Thursday, March 13, 2008

All in the Family

A Primer on Covenantal Objectivity and Apostasy

The relatively recent controversy in Reformed circles over the “Federal Vision” is complicated and involves disagreement over a number of issues. One of the broader issues has been termed the “objectivity of the covenant.” Who are the members of the new covenant, and what if anything do they receive by virtue of their membership in the covenant (i.e., without regards to how faithful they are toward God)? How does God relate to the “visible” Church, and in particular to those who are in the Church but who are not faithful to Him? Intimately related to this is the issue of apostasy from the covenant. When a non-elect (using the Westminster Confession sense of the term ‘elect’) individual who is a Church member falls away, what if anything has he lost? Was he ever really in covenant with God to begin with? Was he ever really a Christian?

In this essay, I would like to address these broad issues without going into much detail. What follows will therefore be a somewhat extended outline of covenantal objectivity and apostasy along with some discussion of common criticisms of these ideas.

In Reformed circles, it is common for us to make strong and clear distinctions within the covenant between the “elect” and the “reprobate.” The former are often said to be in the covenant “internally” while the later are only in it “externally.” Particular Baptists, whom I think are more consistent at this point, only distinguish between those who are in the covenant and those who are not. If one is in the covenant (or in it “internally”), it is because he has been elected to eternal life. He can never finally fall away. On the other hand, if someone is not part of the elect, he will never be in covenant with God. And if someone does leave the Church after having professed faith, this just proves that he never had “true” faith to begin with. He was never really in the covenant – never in it internally. He may have been in the “sphere” of the covenant and may have seen some “common operations of the Spirit” but he was never truly nourished by the covenantal grace of God.

It is not difficult to see why we say these kinds of things. We do this in order to protect the integrity and truth of our decretal doctrines, most noticeably the “five points of Calvinism.” But I believe this is both unnecessary and problematic. Our overzealous hedging of these doctrines is unnecessary because the doctrines of covenantal objectivity and apostasy need not contradict Reformed decretal doctrines and it is problematic because we have a habit of defining systematic terms and ideas in ways that lead to deductions which work against numerous and explicit statements of Scripture.

The thesis of this essay is that the Bible has some rather shocking things (to Reformed ears anyway) to say about members of the “visible” Church and in particular about those who fall away from the new covenant. I believe the Bible predicates far more of the reprobate in terms of covenant status and gifts than we do.

The Objectivity of the Covenant: A Systematic Summary

The NT forcefully states that all visible Church members, not just those who will persevere to eternal life, are in covenant with God and have been given the status, gifts, and grace that pertain to it. They are all His people and He graciously showers them with many gifts. The following lists help to show this.

Salutations, Names, and Titles Applied to Those in the Visible Covenant (i.e., Who They Are):
Christians: Acts 11:26
Beloved of God: Rom. 1:7
Saints: Rom. 1:7; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1
Saints and faithful brethren: Col. 1:2
Brethren: Rom. 8:12; 12:1; I Cor. 3:1; 10:1; II Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:12; Gal. 1:11; 3:15; I Thess. 1:4
Holy brethren: Heb. 3:1
Those sanctified in Jesus and called saints: I Cor. 1:2
The body of Christ: Rom. 12:4, 5; I Cor. 12:27
The Church of God: I Cor. 1:2; II Cor. 1:1; I Thess. 2:14
Church in God and Jesus: I Thess. 1:1
The holy, Spirit-indwelt temple of God: I Cor. 3:16, 17; II Cor. 6:16
Sons of God: Gal. 3:26; 4:6; Heb. 12:5-7
Abraham’s seed: Rom. 4:1; Gal. 3:29 w/ v. 27
Children of the (Abrahamic) promise: Gal. 4:28
Members of the household of faith: Gal. 6:10
Followers of the apostles and of the Lord: I Thess. 1:6
Spiritual house and holy priesthood: I Pet. 2:5
Chosen generation, holy nation, and special people of God: I Pet. 2:9, 10

How They Received This Status:
Disciples are made by being baptized into (eis) the Triune God and by being taught: Matt. 28:19
The are baptized into Jesus and His death and thereby united to Him: Rom. 6:3-5
They are baptized by the Spirit into the body (of Christ, cf. 1 Cor. 12:27) and thus drink of the Spirit: I Cor. 12:13
They were circumcised by being buried and raised with Christ in baptism: Col. 2:11, 12
As many as are “baptized into Christ have put on Christ”: Gal. 3:27

