am Righteous'” is here, and another related post on Luther and imputation/infusion can be found here.

In response I have some questions, some hesitations, some suggestions, some objections, and some exhortations. Here we go.

Peter argues that we hesitate to speak the way the psalmist sometimes does because of unbelief. Peter says that to say that I am legally righteous and existentially sinful is dualism — a dualism “fed and nurtured by Protestant preaching and teaching that treats the ‘legal me’ as righteous while consigning the ‘real, existential me’ or ‘my nature’ to the realm of sin.”

First, what is dualism exactly? I don’t think we can say that it occurs just because we have distinct nouns for distinct things. Sun and moon are two, as are heaven and earth, but do not represent dualism, and to affirm that God created mankind as male and female is not dualism either. So it seems that dualism occurs when two distinct things are put into an unbiblical relation to one another, or one thing that should remain as one is broken in two.

So justification and sanctification could be understood dualistically, just as a misogynist understands sex dualistically. But that is his rebellion, not a design feature. In a very non-dualistic way, the Westminster Confession sings justification and sanctification together in a very sweet harmony. It is certainly possible to differ with Westminster here (although I do not), but impossible, I think, to charge the Confession with dualism.

“Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love” (WCF 11.2).

“This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence arises a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” (WCF 13.2)

This means that any Protestant preaching that consigns the “real me” to the realm of sin, to drown there in tubs of depravity, would be preaching that is, in addition to being unbiblical, radically unconfessional. As long as I have been Reformed I have been instructed on the distinction between reigning sin (which is no more) and remaining sin (which must addressed and dealt with by faith, in the whole man, on a daily basis). I have also been instructed, over and over, on the distinction between justification and sanctification, coupled with their inseparability. As I said before, this could all be wrong, but it seems to me that battalions of Reformed theologians have taken exquisite pains over the course of centuries to not be dualistic on the point.

But this leads to my central question. Having said all this, I do not dispute that Peter has seen the kind of disjunct that he describes. I don’t doubt that he has seen it because I have certainly seen it. There are more than a few Protestant preachers who wouldn’t recognize the Westminster Confession if it landed in their front yard in a helicopter. There is a functional dualism that is certainly out there. But what causes it?

Playing Puritans and Lutherans

So this is a bit behind the curve, but I wanted to say a few things about this post by my friend Tim Bayly. He posted this just a week after I was there in Bloomington for their Salt & Light conference, and so you would not be far off if you thought my visit might have had something to do with it. And now it has something more to do with it.

Some of what I say here will simply reinforce what Tim is saying, and some of it will consist of “but what about this factor . . .?”

Good fences make good neighbors. Good labels can do the same thing, which is bad news for a generation that “hates labels.” Just as liberalism was a rot that got into every denomination extant, so the postmodern vibe is doing the same thing to us — largely through the death grip that academia has on pastoral training. Just as it was very difficult to tell the difference between a liberal Methodist and a liberal Presbyterian in the late fifties, even when the light was good, so also it is difficult now to tell the difference between a Kellerite soul patch and the other kind.

True ecumenism requires precision of thought, and precision of language, but we have gotten to the place where every attempt at careful definition is dismissed as a run up to war. Postmodernism does to theology what leaving a watercolor out in a downpour does to the painting. True ecumenism requires oil painting in the Mojave, where the blue stays blue, and the brown stays put.

So let’s assume that all our discussions of these issues have the same understanding of Schaeffer’s “true truth.” We can draw straight arrows from the signifier to the thing signified. We really care about the truth, and we want to learn and affirm as much of it as we can. We have trouble being patient with those who say “no creed but Christ, no law but love” because what they just said is, when you come down to it, a very fine creed, and it isn’t Christ.

Making Seneca Crack Up

My friend Garry Vanderveen has been kind enough to suggest a side-by-side comparison of what Jim Jordan and I teach on the subject of regeneration, coming to the conclusion that we are not all that far apart. I commend that post to you, with the exception of whatever was going on when they justified the right margin. As Peter Leithart put it a couple years ago, everybody in the room is a high predestinarian, which surely should count for something.

I want to keep myself quite open to the possibility that what we are saying is not that far apart, and I certainly believe we are not as far apart as some might like us to be. And that said, however far apart we are — is it lettuce/arugula or is it lettuce/cabbage?) — I don’t believe these issues in themselves are issues of heresy.

But with that said, in this postmodern climate, heresy is never that far away from anyone who graduated from seminary in the last several decades, whatever the presenting issue might be. So don’t get cocky, kid. If you don’t believe that the laws of thought are attributes of God, then peril is crouched by your door like sin stalking Cain. To maintain that lettuce and cabbage are the same thing represents a profound capitulation to a view of the world that turns absolutely anything into heresy.

There are important issues here that require careful definition — catholicity and confusion should not be considered dialog partners. We can define things carefully, and distinguish things that differ, without slinging careless accusations about. But we have to debate like (charitable) 17th century divines who believed in absolute truth, and not like pomothinkers, whose softness of head is rivaled only by their hardness of heart.

So whatever you call this particular issue — lettuce/cabbage, amber ale/oatmeal stout, puritan/lutheran — keep in mind that we are distinguishing for the sake of maintaining good fences between good neighbors.

But if this in fact were the case, and Jim and I have been saying almost the same thing all this time, then I would be content to retreat from the discussion, fully abashed. Here I have been, pleading words and names and our own law, just begging Gallio to drive us away from his court. I never want to be the guy who hands Gallio a ripe story capable of making Seneca crack up at the next family reunion. I mean, who wants to be that guy?

But . . . and you knew that was coming, right?

The Central Square of Reformedville

Earlier today I tweeted this: “God comes to us in three books — nature, law, and gospel. Read plainly, we read God above us, God against us, and God with us.”

I have been asked for additional explanation, and so here it is. The responses ranged from huh? what? to “you sound like Michael Horton.” But this thought is actually a reworking of something I read from Matthew Henry, and shows how, once again, I am sitting on the edge of the fountain in the central square of Reformedville, just swinging my legs.

First, the Scripture: “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (Col. 2:13-14).

There are differences between Lutherans and the Reformed on the three uses of the law (usus legis), but the differences are not over whether there are three uses.

There is a use of the law that convicts us of our need for Christ. If the basic message of the gospel is preached by evangelists whose message is “repent and believe,” this creates the obvious question — “repent of what?” That question cannot be answered without a standard, and the standard in Scripture is the law of God. This use of the law is essential in evangelism — more rich young rulers need to go away sad.