Posted by: reformedmusings | July 8, 2007

The Unregenerate In The Visible Church – Part 2

In Part 1, we looked at some of Jesus’ parables in relation to the Federal Vision assertion of the unregenerate in 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 question at hand is if the unregenerate in the visible church receive any saving graces or benefits. We’ll continue on this line of inquiry with Luke13:23-28 (ESV):

23 And someone said to him, Lord, will those who are saved be few? And he said to them, 24 to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, open to us, then he will answer you, I do not know where you come from. 26 Then you will begin to say, We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets. 27 But he will say, I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil! 28 In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.

Dr. R. C. Sproul has called this the most frightening passage in the Bible. Think of it–those who thought themselves saved will find out otherwise at the last day. Here, Jesus makes it clear that many fool themselves, considering themselves saved yet don’t possess saving faith, as did the Jews of His days on earth. The 1599 Geneva Bible note at verse 26 rightly observes:

He is in vain in the Church, which is not of the Church, which thing the cleanness of life sheweth.

Calvin comments on verse 24:

For many will seek to enter This was added, that we might not be deceived by a vain hope, as if the multitude of our companions would be of any avail to us. The flesh is willing to flatter itself, and many who now give themselves every indulgence, promise to themselves an easy entrance into life. Thus men practice mutual deception on each other, and fall asleep in wicked indifference. To shake off from his own people those flattering hopes, Christ declares that those who calculate that their possession of life is already certain, will be shut out.

Here Christ and the Reformers observe that many in the visible church are not among the elect, though they vainly consider themselves so. The reprobate in the visible church “…ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.” Yet, “He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.” Their baptism will not save them, “covenant faithfulness” will not save them, only God’s saving grace granted through faith saves.

More directly on point, notice that Jesus does not say that He knew them for a time but they turned away. He doesn’t say that He forgave their sins, adopted, sanctified them, or shared His kingdom with them. Rather, He clearly states that He doesn’t know where they are from. Since He says in John 10 that He knows His sheep and not one was lost, these reprobate individuals in the visible church did not apostatize from saving graces, but rather they were always devoid of saving graces.

The passage that Federal Visionist use to defend the idea that God can forgive the unregenerates’ sin and yet still condemn them at the end is the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant at Matthew 18:23-35:

23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, Pay what you owe. 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, Have patience with me, and I will pay you. 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.

Is this really saying that God forgives even some of the sins of the regenerate but still condemns them at the end? Here’s Calvin on this passage:

As to the clause which immediately follows, it is foolish to inquire how God punishes those sins “how it is possible for God to punish.” which he has already forgiven; for the simple meaning is this: though he offers mercy to all, yet severe creditors, from whom no forgiveness can be obtained, are unworthy of enjoying it.

The Westminster Annotations go into a great deal more detail on verse 34 (long quote but worth it):

Compare this here with that which is said, v. 27. and it may be demanded, whether God ever recalls his pardon granted, or finally condemns that sinner, whom he had once forgiven: I answer,

1. As before, and elsewhere, parables are not overly curiously to be strained so as to make every particle to agree in the moral and explication thereof: similitudes they say, run not on four feet, they will go current if they agree in one, or few points according to the scope thereof, and intent of the speaker. So here this parable is to shew; 1. The uncharitable temerity of men, who would find mercy at Gods hand, but shew none to men for Gods sake, and at his command. 2. The vain hopes of malicious persons: without mercy shall they be judged, who shew not mercy before they are judged.

2. God seemeth to remit the sin, where he deferreth execution of the punishment, or where he diverteth a plague or punishment denounced, in things concerning this life; as we may see in the several plagues in execution on Pharaoh and his people, or threatened as in the example of Ahab, 1 King 21.19 and others, whose sins God forgave not; however the punishment temporal was either so diverted or deferred to the next life, that it became not exemplary in this.

3. The gifts and graces of God are ametameletos, Rom 11.29. Such as he never repenteth of, nor wholly recalleth; as in election, sanctification, remission of sins. Where the Scripture speaks of Gods repentance as, for giving the Kingdom to Saul, or the like, they descent to mans capacity therein: for properly God cannot repent, because he cannot erre who is omniscient, or mistake in his election so as to repent, or recall his own grant, foresaw the event of his giving. So that, as where God remitteth the guilt of one sin, he remitteth all; so to whomever he forgiveth sins, he forgiveth them forever; yet here, where the punishment is taken off; as in David may appear, 2 Sam 12.13, 18. 2 Sam 15. 2 Sam 23. but God never finally condemns that sinner, whom he had once forgiven.