What They Have Objectively Been Given by Virtue of Their Covenant Membership:
God purchased the specific congregation at Ephesus with His own blood: Acts 20:28
A calling of Jesus Christ: Rom. 1:6
God’s love: Rom. 5:8
Christ died for: Rom. 5:8; 8:32; Eph. 5:2
The Spirit’s intercession: Rom. 8:26
Christ’s intercession: Rom. 8:34
Mercy: Rom. 11:30, 31
Grace: Rom. 12:6; II Cor. 8:1
“[enrichment] in everything by Him… so that you come short in no gift…”: I Cor. 1:4-6
The Spirit of God: I Cor. 2:12
All things: I Cor. 3:21, 22
Belong to Christ: I Cor. 3:23
Begotten through the gospel to be “beloved children” of Paul: I Cor. 4:14, 15
Mosaic and Davidic promises to be God’s people/children and have Him dwell w/ them: II Cor. 6:16 – 7:1
Jesus gave Himself for their sins: Gal. 1:4
Called by the grace of Christ: Gal. 1:6
A beginning in the Spirit: Gal. 3:3; 5:7
They had been “known by God”: Gal. 4:9
Blessed with every spiritual blessing: Eph. 1:3
Predestined to holiness and adoption as sons: Eph. 1:4, 5
Redemption and forgiveness of sins: Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; 3:13
Life from the dead: Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13
Salvation: Eph. 2:8
Members of the household of God: Eph. 2:19
Members of the holy temple of the Lord: Eph. 2:21, 22
Qualified to partake of the inheritance of the saints: Col. 1:12
Deliverance from the power of darkness into the kingdom: Col. 1:13
Election: Col. 3:12; I Thess. 1:4; I Pet. 1:2
The Holy Spirit: I Thess. 4:8 (keep in mind that Saul received the Spirit but was later abandoned by Him)
Chosen for salvation: II Thess. 2:13
Partakers of a heavenly calling: Heb. 3:1
Membership in the city of God, the New Jerusalem, the Church with Jesus as its mediator: Heb. 12:22-24
Sprinkled by Jesus’ blood: Heb. 12:22-24 (cf. Heb. 10:29)
Enlightenment: Heb. 10:32
Sanctification by Jesus’ offering of Himself: Heb. 10:10
Rebirth: I Pet. 1:1-3
Redemption by the blood of Christ: I Pet. 1:18, 19
Christ’s atonement for sins: I Pet. 2:24
All things pertaining to life and godliness through the knowledge of God: II Pet. 1:3

What They Have That Can Be Lost, Fallen From, or Abandoned:
Hears the “word of the kingdom” and “receives it with joy”: Matt. 13:18-21
Kingdom of heaven is like a man whose debt (i.e., sin) was forgiven but he was unforgiving so he was delivered to “the torturers” (i.e., hell) until he paid his whole debt. “So My heavenly Father also will do to you [if you are unforgiving].”: Matt. 18:21-35
Life from the word of God: Luke 8:4-7, 11, 13
The kingdom of God: Matt. 21:43
Faith/belief: “Believe for a while” (Luke 8:13); Simon “believed” “the word,” “things concerning the kingdom of God,” and “the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:4, 9-25); it is possible to “believe in vain” and thus not be saved (I Cor. 15:2); some had strayed from a “sincere faith” (I Tim. 1:5-7, “sincere faith”, cf. II Tim. 1:5); some thrust away faith and thus made shipwreck of their faith (I Tim. 1:18-20); some had strayed from “the faith” (I Tim. 4:1; 6:10); “overthrow the faith of some” (II Tim. 2:18)
Being in Christ: John 15:1-10
Being graphed into the covenant and being partakers of the root and fatness of it: Rom. 11:16-22
“One for whom Christ died” can be destroyed by causing him to go against conscience: Rom. 15:15
Communion w/ body and blood of Christ: I Cor. 10:1-12, 16, 17 (just as those who died under judgment in the wilderness partook of Christ)
Beginning in the Spirit: Gal. 3:1-5 (cf. Gal. 5:1-4)
“The liberty by which Christ has made us free”: Gal. 5:1-4
Grace: Gal. 5:1-4
Reconciliation to God can be lost if one doesn’t continue in the faith: Col. 1:21-23
Some had strayed from a pure heart: I Tim. 1:5-7 (“pure heart”, cf. Matt. 5:8; 2 Tim. 2:22; Heb. 10:22)
Some had strayed from or thrust away a “good conscience”: I Tim. 1:5-7; 1:18-20 (“good conscience”, cf. Acts 23:1; 1 Pet. 3:16, 21)
“Departing from the living God”: Heb. 3:12
Enlightenment: Heb. 6:4 (“enlightened,” cf. Heb. 10:32-34; Eph. 1:18)
“Tasted the heavenly gift”: Heb. 6:4 (“tasted” means to partake of, cf. Heb. 2:9)
“Partakers of the Holy Spirit”: Heb. 6:4 (“partakers,” cf. Heb. 3:1, 14)
“Tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come”: Heb. 6:5 (“tasted”, cf. Heb. 2:9)
Repentance: Heb. 6:6
Having Christ’s crucifixion applied to them: Heb. 6:6
Receives “blessing from God”: Heb. 6:7
“The knowledge of the truth”: Heb. 10:26
“A sacrifice for sins”: Heb. 10:26
Sanctification by the blood of Christ: Heb. 10:29 (sanctify, cf. Heb. 2:11; 10:10-14; 13:12)
Cleansing from sin: II Pet. 1:9
Being bought by the Lord: II Pet. 2:1 (bought, cf. Acts 20:28; I Cor. 6:19, 20; 7:23; Rev. 5:9; 14:3, 4)
Go astray from “the right way”: II Pet. 2:15
Entangled again after escaping from pollutions of the world through the knowledge of Christ: II Pet. 2:20
“Known the way of righteousness”: II Pet. 2:21
“Beware lest you fall from your own steadfastness”: II Pet. 3:17
“Your first love”: Rev. 2:4, 5
One’s name in the Book of Life: Rev. 3:4, 5; 22:19 in the AV (cf. Ps. 69:28)
Christ’s love: Rev. 3:14-16, 19

