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.
12. When such believers continue to struggle, they need to be strongly encouraged to repent of and abandon false and unbiblical notions of what a “true” conversion must look like. If God had wanted everyone to have a Damascus road experience, He would have given everyone sandals and a horse.
13. When a professing believer comes to question his assurance, and his life is one characterized by drunkenness, fornication, a foul mouth, bitterness, backstabbing, out-of-control parties, pot smoking and the like, questioning his assurance is exactly what he ought to be doing, and about time. It is not pastoral care to try to squelch questions that have been a long time coming. People who live that way will not inherit the kingdom of God, and should not be allowed to think they are going to.
14. To repeat, for such persons, we ought not to ask why Christ didn’t show up in the covenant markers for them. Christ was always present there. Somebody else didn’t show up.
15. A person who shows up physically to the covenant markers with habitual and characteristic sin in his life, of the sort that Scripture repeatedly says is inconsistent with inheritance of eternal life, does not need to be told to “believe.” He needs to be told to “repent and believe.”
16. When they are genuine, repentance and faith are two descriptions of the same motion, considered from two different vantage points. Sin and salvation stand opposite one another, and so to turn away from the former and toward the latter can be described as two actions — either as repentance or as faith — while being at the same time the same motion.
17. This means that repentance and faith are inseparable. One cannot be removed without simultaneously removing the other.
18. Therefore faith in the presence of sermons or sacraments that does not result in actual detestation of sin is not the kind of faith that can derive any grace whatever from any of the available means of grace.
19. Wise pastoral care does not want to in any way encourage this kind of impotent faith. It is not a faith that gets it part way right, not in any meaningful sense. A corpse is not partly resurrected, and dead faith is not most of the way there.
20. It is possible to encourage weak believers who have a true but wavering faith and simultaneously disrupt the hypocritical assumptions of those who want to hide from God by dint of great noise and observances. Sound preaching is good for both of them, and the same kind of preaching is good for both of them.
21. The new birth is the one thing needful. It is the only reality that creates repentance and faith together, which is the only way any of this makes any sense.