That’ll Preach

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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.

Here is just a small sample. True circumcision is inward, of the heart (Rom. 2:29). The heart dictates what the mouth will say, independent of the person’s covenanted baptismal status (Matt. 12:34), and it is this that determines the true and final status of the individual. In both the Old Testament and the New, God rejects those who come to Him with mouth and lips, but whose hearts are far from Him (Matt. 15:8) The Father will not accept anyone who has not forgiven others from the heart (Matt. 18:35). These are all indicators in this life that reveal the decree, but they are not the decree itself. You can be of Israel in one respect, but not in the other — and we are repeatedly taught that this distinction within Israel applies to the Church. The work of the kingdom contains both wheat and tares. In John 8, Jesus granted that His adversaries had Abraham for their father, but in the sense that really mattered, they had the devil for a father. So the language of true heart conversion is the language of Scripture, not primarily the language of systematics. It ought to be a routine part of our language also.

The second thing is a practical and pressing question. One of my central concerns about doctrine, right after “is it true?” is “will it preach?” Our nation is in desperate need of a reformation that will make historians want to call it, if it occurs, the Great Reformation. Anything less than that and I think we are hosed.

But the engine that will drive any such Reformation will have to be a Spirit-anointed declaration of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, followed on hard by a call to action. How will they hear without a preacher? That call to action will be an appeal to do something from the heart (repent and believe) and they won’t be able to do so unless the words of life they are hearing are, in addition to everything else, offering them a new heart, born all over again. That’ll preach.

Like I said above, a difference over this is not a fellowship breaker at all. But it does affect who you ask to do the preaching. Maintaining fellowship between disparate doctrinal opinions should be one of our objectives, certainly, but the mission is to bring the nations to Christ. In order to do that, we need preachers who are looking for the harvest here.

The third issue is a confessional one. Depending on which Reformed confession you subscribe to, I believe that locating the distinction in the decrees is quite likely a distinctive that would require an adherent of it to take an exception. “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts . . .” (WCF 14.1). I do not say that this is the only possible position for a Reformed man to take, but I will say that this is the standard Reformed view — internal heart conversion is the sine qua non of historic evangelicalism, and this historic evangelicalism is clearly represented in and by our confessions. This is what I mean by classic evangelicalism, and, speaking frankly, a horse doctor dose of it is the need of the hour.

And last, the fourth issue is the theological problem, which we tend to make more complicated than it actually is. We tend to make things murky by trying to sort it out by looking at gray area cases. But the structure of the problem is thrown into higher relief when we look at the black and white cases, and it shows the actual issues much more clearly. Why debate this by discussing a guy who sat quietly in the back pew for forty years, never making a pastoral disturbance of any kind, but who never showed any real spiritual interest either? He assumes he is saved, whatever that is, and who are we to say any different? I grant this is a hard way for us to judge the efficacy of baptism.

We sometimes get tangled up in the distinction between the persevering covenant member and the persevering-for-a-time covenant member. We focus on the good wheat and the wheat in shallow soil, and not on the wheat and the tares. So what about the covenant member who never persevered in anything good at all, not even for a little bit?

So why not look at the flaming hypocrite in order to test our views of objective covenant membership? Outside he is a whited sepulcher, but inside (note that pesky spatial metaphor again) he is full of bones and every unclean thing. He is baptized, and his membership papers are all in order. He is the chairman of the pastoral search committee, is the third largest tither in the church, and his mistress is better looking than anybody else’s. He is outside sweet and inside foul. What is his status? This is an easy case — this man is a baptized reprobate. But because it is an easy case, it shines a spotlight on the pastoral question we are seeking to answer.

Why? He is lost simply because he is unregenerate. You can’t fit an unregenerate peg in a regenerate hole. So his baptism isn’t the issue. The number of sins he has committed isn’t the issue. The biblical answer, as we seek to reach such people, is that he is lost because of who his father is. He is of his father the devil, as evidenced by the family resemblance. And that family resemblance is down here, and not up in the decrees.

If you want to read more about these issues, this topic is what Against the Church is all about. We should have it back from the printer in about ten days.

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Eric Stampher
Eric Stampher
8 years ago

My son died twenty years ago as a youngun.  I assume he was a going-to-heaven believer.  Why?  God plopped him into our home — a “for-me-and-my-house” home.  I spect he’s busy up there but has an eye out for our arrival.  I recommend this simplified approach to FV-ers.  State you assume and expect.  Maybe I’ll be proven wrong.  It’ll be ok.  But until then, assume and expect that those in the circle are really in the circle down to their bones and that, until you’re proven wrong, you’ll be in heaven together.

Mike Bull
8 years ago

  Praise God for this! . . . . .But the whole point of baptism was to define not an earthly father (Abraham) but a heavenly Father. The New Covenant is a Covenant of the heart, hence baptism is based on a profession of faith, a response, a desire, a hunger for righteousness. Jesus lifted the bar from outward obedience to an external law to inward obedience to an internal law, from childhood to maturity. . . . . .All it does it point out a child’s earthly father, a heritage according to the flesh. Acid Test: If I diss somebody’s paedobaptism, they… Read more »

Mike Bull
8 years ago

One final comment I intended to include . . . . . if baptism is tied to a transformed heart, and it quite obviously is in Scripture, then paedobaptism misrepresents the Gospel. You have one story coming out of your mouth and quite another coming out of your font – a confused spring.