These lists are forceful enough for the many themes they contain. The NT predicates many things of Church members in general that I have only ever heard predicated of “true believers,” “the truly regenerate,” or “the elect” in Reformed circles. I’m still enough of a rationalist and a “TR” to be made nervous and uncomfortable by a few of the things that the NT casually predicates of all Church members. It is clear that our system defines terms and gives grace/gifts far more restrictively than does the NT.

But apart from the specific points made by the various items on these lists, a systematic point can also be made. When it comes to the question of how God relates to His covenanted people (and the sub topics of covenantal objectivity and apostasy), there is basic continuity between the old covenants and the new covenant. From these lists, we can point out some of the major themes where there is general continuity between the OT and the NT:

Abraham’s seed
The circumcision (Phil. 3:3)
Being clean (II Pet 1:9 vs. OT cleanings)
Quotes from the OT used in the NT (I Pet. 2:9, 10)
Holy people
Church of God / Assembly of Yahweh
Vine/olive tree/garden
Israel/new Israel
Adoption into the family (Rom. 9:4)
Known by God (Amos 3:2; Gal. 4:9)
God’s love
Being “sacramentalized” into the covenant head (I Cor. 10)
Partaking of the covenant meal(s)
Priestly people
Having a sacrifice for sin
Having the same promises in NT as in OT: God dwells w/ them and sons of God (II Cor. 6:16 – 7:1)
Temple of God
Restored house of David (Acts 15)
Membership in the city of God (Heb. 12)

The astute observer will notice that we have just listed, in order, many of the major themes that make up the three major old covenants – the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants. These themes are developed and fulfilled in the NT and they are applied to the whole new covenant Assembly of God (the “visible” Church) just as they were applied to the whole OT assembly. Their fulfillment is not reserved solely for those who persevere to eternal life but for all of those brought into the covenant community. In this way, the NT applies these themes the same way the OT does – visibly and “objectively.”

Thus, the NT casually and consistently assumes a fundamental continuity between the OT and NT when it comes to how God relates to all of His chosen people (including those who are unfaithful). If God had wanted to show a fundamental discontinuity between the two testaments at this point by saying that the OT was “external” and “objective” while the NT is “internal”, “subjective,” and only for those who are foreordained to persevere to final glory, we would be forced to conclude that He had done an awfully poor job of it. Not only does the NT make all manner of “objective” statements regarding what all NC members are given, it seems to make a repeated point of linking these gifts with the very themes applied to the visible community under the old covenants.

The Objectivity of the Covenant: A Narrative Approach

In this section, I want to present some of the previous material in a different format. What follows are summaries of three NT books with respect to the subject of this essay. The previous material is presented in a rather general and systematic way. The following should help complement that approach by focusing on specific congregations and by summarizing their situations according to the way they are described by the biblical text.

I Corinthians:

Paul began by calling the Corinthian congregation the “church of God” – those sanctified in Jesus and called saints (1:2). He thanked God for the grace that He had given to them and that because of this grace, they had been “enriched in everything by Him… so that [they came] short in no gift…” (1:4-6). Paul also called them “brethren” numerous times (e.g., 3:1; 10:1). He reminded them that they were the holy, Spirit-indwelt temple of God (I Cor. 3:16, 17). And later in his letter, Paul also reminded them that they were all baptized by the Spirit into the one body and had thus been made to drink the one Spirit (12:13). Therefore they were all members of the body of Christ (12:27) and they all had communion with Christ (10:16, 17). They had received the gospel and they stood in it (15:1).

But these were the same people that Paul had to harshly criticize because of a number of serious problems such as sectarianism, a lack of discipline, and abuse of the Eucharist. These problems called for stern warnings and a comparison between the gentile Corinthians and Israel in the wilderness. The Corinthians’ Jewish fathers (the Corinthians had, after all, really been adopted into the one family) had been baptized into Moses and had partaken of the same spiritual food: Christ. And yet their bodies were scattered in the wilderness because they had been unfaithful. They had been given important and efficacious gifts but had squandered them in unbelief and so were judged. So even with all of the gifts that the Corinthians had been given, their situation was not unique. They were in fact in a situation quite comparable with their Jewish fathers when it came to the topic of the loss of spiritual gifts. And the same condemnation could fall on them if they chose to squander the gracious gifts given to them. They should therefore heed the example Paul cited – an example that was written for their admonition (10:1-11).

