Posted by: reformedmusings | June 23, 2007

Misdirected Mail – Part 2

In Part 1, we looked at three of Paul’s prison epistles to see to whom, though offered freely to all, the promises and blessings contained therein are addressed and hence belong. This followed up my previous post on Titus. I’ll close this set with a more challenging letter.

[UPDATE: Again to be clear, as was said in the previous post, the gospel with its blessings and promises is freely offered to all. However, only the elect in God’s eternal decree will possess the blessings and promises. To believe that the non-elect of the visible church may rightly claim the blessings and promises of salvation in the gospel is wrong. That’s the point of these posts. I apologize if that wasn’t clear. God’s still in the process of conforming me to the image of His Son.]

Paul’s letter to the Galatians stands as remarkably different from the other we looked at so far. It starts:

Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead), 2 and all the brethren who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

3 Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

6 I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, 7 which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.

There’s obviously something different going on here. Paul defends his credentials right in the greeting, then addresses the letter to the “churches of Galatia”. Who specifically does Paul have in mind? Calvin in his commentary says:

To the churches of Galatia. It was an extensive country, and therefore contained many churches scattered through it. But is it not wonderful that the term “Church”, which always implies unity of faith, should have been applied to the Galatians, who had almost entirely revolted from Christ? I reply, so long as they professed Christianity, worshipped one God, observed the sacraments, and enjoyed some kind of Gospel ministry, they retained the external marks of a church. We do not always find in churches such a measure of purity as might be desired. The purest have their blemishes; and some are marked, not by a few spots, but by general deformity. Though the doctrines and practices of any society may not, in all respects, meet our wishes, we must not instantly pronounce its defects to be a sufficient reason for withholding from it the appellation of a Church. Paul manifests here a gentleness of disposition utterly at variance with such a course. Yet our acknowledgment of societies to be churches of Christ must be accompanied by an explicit condemnation of everything in them that is improper or defective; for we must not imagine, that, wherever there is some kind of church, everything in it that ought to be desired in a church is perfect. [my emphasis]

As we read on, Paul first preaches the gospel in brief to the recipients, then proceeds to hammer them for turning away from the gospel. Paul’s admonishments and explanation of the gospel go on for almost three chapters. Then at the end of Chapter 3, he says:

26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Huh? He just lambasted them for turning away from the gospel, now Paul is saying that they are “all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” What’s up with that? I think that reference to WCF 17.3 answers for the elect who temporarily fall into sin:

Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.

The non-elect in the church have a entirely different course and story, which brings us to a sore subject with some Federal Vision advocates–the judgment of charity. They use this verse to say that Paul is claiming the characteristics in verses 26-29 for the entire visible church (which Federal Vision calls the “covenentally elect”) explicitly, even though verse 29 caveats the statements with “if you are Christ’s”. When we stay within our grammatico-historical hermeneutic rather than forcing an external construct on the text, we come to a different conclusion–Paul is indeed exercising the judgment of charity with the church in Galatia as he does with all others in general. Rather than trying to go through God’s master list of the elect, Paul is giving the church at Galatia the benefit of the doubt. Calvin addresses this in his commentary on 2 Cor 1:4, which brings up a similar situation:

Paul, however, has something higher in view, for he argues that the Corinthians cannot be cast off, having been once called by the Lord into Christ’s fellowship. To apprehend fully, however, the force of this argument, let us observe first of all, that every one ought to regard his calling as a token of his election. Farther, although one cannot judge with the same certainty as to another’s election, yet we must always in the judgment of charity conclude that all that are called are called to salvation; I mean efficaciously and fruitfully. Paul, however, directed his discourse to those in whom the word of the Lord had taken root, and in whom some fruits of it had been produced. Should any one object that many who have once received the word afterwards fall away, I answer that the Spirit alone is to every one a faithful and sure witness of his election, upon which perseverance depends. This, however, did not stand in the way of Paul’s being persuaded, in the judgment of charity, that the calling of the Corinthians would prove firm and immovable, as being persons in whom he saw the tokens of God’s fatherly benevolence. These things, however, do not by any means tend to beget carnal security, to divest us of which the Scriptures frequently remind us of our weakness, but simply to confirm our confidence in the Lord. [my emphasis]

