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.

That’ll Preach

In the comments below this post, Jeremy Sexton explains an objective, outside-the-individual way of understanding the qualitative difference between a persevering covenant member and a non-persevering covenant member. I appreciate Jeremy’s contribution. In line with my previous comments, I don’t have any difficulty seeing this as a position that an orthodox Christian could take. The fact that someone holds to this position would present, to my view, no barrier to fellowship whatever.

At the same time, I have four major difficulties with this explanation, in descending order of importance. Here they are:

One of the central methodological moves we made in the FV controversy was this. We understood the controversy as a question of whether we would be allowed to speak to God’s people as the Scripture speaks, without being constantly constrained by a priori theological considerations. I believed that such a stand was appropriate then, and I believe it now. But this criterion does not just apply to the language of apostasy. It also applies to the language of true heart conversion. It applies to everything Scripture addresses, and Scripture constantly speaks of the problem of false hearts saying true things.

The Scripture routinely speaks of the difference between true saints and sons of Belial as being a difference that is internal to them. I cheerfully grant that the biblical way of speaking of “the heart” may differ in some respects from the modern English-speaking way of talking about it — but our modern heart is a lot closer to the ancient Hebraic heart than either of them might be to the secret decrees of God.

Messing With the Verb

I recently wrote about how catholicity begins at home, which you can read here if you missed it. Jim Jordan was kind enough to comment in the thread below that, but because the conveyor belt of time won’t slow down, his comments were kind of buried. I wanted to bump them up to the top again, and then quickly respond to just a few things. I appreciate Jim’s interaction on this.

“Well, I for one welcome your interaction with the Driscolls and Pipers of our age. As for ‘evangelical,’ you define it as absolute necessity of a new birth ‘down in your heart.’ I’m happy to sign on to that as well. That is, those who persevere in the faith (good soil believers) participate in the new birth of humanity in the resurrection of Jesus, which means they are individually born again also and do not commit suicide along the way. The ‘down’ heart stuff, being a metaphor, is fine with me also, though from an exegetical standpoint, I’ve never gotten clear precisely how what the Bible means by ‘heart’ fits with what most Christians think it means today. I’m happiest knowing that the Heart of my life is not inside of me, but is Jesus, who will never let me down.”

So let me note three quick things in response.

A Romans 11 Olive Branch

I would like to thank Shane Lems for his post at The Aquila Report for his post on the FV as it relates to union with Christ. The reason for this is that he quotes from the Joint Federal Vision statement, which is very rarely done. I really appreciate it — that is what the statement was for.

The upshot of his article is that FV views union with Christ as something a Christian can lose, while the Reformed confessions view it as a permanent reality. “The Federal Vision movement says it is losable while Reformed theology says it is an eternal union.”

To illustrate the latter point, he cites the Larger Catechism.

“The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband, which is done in their effectual calling” (WLC 66).