Posted by: reformedmusings | July 8, 2007

The Unregenerate In The Visible Church – Part 1

In my last post on John 15:2, I touched on the issue of assurance, contrasting the orthodox Reformed view with that of the Federal Vision. In order to limit the length of that post, I didn’t say all that I wished to say relative to the unregenerate in the visible church. I recalled the following written by Steve Wilkins in the book The Federal Vision (Monroe, Louisiana: Athanasius Press, 2004), “Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation” on page 62 concerning apostates from the visible church:

They may enjoy for a season the blessings of the covenant, including the forgiveness of sins, adoption, possession of the kingdom, sanctification, etc., and yet apostatize and fall short of the grace of God.

The unregenerate receiving forgiveness of their sins? Really? I missed that, along with the rest of the list presented on behalf of the unregenerate, both in the Scriptures and the Westminster Standards. I’ve been addressing some of these errors in the posts on this blog, contrasting the above view with orthodox confessional Reformed doctrine. I’ve also spent some time on the process from which these errors derive to show how utterly different the Federal Vision hermaneutic is from the orthodox Reformed historical-grammatico hermaneutic.

Let’s now contrast the paragraph quoted above, which summarizes the Federal Vision view nicely, with what Scripture and the early Reformers say about the unregenerate in the visible church. Specifically, I’d like to concentrate on some of Jesus’ parables.

First, let’s take the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 (ESV):

3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.

This is also one of the few parables that Jesus explains in detail:

18 Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately See he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

The Westminster Annotations note on Mt 13:23:

But one ground of four is fruitful; most hearers are fruitless.

We should harken this language back to John 15, which was exposited in this post. In fact, the Annotations do exactly that in the comment on verse 22:

As an unfruitful branch, John 15:2. But here it is to be noted that this passage ought to be understood of the outward incorporation into the Church by profession, whereof many hypocrites do partake, and not of the inward & efficacious ingrafting into the mystical body of Christ, by a lively faith and communion of the Spirit according to the election of God, which is ever accompanied with perseverance.

I love this note because it not only covers the meaning of ingrafting, but also refutes the Federal Vision position that perseverance and election aren’t necessarily inextricably tied. The Divines didn’t make that up, they read it in Romans 8:28-30 and Philippians 1:6 amongst many other places in the Scriptures.

Calvin makes an interesting observation about the explanation in Mt 13:18-23:

That we may derive the greater advantage from this warning, we ought to bear in mind, that he makes no mention of despisers who openly reject the word of God, but describes those only in whom there is some appearance of docility. But if the greater part of such men perish, what shall become of the rest of the world, by whom the doctrine of salvation is openly rejected?

In other words, the parable doesn’t discuss those whose shadow never darkens the church door, but applies to the membership of the visible church who willingly hear the Word preached.

Note that only the plants in good soil bear fruit. The good soil represents the hearts of the elect from the foundation of the world prepared by the irresistible regenerating work of the Holy Spirit to respond to the gospel with saving faith. The fruit serves as the outward manifestation of inner regeneration, setting the good soil plants apart from all others. Some good soil plants bear more fruit than others, but they all and they only bear fruit. Nor did any of the soil change its condition, the soil merely manifested its true condition in time. Of the soils, John Brown of Haddington writes in The Self-Interpreting Bible:

The stony ground denotes them who hear the gospel with some delightful conceptions of its glories, sudden flashes of joy in their affections, and some slight purposes and desires towards that which is good; but, their hearts never being savingly renewed, they do not receive it by faith and love….The thorny ground denotes them who hear the gospel with remarkable attention; and are so affected by it that, for a considerable time, they appear to make progress in the knowledge, profession, and practice of religion; but…they never attain to any true holiness of heart or life. The good ground denotes those hearers who receive the truths of the gospel into their hearts, renewed by the Spirit of God, and, through the daily influences of his grace, improve them to their spiritual fruitfulness in holy dispositions, thoughts, words, and actions, in different degrees. (my bold emphasis)

Again, only the elect receive any of the saving graces.