This is exactly one of the points where Federal Vision leaves the main track. When we preach, we don’t constantly try to preach differently to the elect and non-elect during every sermon. Personally, I usually end my exhortations with something like “And if anyone here today is not trusting in Christ…” followed by a short and clear gospel summary and charge. Through the rest of the exhortation, like Paul and Calvin, I exercise the judgment of charity in presenting the gospel with its promises and blessings. In fact, everyone I’ve heard preach in the Reformed community practices this.

No surprisingly, Paul often uses a similar technique to what I just described throughout his letters. One example is at Ephesians 4:20, 21:

But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus

Far from creating an artificial “covenantally elect”, Paul literally hammers home the reality of a “mixed body” of elect and non-elect within the church in 2 Tim 2:19-21:

Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.”
20 But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. 21 Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work. (NKJV)

It hardly seems that Paul under inspiration of the Spirit considers everyone in the visible church “covenentally elected”. Rather he call the non-elect vessels of wood and clay for dishonor. Calvin picks this up in his Institutes Book 4, Chapter 1, Section 8, commenting on how the Lord accommodates our finite knowledge, yet without needing to call the non-elect “covenantally elected”:

It is, indeed, the special prerogative of God to know those who are his, as Paul declares in the passage already quoted (2 Tim. 2:19). And doubtless it has been so provided as a check on human rashness, the experience of every day reminding us how far his secret judgments surpass our apprehension. For even those who seemed most abandoned, and who had been completely despaired of, are by his goodness recalled to life, while those who seemed most stable often fall. Hence, as Augustine says, “In regard to the secret predestination of God, there are very many sheep without, and very many wolves within” (August. Hom. in Joan. 45). For he knows, and has his mark on those who know neither him nor themselves. Of those again who openly bear his badge, his eyes alone see who of them are unfeignedly holy, and will persevere even to the end, which alone is the completion of salvation. On the other hand, foreseeing that it was in some degree expedient for us to know who are to be regarded by us as his sons, he has in this matter accommodated himself to our capacity. But as here full certainty was not necessary, he has in its place substituted the judgment of charity, by which we acknowledge all as members of the Church who by confession of faith, regularity of conduct, and participation in the sacraments, unite with us in acknowledging the same God and Christ. [my emphasis]

Again, we all practice this in our preaching/exhorting. Calvin identifies in this passage that our Lord provided an answer that doesn’t require a new category of the “covenentally elect” that require a “final justification.”

And what about the baptism part? Federal Vision would simply say that everyone baptized is “covenentally elected.” I love Calvin’s contrary explanation in his commentary which, though long, is quite profitable for understanding the importance of context as well as consistency across Scripture:

27. As many of you as have been baptized. The greater and loftier the privilege is of being the children of God, the farther is it removed from our senses, and the more difficult to obtain belief. He therefore explains, in a few words, what is implied in our being united, or rather, made one with the Son of God; so as to remove all doubt, that what belongs to him is communicated to us. He employs the metaphor of a garment, when he says that the Galatians have put on Christ; but he means that they are so closely united to him, that, in the presence of God, they bear the name and character of Christ, and are viewed in him rather than in themselves. This metaphor or similitude, taken from garments, occurs frequently, and has been treated by us in other places.