The Greek transliterated as ametameletos above means irrevocable, without repentance. As the highlighted passage above says, God doesn’t forgive in part, nor does He condemn anyone He has forgiven. As the cited passage from Rom 11:29 says:

For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.

The Scriptures actively refute the Federal Vision assertion that God can forgive anyone’s sins or grant them any saving graces and then not persevere that individual to eternal life.

There are two more passages that I’d like to review. The first is Hebrews 6:4, which I’ll present in context:

4 For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.

9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.

On 6:4, Calvin writes in his commentary:

And that this may be better understood, let us suppose a contrast between the gifts of God, which he has mentioned, and this falling away. For he falls away who forsakes the word of God, who extinguishes its light, who deprives himself of the taste of the heavens or gift, who relinquishes the participation of the Spirit. Now this is wholly to renounce God. We now see whom he excluded from the hope of pardon, even the apostates who alienated themselves from the Gospel of Christ, which they had previously embraced, and from the grace of God; and this happens to no one but to him who sins against the Holy Spirit. For he who violates the second table of the Law, or transgresses the first through ignorance, is not guilty of this defection; nor does God surely deprive any of his grace in such a way as to leave them none remaining except the reprobate.

If any one asks why the Apostle makes mention here of such apostasy while he is addressing believers, who were far off from a perfidy so heinous; to this I answer, that the danger was pointed out by him in time, that they might be on their guard. And this ought to be observed; for when we turn aside from the right way, we not only excuse to others our vices, but we also impose on ourselves. Satan stealthily creeps on us, and by degrees allures us by clandestine arts, so that when we go astray we know not that we are going astray. Thus gradually we slide, until at length we rush headlong into ruin. We may observe this daily in many. Therefore the Apostle does not without reason forewarn all the disciples of Christ to beware in time; for a continued torpor commonly ends in lethargy, which is followed by alienation of mind.

But here arises a new question, how can it be that he who has once made such a progress should afterwards fall away? For God, it may be said, calls none effectually but the elect, and Paul testifies that they are really his sons who are led by his Spirit, (Romans 8:14) and he teaches us, that it is a sure pledge of adoption when Christ makes us partakers of his Spirit. The elect are also beyond the danger of finally falling away; for the Father who gave them to be preserved by Christ his Son is greater than all, and Christ promises to watch over them all so that none may perish. To all this I answer, That God indeed favors none but the elect alone with the Spirit of regeneration, and that by this they are distinguished from the reprobate; for they are renewed after his image and receive the earnest of the Spirit in hope of the future inheritance, and by the same Spirit the Gospel is sealed in their hearts. But I cannot admit that all this is any reason why he should not grant the reprobate also some taste of his grace, why he should not irradiate their minds with some sparks of his light, why he should not give them some perception of his goodness, and in some sort engrave his word on their hearts. Otherwise, where would be the temporal faith mentioned byMark 4:17? There is therefore some knowledge even in the reprobate, which afterwards vanishes away, either because it did not strike roots sufficiently deep, or because it withers, being choked up. (my bold emphasis)

Here Calvin alludes to the Parable of the Sower, as does the writer of Hebrews, tying the three unfruitful soils to the falling away in Hebrews 6:4. Neither regeneration, justification, adoption, nor sanctification is in view here in regards to the reprobate, as Calvin makes clear those belong to the elect alone. Indeed on the word “taste” in 6:4, the 1599 Geneva Bible notes say:

We must note the force of this word, for it is one thing to believe as Lydia did, whose heart God opened in Ac 16:13 and another thing to have some taste.

The Westminster Annotations comment on 6:5:

tasted] Have found sweetness in the Word of God, as Herod, Mark 6:20, and those who are compared to stony ground, Mark 4:16.

powers] The joys of heaven; as Balaam, Numb 23:10.

Note that neither Herod or Balaam were elect or received any saving graces according to Scripture, but Lydia was and did. There’s a clear contrast. No hint that the reprobate received any saving graces, just that they heard the Word preached or witnessed the power of God, perhaps in the means of grace, but did not possess those saving graces.

