Posted by: reformedmusings | June 23, 2007

Misdirected Mail – Part 1

I found a letter the other day that said my uncle had died. That was sad news, but what followed was unbelievable. The letter said that he left $3.2 million and his prized marble collection to me, and had an address where I had to go at the county clerk’s office to file for the inheritance. When I got to the clerk’s office, I showed them the letter and asked to start the paperwork. She asked to see my ID, but when I showed it to her she said the letter wasn’t mine. I replied that I found it and that it could have been to me, but she wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t my inheritance and I could not have it.

Silly thought on my part, you say? Not if you’re a proponent of the Federal Vision. The promises and blessings in the letters of the New Testament are offered to all, but specifically addressed to the saints, or to the elect, or to specific people. However, Federal Vision takes all the letters and applies their promises to the non-elect in the visible church. In short, they misdirect the mail.

[UPDATE: Based on feedback I’ve received, I wish to clarify this post and its continuation concerning to whom the promises are effective, i.e., who can claim the blessings and promises. The gospel, with its claims and promises, is freely and genuinely preached and offered to all. However, only those elected before the foundation of the world by God’s eternal decree are ordained by God to possess the promises and blessings upon their regeneration. That’s the standard Reformed position and the point of these two posts. I thought that this was clear from the analogy above–although I found the letter, I could not claim the inheritance that was not mine. I apologize if the point wasn’t clear to everyone. God is still in the process of conforming me to the image of His Son.]

How do we know to whom possession of the promises in the letters was originally intended? Until recently, theologians looked at the addressee specifically written in the letter and the characteristics of the intended recipients as described in the letter. Almost all the letters describe the characteristics of those elected from before the foundation of the world. That fits nicely with the doctrine therein and makes a tidy, consistent theological package.

Federal Vision, on the other hand, creates a framework of an “objective covenant.” This lumps the elect and non-elect in the visible church together and calls them all “covenentally elect.” Then working backwards, they take the promises in the letters originally to the those elected by God’s eternal decree (FV calls them the decretally elected) and apply their contained characteristics and promises to the entire visible church, including the non-elect.

As one might imagine, this turns Reformed theology on its head. Graces limited to the true elect in Scripture (except for perseverance) are now applied to the non-elect who happen to sit in pews. Let’s see what Paul thinks about that.

I already handled Paul’s letter to Titus in this post, but want to take a slightly broader view here. Since I don’t have unlimited time to devote to blogging, I’ll just look at some of Paul’s prison epistles.

Paul addresses the Letter to the Ephesians:

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God,
To the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, 4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, 5 having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, 6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.
7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace 8 which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, 9 having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, 10 that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him. 11 In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, 12 that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. (NKJV)

(I didn’t really need the entire passage for what follows, but I love reading it over and over.)

Paul here writes “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus”. The saints are the ‘hagios‘, the set apart, who are ‘pistos‘, faithful. Sounds like these are people specially set apart as holy who are faithful to/trust in Christ Jesus. Sounds like the truly elect in Ephesus, but how can we be sure?

Moving on to verses 3 and 4, Paul says that God has blessed “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love”. From this, we see that Paul has linked himself with the saints in Ephesus. Further, Paul says that he and the saints–“us”–were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. That’s the classic definition of the elect in the eternal decree of God.

So, from these verses, we can easily conclude that the promises and blessings in the letter are written to the those elected by God in His eternal decree–those to whom Christ’s righteousness has been imputed. When we look to an even broader context, including other letters, we see that this is consistent.

Let’s go a step further and see what he says about the elect from the foundation of the world. They are adopted as sons, accepted by the Father through Christ, and possessing the eternal inheritance. These promises are made ONLY to the true elect from the foundation of the world. Paul does not say that any of these promises, including adoption, are for “you and everyone else in the pew with you (the visible church).” That is, unless the believe on the eternal Lamb of God. Offered to all, possessed only by the elect.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians comes addressed as follows:

Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, 5 for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ; 7 just as it is right for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart, inasmuch as both in my chains and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers with me of grace. (NKJV)

Here we see a similar greeting in verse 1 that we saw in Ephesians and Colossians–“the saints (hagios) in Christ Jesus.” Keeping consistency with Paul’s greetings in those letters which were all written at about the same time and from the same location and circumstance (imprisonment in Rome), the hagios are those set apart as the elect in Christ Jesus before the foundation of the world.

Here’s a key application: In verse 6, Paul says that he is confident that Christ will finish their sanctification to glorification. This statement only applies to the addressees and those like them–the elect from the foundation of the world. At the end of verse 7, Paul says that they are all partakers with him of grace. Clearly the grace he has in view is saving grace to eternal life.

Moving on the the letter to the Colossians, we see much the same thing in Verses 2-8:

2 To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3We give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, 4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of your love for all the saints; 5 because of the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, of which you heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel, 6 which has come to you, as it has also in all the world, and is bringing forth fruit, as it is also among you since the day you heard and knew the grace of God in truth; 7 as you also learned from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, 8 who also declared to us your love in the Spirit. (NKJV)

The underlying Greek here in Verse 2 is the same as in Ephesians, so we can draw the same conclusions. Therefore, as Paul moves on to describe their hope and blessings in the following verses and the rest of the letter, we know that those are possessed only by those elected by God before the foundation of the world throughout time and then regenerated by Him in His time. Any others, including the non-elect in the visible church, who try to claim those blessings and promises are trying to take what is not theirs. It is offered as part of the free offer of the gospel, but cannot be obtained without trusting in Christ’s passive and active obedience alone imputed to us by faith alone through grace alone.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians stands as remarkably different from the other three prison letters and deserves special attention. I don’t know if this blogging software has a post-size limit, but I’ve already lost one long post previously and am a bit skittish about the software. As this post is getting pretty long, I will cover Galatians in the next post.

Let me wrap up here with an interim observation: all the promises in blessings that Paul enumerates in these three letters belong ONLY to those to whom the letters are address–the elect from before the foundation of the world–and to those like them and no one else. The free offer is made to all, but the blessings and promises only efficacious for the elect. We’ve seen no reference to those who are merely faithful to the covenant. To the contrary, we’ve seen in these letters that works have no part in securing our eternal salvation, which comes to us by faith alone, through grace alone, because of Christ alone.

You can read the rest of this thread with an analysis of Galatians in Part 2 here.

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