Yet even though their behavior was rebellious, Paul was still quite comfortable with strong affirmations of their real, substantial, and full covenant membership and participation in Christ. In fact, it is just because of their full, objective status that Paul could then apply the intimate “family” rebukes and warnings to them. Those who are outside of Christ and “strangers to the covenants of promise” do not provoke the Lord to jealousy (cf. 10:22; II Cor. 11:2). God is not cheated on or betrayed by those not united to Him.


The Galatian Christians had begun well and in the Spirit (3:3; 5:7). They formed real churches (1:2). They had been called by the grace of Christ (1:6) who gave Himself for their sins and to rescue them from an evil age (1:4). Paul thought of them as “brothers” (1:11; 3:15). They were all baptized into Christ (3:27) and were therefore sons of God (3:26; 4:6). They were children of the promise (4:28) and members of the household of faith (6:10). They had been “known by God” (4:9).

And yet Paul had doubts about them (4:20) and called them “foolish” and “bewitched” (3:1) because they had been duped into thinking that they needed to go under the Mosaic covenant in order to be faithful to God. Such a move would have been a grave sin. It would have meant that they were denying that Jesus fulfilled and transformed the old covenants such that there is now neither Jew nor Greek, circumcision nor uncircumcision. They had already been baptized into Christ and therefore had the fullness of covenantal grace. It is just because they really had what Paul ascribed to them that a denial of Christ’s work by them would have been an estrangement from Christ and a real fall from real grace (5:2-4). One can not fall from a place one was never at.


The recipients of the epistle to the Hebrews were “holy brethren” who were “partakers of a heavenly calling” (3:1). They were the sons of God and were treated as such (12:5-7). They were members of the city of God, the New Jerusalem. This is to say, they were members of the Church with Jesus as its mediator (12:22-24). They were receiving the unshakable kingdom (12:28).

Their calling gave them access to the promise of the eternal inheritance (9:15), for Jesus appeared before the face of God for them (6:17-20; 9:24). They were the beloved who had shown the fruit of good works (6:9, 10). They had been “enlightened” (10:32) and sanctified by Jesus’ self-offering (10:10). In other words, they had been sprinkled by His blood (12:22-24). Thus, they had boldness to enter into the holy place by that blood (10:19, 20). Because they were part of the house of God with Jesus as its priest, they could draw near to God (10:21, 22).

And even though they had all of this (or rather, because they had all of this), they still needed to persevere. They needed to give heed to what they had heard lest they drift away from all that they had been given (2:1). For if the judgment for OT covenantal apostasy was sure, the judgment for apostasy from the great salvation of the new covenant will surely come (2:2, 3). The recipients were compared to those who fell in the wilderness (3; 4). Unlike those who fell due to unbelief, they had indeed entered God’s rest (4:3). But they still needed to be diligent to enter that rest so that they would not fall according to the OT example (4:11). Thus, they needed to beware of unbelief – something that can cause one to depart from the living God (3:13).

For it is possible for someone to be enlightened, to have tasted of the heavenly gift, to be partakers of the Holy Spirit, to be repentant, and to have Christ’s crucifixion applied to him and yet fall away from all of these blessings (6:4-8). If the Hebrews were to abandon Christ in this way, they would no longer have a sacrifice for sins (10:26). Covenantal adultery under the old covenant brought strong retribution, but apostasy from the new covenant would be a greater betrayal (not a lesser one) and would therefore bring a more severe judgment. To whom much is given, much is required, and the Hebrews had been sanctified by the blood of the new and better covenant. Betrayal of this would come at a very high price (10:26-29).

The Judgment of Charity View

One way that this huge amount of material has been viewed (some would say “brushed aside”) in the Reformed world is by way of a “judgment of charity.” The thought is that when a writer addresses a group of people in the Church (e.g., a congregation), it makes sense to write to them as if they are who they claim to be – Christians. And surely it was the case in NT times that most of them were. Thus, the biblical writers made a “judgment of charity” with regarding to any specific individual within the group to whom he was writing. This individual claimed to be a Christian and he was part of a group of Christians so he was addressed as such. But if it turned out later that he showed himself to be unfaithful – to be an unbeliever – then we can revise our initial judgment with regard to this person and say based on better evidence that he was not a Christian after all. He was baptized, he was with Christians, and he claimed to be a Christian, but he was an impostor. On this view then, Christian principles led the NT writers to accept someone’s credible profession of faith at face value. But if that person later showed himself to be an unbeliever, the writers could revise that judgment and say that he was not really a covenant member after all. He was simply a fraud. And we know this because we know that true faith/salvation/etc. cannot be lost.

