Systematic theology is nothing less than remembering what you read in other passages while you are reading this passage. The kind of thing that gives systematic theology a bad name is remembering what you thought other passages said, privileging them in some form of special pleading, and making the verse in front of you do little poodle tricks.
Illegitimate systematics is done by the kind of people who put together jigsaw puzzles with a pair of scissors and a mallet handy. The solution is not to abandon systematics, which is not possible anyway. Everybody in this discussion has a system because everybody wants to understand what the Bible as a whole teaches. Our task is nevertheless to guard ourselves against Procrustean interpretations, and we do this best by acknowledging frankly that every school of thought will have such temptations. This happens when we get certain passages “down” and then feel impelled to protect that understanding against the evil stratagems of problem passages.
A theological breakthrough occurs when a systematic proposal is made which “saves the phenomena” for a greater number of passages, and which greatly reduces the temptations for special pleading. This is why I consider a certain approach to the FV issues a theological breakthrough. The Calvinist passages concern the decrees and sovereignty of God, and they stand as is, and the Arminian passages concern our participation in the covenant, from which it is possible for non-elect covenant members to fall away. The decrees are real, and no one can lay a charge against God’s elect, and the covenant is also real, so all baptized Christians need to take care lest they fall from from grace.
We maintain balance by holding fast to both poles — we don’t try to go down the black diamond run of sovereignty and free will with a ski on our right foot and a pole in our left hand.
In order to maintain this balance, we have to hold fast to two distinct sets of dichotomies. The first is on the covenantal side, where we take seriously everything God says about the distinction between the world and the church, between the unbaptized and the baptized, between unbelievers and believers, and between visible pagans and visible saints. The second is the distinction we must make within the covenant between those who say they are and those who are. There are Christians and there are Christians indeed. You know you are on the right track when you are accused of contradicting what you just said in the first set of distinctions — but it is no contradiction at all. There is a distinction between the common operations of the Spirit, which are no less real for being temporary, and the sealing and earnest of the Spirit, which cannot be touched by height, breadth, or depth, or things present or things to come.
If you make the covenantal warnings disappear under the shadow of the decrees, then you run the risk of becoming a Greek fatalist instead of a Scots Calvinist. If you put the decrees up for grabs by foregrounding the covenant signs (like baptism), then you run the risk of becoming a German Lutheran instead of a Dutch Calvinist. I only brought ethnicities in to see if I could inflame this thing further.
In sum, everything the Bible says about the distinction between the church and the world is true, and everything the Bible says about the distinction between the regenerate church and the unregenerate church is true. Unregenerate church? Has Wilson, as Wodehouse might ask, gone off his onion?
Not at all. Just lay out all the verses, all of them, and throw away your scissors and mallet. Let the Scriptures speak.
After warning about the bad dudes Hymenaeus and Philetus, whose words were a canker, increasing to more ungodliness, consisting as they did of profane and vain babbling, Paul says this about the house of the Lord:
“But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and earth; and some to honor, and some to dishonor. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work” (2 Tim. 2:20-21).
First, let us dispatch the idea that “purge himself” affects anything. Men repent and God gives repentance. Men harden their hearts and God hardens them. Men believe and God gives faith. Men love and God gives love. Nothing different here. To be changed from one kind of vessel to another requires the efficacious grace of God and, if that regenerating grace is given, it will be the man who repents and cleanses himself.
But if you baptize a chamber pot, what is it still full of? To be in the great house is a very different question from what kind of vessel you are in that house. So, I would argue, the two sets of categories I am setting forth are categories found in the text itself. In this illustration, we have the categories of inside/outside the great house, and then we have the categories of dishonorable vessels inside/honorable vessels inside.
Take these categories in order to believe them all, affirm them all, and preach them all.