Answering All the Questions

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When trust breaks down, it is hard to say anything without the suspicious seizing upon whatever it is, and twisting it to suit themselves. This is just another way of saying that when trust breaks down, one of the first things that people forget is that affirmation of innocence until guilt is established and proven is a biblical requirement. And within confessional churches, orthodoxy is a given unless the contrary is proven in accordance with how the Bible says things are to be proven. This is the context in which I am debating. This means that in this debate, Steve Schlissel, Michael Horton, Cal Beisner, Rick Phillips, Steve Wilkins, Robert Godfrey, are all orthodox Christians, and should be treated as such. If there is a case to be made for changing our conviction of this truth, then the case should be made in an appropriate way, and in the appropriate place.

But not everyone is treating my words in this way, and so it is necessary to make adjustments, as best you can, before you say anything publicly. That said, let me risk something . . . again. Theological models are designed to represent important biblical truths. Pointing to the inadequacy of a particular model in some of its details is not the same thing as rejecting the important biblical truths illustrated by the model.

The ordo salutis is one such model. Many of those who are nervous about what we are saying about the traditional Reformed ordo salutis are nervous because they think we are challenging the central truth that the model is pointing to — which is false.

The purpose of a model is to explain and illustrate, and not to provide a photograph. For example, the model of an atom in a high school science class looks an awful lot like a tiny little solar system. And this helps explain a number of basic concepts. But if someone assumes, in their subsequent study of sub-atomic physics, that the tiny solar system model is correct in every detail, they will soon encounter things that they simply cannot explain. This is what has happened with many who are holding to the traditional ordo salutis in a wooden way — to mix the metaphor, they are treating it as though it were a paper mache “solar system” atom, hanging from the ceiling of a high school science classroom. There are important truths hanging there, but the model simply does not answer all the questions.

Lest anyone take this general statement as further justification for increasing nervousness about what I am saying, let me reiterate what important truth the traditional Reformed ordo salutis protects, a truth which I heartily affirm. Here is it. “Salvation is monergistic. Salvation is all of grace. A man does not bring about his own regeneration. He does not prepare himself for regeneration. Justification is also a matter of free grace, wherein the righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to the sinner. This righteousness is imputed to him, not infused within him. The order of regeneration, repentance, faith, justification, and sanctification protects and illustrates this, and rightly so.”

But here are some questions that the model does not answer. This is not said so that we would jettison the model, but rather so that we would refine it. This is not said as a challenge to the central truth of the model. Those who agree with me that these questions do not threaten the distinctively Reformed understanding of salvation need to work together with us to explore these questions. But those who insist upon seeing these questions as a threat need to do more than just fulminate. If the paper mache ordo is the only way to go, they need to show how their approach fully answers these questions. Note, in either case, the questions need to be answered. I reiterate again that this entire battle is for the hearts and minds of second-year seminarians. In the presence of those who are following the argument, and who understand it, these issues really need to be engaged. Those debating us really need to answer the following questions in some manner.

1. Justification is fourth, and sanctification is fifth in this ordo. Justification is imputed and sanctification is infused. But regeneration is first on the list. Now regeneration is a gift (from God alone) of a righteous heart in the place of an unrighteous heart. So in some manner, it involves a transfer of righteousness. Now, is regeneration an imputed transfer of righteousness, or an infused transfer of righteousness? Or a third way?

2. If imputed, then does this make regeneration a part of justification? And if it is that, then how can faith be the sole instrument of justification because faith is the fruit of regeneration?

3. If infused, then does this make regeneration a part of sanctification? If so, then how can sanctification precede justification? And is the regenerate heart justified before it exercises faith? Or is it an unjustified regenerate heart?

4. If a third way, please explain.

These questions fade into the background when we think of them in terms of union with Christ, and stop trying to measure them with a stopwatch. But when we think of this union with Christ in a non-chronological way (and rather a covenantal way), this generates new questions. And the way we address these new questions must preserve what we knew and affirmed in our embrace of the old model as traditionally affirmed. And I do. Salvation is of the Lord, and let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.

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