This parable is immediately followed by another illustration of the same concept–the Parable of the Wheat and Tares in Matthew 13:24-30 (ESV):

24 He put another parable before them, saying, The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds 1 among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds? 28 He said to them, An enemy has done this. So the servants said to him, Then do you want us to go and gather them? 29 But he said, No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.

The Parable of the Wheat and Tares (Weeds in the ESV) speaks clearly on the mixed body of the visible church. Here, Jesus tells us that the visible church will contain both the regenerate and unregenerate until He returns. As the footnote in the 1599 Geneva Bible on Matt 13:24 states:

Christ sheweth in another parable of the evil seed mixed with the good, that the Church shall never be free and quit from offences, both in doctrine and manners, until the day appointed for the restoring of all things to come, and therefore the faithful have to arm themselves with patience and constancy.

Some of the Westminster Divines later elaborated in the Annotations:

Christ sheweth in this Parable of the Wheat and Tares, or Weeds, that the visible Church, should ever unto the end of the world, have in it some good, some wicked Hypocrites, united only in external communion and profession of Religion, but no sound members of the Church, or Body of Christ;

On verse 25, the Annotations note that “among the Wheat] Not in the world abroad, but in the Church of God” by which the annotators always mean the invisible church.

On verse 26, the tares are described:

When such men first profess the true Religion, they so cunningly hide their principles in obscure terms, and veil their wickedness with shews of Holyness, that it cannot presently appear, who are good, and who are evil; but wicked to their height of maliciousness; an evident difference appeareth. So Chrysostome noteth the manner of the Heretics, at first, they overshadow themselves until they gain more confidence and assistance of popular favour and opinion; but then they pour out their venom with impudence undaunted; and so are known at last.

Like the parable of the sower, this parable makes no mention of anyone changing their status. Clearly, the reprobate in this story (metaphorically the tares) were never wheat or even partially wheat—they were always tares. The Annotations eloquently elaborate on the inherent difference. The owner in the parable (God the Father) knew exactly who they were but reserved His judgment until the harvest. Both received equal benefit from the owner’s common grace—soil, water, sun—yet the wheat and tares held divergent destinies from the start. The tares never were accorded any saving grace or benefits. As the Geneva Bible note shows, the analogy to the visible church was clearly held by the early Reformers. It would be absurd that the tares receive many of the same saving benefits as the wheat as Federal Vision proponents repeatedly insist. Indeed, John Brown describes the tares as:

The tares denote hypocritical professors or ministers; these Satan, especially in a time of prosperity, and when ministers and people are unwatchful, secretly raises up in the church, and causes gradually to discover themselves.

Lest anyone think that John Brown is being too harsh, 1 John 2:19 provides an equally graphic description:

18 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. 20 But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. (my emphasis)

On which the Annotations comment:

but they were not of us] Of us true believers, who cannot fall away, Matt 24:24; John 6:37 & 10:28,29,38,39; 2 Tim 2:19. Marvel not, nor be not troubled, that many forsake God’s Church. If they had been found members, they would never have done so. They were in the Church in body only, not in Spirit; and the Church loseth nothing by their departure, as corn loseth nothing when the chaff is gone (but is the purer,) nor the body, when bad humours are worn away.

“The Church loseth nothing by their departure, as corn loseth nothing when the chaff is gone…” Doesn’t sound to me like the apostle John or the Divines thought that the unregenerate in the visible church received any saving graces or have “possession of the kingdom” as the Federal Vision asserts. And since Scripture cannot contradict Scripture, it looks to me like the Reformers got it right. Federal Vision’s parallel but distinct theology from the Westminster Standards continues to come up short Scripturally and confessionally.

This post is already longer than I intended, yet I still have more to show on this subject. You can read Part 2 here.



  1. […] is because this is the fourth time that I’ve written on this topic. You can read the others here, here, and from the WLC here. Each one approaches the topic from a different vantage point and/or […]


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