So what is wrong with viewing the statements made of new covenant members as “judgments of charity” (JOC)? To begin with, such an explanation is never explicitly taught. The biblical writers never use this concept/language by saying that it is only presumed that covenant members have such and such a status or such and such gifts/graces. Instead, they directly say who these people are (i.e., their “status”) and what they have been given. The JOC view is obviously quite important to some versions of Reformed systematics. If it were as important to the overall biblical message and if the biblical writers were really writing all of their letters/comments based on a tentative and revisable assumption, one would think that they would at least occasionally mention this fact. But they never do.

The writers do not say that they merely assume their audience members are holy, brethren, members of the Church of God, members of the New Jerusalem, etc. They do not tell them that they may have been baptized into Christ (and Jesus did not tell the apostles to baptize people in the hopes that they would be in Him). They do not tell them that they may have various promises and gifts but only if they have been “truly converted.” Over and over again, the writers plainly tell many people who they are and what they have been given. Notice that at this point, I’m not claiming that the JOC could have no biblical justification at all or that it could not even be inferred as a “good and necessary consequence.” But the point here is that this crucially important and far reaching concept is not held because its supporters found four or five clear examples where the principle itself is explicitly mentioned and described. Rather, the concept is generally held because it is thought to be a logically necessary arbiter between two lines of biblical data that seem to run counter to one another (i.e., covenantal objectivity on the one hand and some Reformed systematic doctrines such as the five points on the other hand).

Unfortunately, this arbitration is quite one-sided. To see this, we can think of all of the passages that teach on God’s exhaustive sovereignty and foreordination along with all of the passages that teach on man’s volitional choices and moral responsibility. There appears to be a real tension here, but the typical Reformed answer is that the two sets of passages are in fact compatible. It is the Arminian view that tries to remove the tension by effectively eviscerating God’s sovereignty through various qualifications and explanations. The Reformed community holds both concepts to be equally true and rejects the idea that there is a contradiction between them but it does not try to supply an exhaustive description of the mechanics of how the two concepts relate. The JOC attempts to explain a different tension, but as with the Arminian view just mentioned, it can only do so by cutting the legs out from under one (quite full) line of biblical data. Instead of defending both lines, one is protected by the sacrifice of the other. And yet this rather one-sided solution has not come about because it seems clearly to be taught in Scripture but rather because some think that it is logically necessary and because they do not know of anything else that will accomplish the “tension-removing” task. This is a very slender thread with which to hold and wield a rather tendentious and truncating hermeneutical weapon, especially one with such a wide purview. We should therefore be very slow to adopt and apply such a principle. Its prima facie plausibility is low.

But the JOC only loses plausibility when we focus in on the shear volume of material it would need to address. The JOC would be much more plausible if the Bible usually talked about covenantal status and gifts in third person language (e.g., the elect are holy, the truly converted have been given this and that) and only rarely talked about these things in the second person (e.g., you are saints, you have been baptized into Christ, you have been given this and that). In that case, the JOC would explain a few apparent exceptions in terms of the language of that which was the norm. But the Bible constantly speaks of these things in the second person and it does so using a variegated raft of terms, phrases, and even arguments. This is hardly an exception; it is the norm. If we find that we must qualify the norm out of existence, our system is in serious need of revision.

Things only get worse for the JOC when we note that the Bible links the status of covenant members with their privileges and responsibilities. Perhaps a JOC can be consistent with simple salutations or names, but when the Bible actually spends several sentences recording that people have been baptized into the body and thus have this or that privilege/responsibility, the JOC loses what little appeal it had left. How can one tell a child that he has the responsibility as a member of the family to take out the trash if his adoption into the family was really a JOC? Was he actually adopted into the family or not? If not, then the rest of the sentence – his privileges, responsibilities, etc. – become non sequiturs. We can’t have our cake and eat it too by telling him that he definitely has the responsibility of a family member but that it is only a JOC that he has the raison d’etre of that responsibility – actual adoption into the family.

Additionally, the JOC is not even applicable to much of the biblical data mentioned above. Once again, if the Bible went no further than salutations or simple, second person statements made to undifferentiated groups, a JOC with respect to any given individual within those groups would have some plausibility. But when the Bible tells us that a specific individual such as Simon Magus had faith, the JOC cannot apply even in theory. We are no longer talking about something said of a group that is true for most of its members but that may not be true for some (and we don’t know who those people would be). We are talking about something that is directly predicated of a specific individual. It is either true of him or it is not, and the Bible tells us that it is true. There is no ignorance here for which we must make an assumption.

