Some may be wondering why I am on a regeneration jag. Well, in the first place, jags are how I operate. That’s just how I roll.
But there are some reasons also.
1. “Reformed” Is Not Enough (henceforth RINE) was published ten years ago. What I am writing now does not represent in any way a “walking back” of what I argued there. Rather, it is a straightforward application of it. More about that in a moment. Right now, let me note that the ground is not shifting under our feet.
This is what I said then:
“We see in this portion of the Confession that a man is ‘quickened and renewed’ in such a way as to enable him to respond to the call of God. This might be called regeneration, theologically considered. A man is either regenerate or he is not. When the word regeneration is being used in this sense, we are talking about an individual operation performed by the Spirit of God, who does what He does when and how it pleases Him. And when we are talking about what might be called this ‘effectual call-regeneration,’ we have to repudiate every form of baptismal or decisional regeneration” (RINE, p. 39).
This is from a chapter which argues at length that the objectivity of the covenant is not in any way inconsistent with evangelicalism, classically understood. Later on, there is a chapter on assurance of salvation (Ch. 14), in which I work through the scriptural evidences by which a covenant member is invited to conclude that he has the root of the matter in him. Then there are three chapters on the Christians who aren’t Christians — on heretics (Ch. 16), on sons of Belial (Ch. 17), and on false brothers (Ch. 18). Baked into this cake was my assumption that covenant members are either regenerate or they are not (p. 34).
2. But why this jag ten years after? My son Nate recently observed that a good border collie does not just decide (for the sake of doctrinal consistency) that he will always nip at a sheep’s left hind leg. He alternates, and does so with a larger purpose in view.
A good shepherd of the Lord’s flock does the same sort of thing. The issue is not what you would put down on paper as a systematic expression of all your views — you have to talk, preach, write, blog, in terms of where the flock is actually going, and where it needs to be going.
When it comes to these sorts of issues, a pastor in our circles has to concerned about two things — “respectable” defections from the Reformed tradition, and disreputable collapses into horrendous sin. For the former, I have in mind things like conversions to Rome or EO, problems like that. Moves like that come from somewhere, and maybe it is time to nip at the right hind legs. For the latter I have in mind parishioners who are rolling around in Gal. 5:19-21 with shouts of libertine joy. It is time to attack this kind of covenantal presumption, and it needs to attacked with a canoe paddle. I wish I could say this is a hypothetical problem, but it has not been. I have a greater responsibility to be attacking the linchpin of the devil’s system, which is sin, than I have to be defending what I thought was the linchpin of my own system.
In the epilogue to RINE, I exhorted everyone to fight sin within these categories.
“We vary between two extremes. The first extreme is to say that people who are guilty of such things are not Christians at all, in any sense, and so we rid the body of Christ of them. Unfortunately, by doing this, we also have lost the very concept of a visible body of Christ. We find ourselves saying that a man who has never met Christ has betrayed Him. In other words, we say that all adulterers were never really married. But of course this means that they are not really adulterers. The other extreme acknowledges that they are in fact Christians, and indeed, let the ecumenical games begin! But this is just as silly. This position is to maintain that if someone is a husband, then adultery is impossible, and we can only speak encouragingly to one another” (RINE, p. 195).
I follow it up on the next page with this:
“In other words, we have two positions: the first is that husbands cannot commit adultery, and the second is that adulterers are not husbands, and hence not adulterers. What never seems to occur to anyone is the duty of fighting our fellow Christians to the last ditch” (RINE, p. 196).
3. One of the great points that the FV fought for was the right to speak biblically to God’s people, without having that pronouncement instantly disallowed for the sake of a definition from our systematic theology. We did not want to set aside the Word of God for the sake of our traditions. For example, the Bible obviously teaches the doctrine of decretal election, but not every use of “election” in the Bible follows that usage. I can plead with my people “as the elect of God, to put on tender mercies,” and I can do this without affirming that everybody in our church directory is decretally elect. Talk the way the Bible talks anyway.
But both ends of this teeter-totter go up and down. Do we really think that the TRs are the only ones with a system? Do we really think that they are the only ones who might be tempted to rush in when biblical language is used in an attempt to save their system? The TR is tempted, when Jesus warns about branches being cut out of the vine, to explain to the faithful that such a branch couldn’t really have been a branch, and had to have been a bit of tumbleweed or something caught there. He is saving his system, but at the expense of faithfulness to the text. But what happens when a baptized covenant member is stinking up the whole sanctuary, and a pastor says to him that he is a goat, a tare, a cloud without rain, a dog returning to vomit, a pig returning to its sty, and so forth? All that is biblical language also, addressed in various settings to baptized saints. Special pleading for the sake of a sacramental system is no better than special pleading for another kind of system. Talk the way the Bible talks anyway.
And of course, add the caveat that we should use such biblical language on biblical occasions. It would be inappropriate to tell a congregation “as the elect of God, they should put on tender mercies” right after they voted to call a lesbian minister. And it would be inappropriate to call someone a son of Belial because he accidentally parked in the place where the pastor’s wife usually parks.
4. In Angels in the Architecture, I argued that confesssions and creeds are like fence posts around a garden. Systematic expressions of the faith should allow for a more organic (and “sloppy”) form of biblical expression inside the fence. The high creedalists want the whole garden to be nothing but fence posts all the way across, and the poetic dreamers want to tear down the fence for the sake of biblical expression, but the only thing that happens is that all the heretical deer come in and eat everything. This is why I want us to continue to affirm an effectual call regeneration as one of our key fence posts. This should not at all preclude detailed theological discussion within the garden about the differences between lettuce regeneration and arugula regeneration. So to speak.