Tim H
Tim H
8 years ago

The problem with Jeremy Sexton’s proposal is not that it is a “barrier to fellowship” — must every discussion have the ante upped to that right away? — but that it is incoherent. External relations are not identity criteria.   Say Billy and Biff are clutching exactly identical kickballs, but unbeknownst to either of them, Tommy is sneaking up and has the intent (read “decree”) to snatch Billy’s kickball away from him. And say he does so. Does that mean the kickballs actually weren’t identical — I suppose because one had the property, “about to be snatched by Tommy”? No.… Read more »

Eric Stampher
Eric Stampher
8 years ago

Michael, may I engage?  I assume my child’s earthly heritage was a heavenly gift, and included faith.  So before we even knew he’d die unexpectedly in surgery, we had him baptized.  We assume he was, or would be, given faith.  If you diss this baptism, I take it you’re unintentionally dissing the faith we think God gave him.

Jon
Jon
8 years ago

If you value elegance and simplicity, the Arminian paradigm does a much better job at explaining all the passages we deem difficult in relation to falling away.  Positing a double elect or two-tiered church or two kinds of Christians is very baroque and therefore very suspicious to me.  I’m far more inclined to assume Arminius and Wesley were more on target.

Jon
Jon
8 years ago

I’m not sure John 10 poses an issue.  Perhaps Jesus is saying that’s how it is on a general level.  We probably err in understanding it too literally.  Romans 8-11 should be seen in terms of Paul’s objectives.  I suspect calvinism is guilty of a certain amount of eisegesis here.  I think Paul just wanted people to understand why all Israel didn’t respond, and what it amounts to.  He wanted to get across the unity of all God’s people in Christ, a most successful undertaking.  I admit Romans 8:29-30 seems to suggest it’s a ‘package deal’.  I’m not sure about that.  As far as Ephesians and some other instances, the… Read more »

Jeremy Sexton
Jeremy Sexton
8 years ago

Doug, yes, the difference between a baptized faithful believer and a baptized hypocrite is what is going on inside of them, in their hearts. A good man from the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things; an evil man out of evil treasure brings forth evil things. It’s possible to be baptized and have the evil father; indeed, this heart-level qualitative distinction is not only terrestrial, but also discernible in many cases. I’m all for preaching Jeremiah 4:4 to the nations and to the unfaithful baptized. Etc. I was answering your dilemma, the premise of which was two… Read more »

Mike Bull
8 years ago

THanks Eric – I understand your concern, and I know it’s easy to be glib about big doctrines when real people and real lives are involved. My position is that infant baptism is redundant because all people, which includes all infants, are already under the New Covenant. This means whatever you thought you were doing in baptism was already done in Christ. That’s what the end of circumcision achieved. Concerning your son, as well as all deceased infants, born and unborn, we have a just God who will not punish anyone for something they didn’t do, and a merciful God… Read more »

Eric Stampher
Eric Stampher
8 years ago

Michael,  thanks.  So I’m hearing you say that baptism should be reserved or applied when a person shows some evidence of positive response — repenting — to an intake of gospel proclamation?  Is that right?  And I presume you think that this intake can’t occur until the person has achieved a certain level of physiological mental maturity.  I differ with this position in that I think as long as God contacts and touches the human at whatever stage that person is in, He can bring about faith.  If it’s human, it can be sinful and it can be saved by… Read more »

Andrew Lohr
8 years ago

Mike, what is your doctrine, and what your experience/knowledge, of infant capacity?  At what age did Jesus become a believer?   /   /   /   /   /   /   /   John 9–the disciples assumed that a man could have been born blind because of his own sin.  He could sin that badly in the womb?  Then could he be correspondingly holy?  What is the Bible’s doctrine of infant capacity?  At what age did the Holy Ghost, by whom Jesus was materially conceived, find in Jesus enough capacity to work with Him spiritually?   /   /   /   /   /   /   /   Doug tells of… Read more »

john k
john k
8 years ago

Andrew, I appreciate reading defenses of paedobaptism here. IMO, however, no matter what one concludes about “the Bible’s doctrine of infant capacity,” that capacity is different from the capacity of ages one and three. The examples you give at the end of your posting demonstrate a measure of intellectual reasoning at those young ages. Therefore I see faith’s beginnings there. But although my church asked me to baptize my newborns, I was not required to do it on the basis of alleged infant faith. My church may be wrong, but it defined saving faith as a response to a message, and confessed that infants who die in salvation are regenerated and saved without… Read more »

Eric Stampher
Eric Stampher
8 years ago

john,
What if membership in the covenant was assumed to come from faith?  Faith even a zygote can be given.  Faith receptors are part of our DNA.