Moreover, there are straightforward, generalized, didactic statements listed above where the JOC cannot apply. If I say to a group gathered in an auditorium, “I’m glad to see all of you ticket holders here tonight for this wonderful concert,” the JOC could have applicability. I am addressing a group in the second person by assuming that everyone in attendance has a ticket for the concert. But it is possible that a few people slipped into the auditorium without paying for tickets. If I found them during the intermission and had them thrown out, I could then revise my JOC with respect to these particular people. I now know that these individuals were in the group of ticket holders but they themselves did not have tickets. But third person, didactic propositions such as “Ticket holders can show their tickets at the concession stand for a free drink” cannot be candidates for a JOC. Such a statement is not a generalization addressed to a mixed group; it is a direct predication of anyone who is part of the subject. Biblical statements of this type include “Some hear the word of the kingdom, receive it with joy, and believe for a while,” “Branches that are in Christ but fail to bear fruit will be cast out,” “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” and “Some have tasted the heavenly gift”. Statements such as these are not subject to a JOC even in theory because they are statements of fact made about anyone in the subject group.

The Bible also discusses many specific gifts that can be lost. Obviously, the JOC is inapplicable here as well. It would simply make no sense to say that I am making a JOC with regard to the nature of some gift. The JOC is a principle used to address our ignorance regarding some individual within a group. The group in general has quality X but some specific individual may or may not have it. We don’t know for sure. But the Bible’s statements regarding gifts that can be lost are very different statements. They have nothing to do with our ignorance of an individual within a group. They are straightforward statements of fact about quality X. We do not need to know anything about any specific individual because individuals are not part of the subject of the statement. The quality itself is the subject and there is no ignorance regarding its nature.

Finally, if the JOC were true and ubiquitous throughout the NT, the universal answer to apostasy would be that apostates never had anything significant to begin with. We thought they were “in” but they later showed that they were still pagans. But numerous passages that address apostasy say the very opposite. In fact, the judgments described by them are predicated on the fact that what was said of the apostates was actually true. The basis of the judgment for adultery/treason was just that those judged really were part of God’s wife/nation and that they abandoned real gifts/grace. When parallels are drawn or when arguments are made in these passages (e.g., I Cor. 10; Heb. 10), they absolutely require that the apostates actually had what was predicated of them. If there was only a “judgment of charity,” the arguments would turn into rather bizarre non sequiturs. But the biblical statements regarding what apostate covenant members lose are not speculative judgments capable of being revised. These states are quite clear: the apostates actually had these gifts and they actually squandered them, and such treason is the very basis for their harsh punishment.

In short, the JOC is a manifestly tendentious and systematically driven hermeneutical weapon, it is not directly taught by the Bible, it can not do justice to the shear volume of certain ways in which the Bible speaks/teaches, it cannot make sense of familial responsibilities, it is not even applicable to many biblical statements regarding the objectivity of the covenant, and it is contradicted by the arguments and assumptions related to apostates and their judgment. There is no way to be charitable to the JOC. It simply doesn’t work.

The Hypothetical Warnings View

There is another view in Reformed circles that I believe has the effect of downplaying the force of the new covenant “warning passages” (and thus, it downplays the objectivity of the covenant). This view states that the new covenant warnings are “hypothetical.” This is to say that the warnings accurately describe what would happen if apostasy were to occur, but in reality, we know that such apostasy does not or can not occur because of doctrines such as the perseverance of the saints. We are therefore told that the point of the warning passages is to be a means by which God keeps His elect from actually doing what the passages describe. So the passages are not irrelevant or useless. While the content of the passages – the apostasy – can not occur, the passages themselves are used by God to sanctify and preserve His elect.

I do not have any problem with the “warnings-as-a-means-of-encouraging-faithfulness” part of this explanation. I have no doubt that God’s warnings are in fact one way by which He keeps some people faithful to Him. But the “hypothetical” part of this explanation cannot be true because a number of the major NT warnings are not simply warnings. They are warnings that draw direct parallels with situations where people had in fact apostatized. God did not simply say, “This is what would happen if someone were to fall away.” He said, “If you fall away, I will judge you like I judged these other apostates on whom I had shown grace and showered with many gifts.” There was nothing hypothetical about the apostasy of the Jews in the wilderness and there was nothing hypothetical about the Jews in the 1st Century whom the Roman Christians saw cut out of the covenant. And the warnings given to the Christians drew direct and explicit parallels between the situations of those Jews and the situation of the Christians. Thus, there was nothing hypothetical about their situation. The warnings given to the Christians were just as real as those given to the Jews. Faith believes the warnings and trembles. It is covenantal presumption (e.g., “Abraham is our father,” Luke 3:8; John 8:39) that tries to brush them off as hypothetical but impossible.

We can also note an interesting contrast. Some who hold to the hypothetical warnings view try to draw a major contrast between the old covenant and the new covenant at this point. They admit that real apostasy from the old covenant was possible and did occur but they claim that things are different under the new covenant. Such apostasy is not possible now because the new covenant is unbreakable; it is only made with the eschatologically elect.

