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.