But the argument, that, because they have been baptized, they have put on Christ, appears weak; for how far is baptism from being efficacious in all? Is it reasonable that the grace of the Holy Spirit should be so closely linked to an external symbol? Does not the uniform doctrine of Scripture, as well as experience, appear to confute this statement? I answer, it is customary with Paul to treat of the sacraments in two points of view. When he is dealing with hypocrites, in whom the mere symbol awakens pride, he then proclaims loudly the emptiness and worthlessness of the outward symbol, and denounces, in strong terms, their foolish confidence. In such cases he contemplates not the ordinance of God, but the corruption of wicked men. When, on the other hand, he addresses believers, who make a proper use of the symbols, he then views them in connection with the truth — which they represent. In this case, he makes no boast of any false splendor as belonging to the sacraments, but calls our attention to the actual fact represented by the outward ceremony. Thus, agreeably to the Divine appointment, the truth comes to be associated with the symbols.

But perhaps some person will ask, Is it then possible that, through the fault of men, a sacrament shall cease to bear a figurative meaning? The reply is easy. Though wicked men may derive no advantage from the sacraments, they still retain undiminished their nature and force. The sacraments present, both to good and to bad men, the grace of God. No falsehood attaches to the promises which they exhibit of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Believers receive what is offered; and if wicked men, by rejecting it, render the offer unprofitable to themselves, their conduct cannot destroy the faithfulness of God, or the true meaning of the sacrament. “If any person receives nothing more than this bodily washing, which is perceived by the eyes of flesh, he has not put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” — Jerome. With strict propriety, then, does Paul, in addressing believers, say, that when they were baptized, they “put on Christ;” just as, in the Epistle to the Romans, he says,

“that we have been planted together into his death,
so as to be also partakers of his resurrection.”
(Romans 6:5.)

In this way, the symbol and the Divine operation are kept distinct, and yet the meaning of the sacraments is manifest; so that they cannot be regarded as empty and trivial exhibitions; and we are reminded with what base ingratitude they are chargeable, who, by abusing the precious ordinances of God, not only render them unprofitable to themselves, but turn them to their own destruction! [my emphasis]

Calvin hits the target right on. Baptism isn’t a magical spell that’s efficacious for all that undergo the sacrament. Baptism is the outward sign of uniting with Christ for the elect, but for the non-elect it is a symbol of their condemnation. This agrees with our Confession in 28.5:

Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptised are undoubtedly regenerated.

On this, Robert Shaw in his commentary on the Westminster Confession writes:

That baptism is not regeneration, nor are all who are baptised undoubtedly regenerated. That the baptism of water is regeneration, and that every person duly baptised is born again, is the doctrine of the Church of Rome; and this doctrine has been embraced by many in Protestant Churches, and receives too much countenance from the Liturgy of the Church of England. It is a very dangerous doctrine; and that it has no warrant from Scripture appears from the case of Simon Magus, who after baptism remained “in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.”—Acts viii. 13, 23. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, says: “I thank God that I baptised none of you, but Crispus and Gaius.” But if baptism be regeneration, his meaning must be: “I thank God that I regenerated none of you.” And could Paul really give thanks to God on this account? How absurd the idea! “Christ,” says he, “sent me not to baptise.” But can it be thought that Christ did not send the chief of the apostles to promote the great work of regeneration? Unquestionably Paul made a great difference between baptism and regeneration.

This same hermeneutic and reasoning applies throughout the New Testament–indeed all of Scripture. On Christ’s behalf, we freely offer the gospel to all, yet knowing that the gospel will only prove efficacious for the elect. Since we don’t have access to the Book of Life containing the list of all of Christ’s sheep, we must use the judgment of charity when offering the gospel. Is this hard work? You bet. But diligent and proper handling of the Scriptures is what the Lord demands of us, not creativity or innovation for which some have recently cried out.

For 400 years, the Reformed community has been offering the gospel to all with the appropriate judgment of charity, but remained clear that the promises and blessings in the mail belong only to the elect by God’s eternal decree. None of the apostles or other writers penned anything of a “covenentally elect” that require a “final justification”. With proper handling of the Scriptures, attention to the language, grammatical context, and historical setting, we can continue to proclaim sola fide, sola gratia, solo Christo, soli Deo gloria!

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