Yet at the very place where this view tries to draw a stark contrast, the NT warnings draw a direct parallel. Far from being unlike the old covenant when it comes to the subject of apostasy, the new covenant is very much like it. To the Corinthian Christians for example, Paul wrote that the Jews in the wilderness had the same spiritual gifts and yet they fell away. Thus, the punch line was that the Corinthians should take heed and learn from this example which was written in Scripture for them. Their situation was directly analogous to and comparable with the Jews in the wilderness. They had the covenant gifts but they too could fall. Paul also told the gentile Roman Christians not to be presumptuous or they would be cut out of the covenant tree just like the natural Jewish branches that had been cut out. In the letter to the Hebrews, we are even given something more. It is not just that there is a parallel drawn with those under the old covenant. Several times, an a fortiori argument is constructed. Thus, we are told that the judgment for apostasy from the new covenant would be much more severe than was the judgment for apostasy from the old covenant. Not only is NT apostasy possible and not only is it like OT apostasy, it is actually OT apostasy on steroids.

Thus, at the very place where some try to draw a strong contrast, the NT draws a strong parallel and even goes beyond that parallel. Under the old covenant, apostasy was adultery. Some would have us believe that such adultery cannot really occur under the new covenant because those united to Christ cannot betray Him. Those who do abandon Christianity, it is therefore claimed, were never really Christians at all. So instead of adultery, their crime has been lowered to spiritual fornication coupled with misrepresentation (identity theft, perhaps?). Yet the NT says the very opposite. Not only is betrayal of the new covenant like that of the old covenants, it is actually worse: adultery on steroids as it were. To whom much is given, much is required. Non-elect (in the Westminster Confession sense of ‘elect’) members of the new covenant have not been given less than non-elect members of the old covenant, they have been given more. This is precisely why the warning language in the NT is so strong.

This stark difference can be summarized from another angle: the way in which conclusions are drawn. Some rightly note that the gifts given under the new covenant are “greater” than those given under the old covenant. This supposedly leads to the fact that the new covenant is unbreakable. Therefore, “true” believers cannot fall away, and those who do fall away never had any real or significant covenant status/gifts to begin with. So they need to repent and believe for the first time so that they may become Christians for the first time. But the Book of Hebrews draws the opposite conclusion. All of its early chapters are given over to arguing that the new covenant in Jesus is superior to and a fulfillment of the old covenants. But far from drawing conclusions regarding the impossibility of apostasy from such a superior covenant, the book concludes that such apostasy is not only possible but is actually worse than apostasy from the old covenants. Some hypothetical warnings supporters look at the newness and greatness/superiority of the new covenant and conclude that it is so great that one cannot fall from it. But the book of Hebrews tell us that because of the newness and greatness of the new covenant, there can be such a fall and that it would be much worse than apostasy in the old age. The difference is striking.


So where does all of this leave us? Has this essay denied any meaningful notion of Reformed doctrines such as limited atonement and perseverance of the saints? No, but it does argue against simplistic, reductionistic versions of such doctrines. I have often seen (and been one of) those in Reformed circles who read the NT as if it were written like a philosophy textbook – dealing with generalized doctrines in an atemporal, systematic, and comprehensive manner. From this reading, they form a set of universal, unqualified propositions. These propositions (which are pretty much all from decretal theology) address topics such as election, regeneration, perseverance, etc. The relevant terms are defined in technical and restrictive ways. The propositions are then arranged in logical/temporal order. This “ordo salutis,” Tulip, or similar systematic construction is then used to draw all kinds of unwarranted conclusions – conclusions that bump pretty hard up against many “plain” NT passages. If someone does not persevere, it proves that he had nothing real to begin with. Otherwise, if we admit that he had been shown real covenantal grace and been given many gifts, we will have contradicted one or more of our decretal propositions.

But none of this follows. Perseverance, for example, does not require us to say that non-persevering people never received anything significant in terms of covenantal grace. And the idea of a limited, efficacious atonement does not logically require an all or nothing approach whereby someone either perseveres to eternal life because Jesus died for him or he gets nothing because Jesus’ death was not meant to secure anything at all for him. If Jesus died to secure the temporary faith of Simon Magus (and only that much for him), this still means that the atonement was limited in scope and fully efficacious regarding that which it was meant to secure. But we define “regeneration” differently from the biblical usage (usually as if it was some kind of permanent metaphysical transformation or infusion of a substance called “grace”), link it absolutely and completely to election (which is also defined in a very narrow and technical way), and conclude that only the “elect” can be “regenerate.” This by itself would not be “fatal” but we then combine it with a strong tendency to put the protective fence up three miles away from the actual systematic doctrines it is meant to protect. And so the “reprobate” (even those in the Church) can not have anything that even remotely smells of this internal metaphysical change which means, in the end, that they can not have (or lose) anything that the Bible clearly and repeatedly says that they have and/or lose. And so we must engage in sometimes embarrassing hermeneutical gymnastics in order to “explain” (or is it explain away?) passages like the ones catalogued above. For a community that prides itself on its intellectually sophisticated and mature theology, this does not make us look scholarly.