Lastly, look at the context in verse 9. While the writer was warning the elect about backsliding, he was yet confident that they would not. He is sure of their salvation. The writer’s warning, though pertinent, was not dire in the immediate case. In fact, he contrasts their possession of saving graces with the previous paragraph, indicating that with the possession of those graces was the assurance of their salvation. According to the Federal Vision as quoted at the top of this post, one can possess some saving graces and still not persevere–a concept totally foreign to this passage.

The last passage I wish to look at is Philippians 1:6, 7, the great passage on assurance for the elect:

6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.

Paul addressed his letter to the Philippians to the saints at Philippi, and spoke to them specifically as persevering in the faith in verses 6 and 7. Obviously, he can only say this of the elect of the invisible church, again tying perseverance to election as well as the saving graces which “began a good work in you”. These would be graces like justification, adoption, and sanctification. Paul describes these Hebrews as being partakers with him of grace, again showing the judgment of charity which he consistently uses in his letters. On this Calvin says in his commentary:

It is asked, however, whether any one can be certain as to the salvation of others, for Paul here is not speaking of himself but of the Philippians. I answer, that the assurance which an individual has respecting his own salvation, is very different from what he has as to that of another. For the Spirit of God is a witness to me of my calling, as he is to each of the elect. As to others, we have no testimony, except from the outward efficacy of the Spirit; that is, in so far as the grace of God shews itself in them, so that we come to know it. There is, therefore, a great difference, because the assurance of faith remains inwardly shut up, and does not extend itself to others. But wherever we see any such tokens of Divine election as can be perceived by us, we ought immediately to be stirred up to entertain good hope, both in order that we may not be envious towards our neighbors, and withhold from them an equitable and kind judgment of charity; and also, that we may be grateful to God. This, however, is a general rule both as to ourselves and as to others — that, distrusting our own strength, we depend entirely upon God alone. [emphasis added]

Calvin saw no problem with Paul exercising the judgment of charity when addressing the churches, and neither should we. There’s no need to invent a “covenantal election” to explain what has been plain since Paul’s day.

The framers of the Standards when commenting on verse 7 thought the same:

partakers of my grace] Or, partakers with me of grace; or, of the same grace with me. Ye are all partakers with me of the same grace and mercy of God, in your effectual calling

Peter carries on with this theme and approach in his first letter in 1:4,5:

to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Note again that Paul and Peter wrote to the elect–members of the invisible church–in the here and now, not to some mythical, future eschatological church as the Federal Vision teaches. The invisible church may not be complete today, but it exists in part today and all the elect today are an integral part of it–this very day.

We’ve not even come close to examining all the passages that show the errors of the Federal Vision teaching in just this area alone. Even with this small sample, we can see that there is no Scriptural warrant for the Federal Vision paragraph at the top of this post and the theology that spawned it. Worse for the Federal Vision, everywhere we turn we find that Scripture, when properly interpreted with the orthodox Reformed historical-grammatico hermaneutic and the analogy of faith, refutes their errors head-on.

As we’ve seen in these two posts and many others on this blog and others like greenbaggins and the Heidelblog, we stand in good company with the Scriptures and the early Reformers when we say that there are no “covenentally elect” that receive the saving graces of forgiveness of sins, justification, adoption, possession of the kingdom, and sanctification, but not perseverance, through a mythical “objective covenant”. While the reprobate derive benefits from membership in the visible church such as hearing the Word preached, witnessing the power of God in the means of grace, some protection from the depravity of the outside world as the early Reformers and Westminster Divines have pointed out, the reprobate receive no saving benefits whatsoever without God’s election in His eternal decree and His effectual calling–but then they’d be regenerate, eh?

The unregenerate have no assurance at all, least of all from membership in the visible church. That would be silly on the face of it, since they will all apostatize sooner or later. Even the Federal Visionists admit that much. As we’ve seen in the many citations, the early Reformers and Divines had a name for the reprobate in the visible church–that would be hypocrites, not “covenentally elect”. We do an incredible disservice to the gospel and to the reprobate when offering false assurance, whether based on baptism or church membership or anything else, to those who have none. Nor is it pastoral. The promises of God can only and ever be claimed and possessed by His elect, and all to His glory.



  1. […] 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 cites […]


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