We rightly object to this kind of thing when performed by Arminians (e.g., rationalistic deductions from statements about human responsibility and choice that contradict numerous passages that describe God’s sovereignty) for example. But we often do the very same thing and we do it in order to guard against contradictions which do not exist (e.g., the belief that someone can have “true” faith for a time and lose it does nothing to endanger good, hearty doctrines of sovereignty, election, and perseverance). Before the foundation of the world, God foreordained that John Doe would accept Christ as Lord and Savior and would have true faith. Christ died to secure this gift for Doe. But God also decreed that Doe would later abandon his faith and leave the body of Christ, and sometime after coming to the faith, Doe did in fact choose of his own volitional will to abandon Christ. And so Doe’s final state was worse than his former unbelief – worse than the unbelief of someone who had never accepted Christ. God is sovereign, man makes meaningful and volitional choices, Christ’s atonement secures all that it was meant to secure, those who have been so ordained do persevere to eternal life, real apostasy from God does occur, and such apostasy is far worse than the unbelief of those who have never been the recipients of covenantal grace.

There is a final misunderstanding that I want to address here. When a Federal Vision advocate describes the objectivity of the new covenant, it is common for his critics to see the spectre of nominalism raising its ugly head. If people really do get all of these gifts by virtue of their covenant membership, if they really are in Christ by virtue of their baptism, and if they really are “Christians” and “holy” without regard to how trusting or faithful they are, then surely we have here the recipe for presumption. People will be inoculated against a true “inner” trust in God by being told that they are already Christians simply because they were baptized. They will be led to trust in outward rituals and in their objective status even though they have not really been converted and do not really have faith in God. The Federal Vision therefore eliminates the need for an explicit conversion and/or “closure with God” and it encourages nominalism.

The existence of this objection is understandable. After all, we have plenty of examples throughout the history of Christendom where a theological paradigm that contained a robust view of objectivity helped foster and exacerbate formalism and unfaithfulness. American Protestants are probably most familiar with how this works in some parts of Roman Catholicism or Anglicanism for example. Theologically liberal groups usually have at least some view of the objectivity of Christianity and this only feeds the rampant nominalism therein. One of the main tools used by “conservative, Bible-believing” Christians to combat this enemy is the punctiliar, one-time conversion/confession. This conversionistic paradigm insists on a specific point at which the individual has become mature enough to convert/confess/make the faith his own. Without this explicit transition point, the great fear is that there will be no real defense against formalism. And the Federal Vision, with all of its talk of covenantal objectivity, doesn’t really seem to provide this kind of subjective, punctiliar conversion point.

But the critics of covenantal objectivity should realize that not all views of objectivity originate from the same theological paradigm, and it is quite possible for two groups to hold similar views of some concepts for very different reasons. And this can lead these groups to implement these concepts in very different ways and to draw very different implications from them. As it turns out, the Federal Vision advocates’ view of covenantal objectivity operates very differently from the aforementioned formalistic groups, and it actually has stronger tools to fight formalism than does the conversionistic paradigm. For instead of a single conversion, those who see the objective aspects of the covenant are also comfortable viewing “regeneration” as a lifelong process. A two year old should have behavior and a personal confession that are age-appropriate. The same goes for a 10 year old, a 20 year old, and so forth. Every day and at every age, it is central to covenantal identity that we make age-appropriate prayers of repentance, confessions of our faith, and the like, and the maturity level of these things should grow as we get older. Moreover, it is not in spite of the objectivity of the covenant that these things should occur but because of it. It is just because we actually have the status and gifts mentioned above that we have the responsibility to constantly confess this faith while fully trusting the Lord for all things and to appropriate and grow in all the gifts we have been given.

Thus, the fear of formalism can be countered by pointing out that the Federal Vision does not just look for or focus on a one-time transition. It focuses on an entire life of transitioning from the old man to the new man – working out salvation with fear and trembling. During every day and at every age, Christians should be exhibiting age-appropriate faith, confession, and behavior (and this applies in private prayer, in family life, in public worship, on the street – everywhere).

Finally, the charge of formalism can be finished off by pointing out what should be obvious: the Federal Vision has a strong and developed view of apostasy (and therefore of Church discipline). It often seems that when critics charge FV advocates with the promotion of formalism, they are not paying attention to the whole story. But the concepts of covenantal objectivity and apostasy can not be separated and dealt with in isolation. They are, in fact, intimately related. It is just because the status and gifts of the covenant are real that apostasy really exists. The adultery is real precisely because the marriage really exists. Thus, while some liberal groups may have a concept of objective Christendom that lacks discipline, such a view has no connection with the FV. After all, FV advocates are strong supporters of doctrines such as sola Scriptura and tota Scriptura. Thus, they take the NT warning passages seriously and they teach and discipline accordingly.


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