Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele)

Brown, Big, and Bold.

This is the best way to describe the Great-Spangled, a frequent visitor to my garden and one of the first butterflies I encountered upon moving to MD over fifteen years ago.

The shots below were taken in a neighbor's yard in June. Early June through late July is the best time for them; on one July 4 outing, we saw over 125 in a single locale.

The Fritillaries were formerly viewed as close relatives of Crescents and Checkerspots, but more recent studies showed them to be related to the Longwings, Heliconidae. As a result, the latter family was merged into Nymphalidae and a new subfamily was formed: the Heliconiiae, of which the Fritillaries are a member.

A note on pronunciation: I grew up saying "FruhtILLery", which as it turns out is a British rendering. Americans in the know say "FrIHtulary." Watevah.

Species description
Click for shots

Frederick CO, 2006.06.18

Frederick CO, 2006.06.18

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Admirals (Limenitis)

The Admirals are a beautiful but somewhat underappreciated group of butterflies spanning from California to Maryland and from Wisconsin to Texas. Generally, they are medium-sized dark butterflies with white banding resembling military stripes, but this banding is absent in the Red-Spotted Purple. The Viceroy (L. archippus) is the genus outlier, with orange and black markings that strongly imitate the Monarch.

The common and famous Red Admiral is only distantly related to the Admirals.

Click for shots

Lorquin's Admiral (L. lorquini)



A West Coast specialty. This individual was seen in San Diego July 2, 2005 in a small stand of trees near a stream.

Weidemeyer's Admiral (L. weidemeyerii)



Durango, CO (Wilderness Trails Ranch) Aug. 20, 2004
A western admiral, somewhat uncommon.

The Red-Spotted Purple (L. arthemis astyanax)



Gorgeous and very common in Maryland. The lower picture captures somewhat of the iridescent sheen that comes off of the upper wings in fresh individuals. This individual, seen in North Bay, MD Aug. 31, 2007, is lapping up salts off of the road surface, a common practice for some species. Red-Spotted Purples tend to do this frequently and can often be seen on rotting fruit, horse manure, etc. Here's a relatively rare shot of one on a flower (Buddleia):


The White Admiral (L. arthemis)

No pics. :( Within the last thirty years, this species and the above, L. astyanax, were merged by taxonomists into a single species. Essentially, L. arthemis is found north and west, while L. arthemis astyanax is found south and east. There are records of this one in Maryland, but I only know of someone who knows of someone who claims to have seen two in his lifetime. OK, then. On to...

The Viceroy (L. archippus)

This is probably the world's most famous mimic species of all. The renowned Monarch feeds on milkweed species and causes a vomiting reaction in birds; the Viceroy looks nearly identical and (so it has been conjectured for about 100 years) benefits from Batesian mimicry.

Except that recent studies have debunked all that and find that Viceroys taste bad in their own right.

Oh well. They still are gorgeous.


Carroll Co, July 4, 2007. The black stripes on the hindwing that cut across the veins make a "V" for Viceroy; this is a reliable mark both above and below that distinguishes from the Monarch.

Red-Banded Hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops)

The Red-banded Hairstreak is unusual in that its larvae feed on dead leaves on the forest floor. According to the literature, foodplants include various oaks and sumacs, including staghorn sumac, but I've never seen any individuals on or near sumac.

The individuals I've seen have shown a tendency towards shade or sun/shade edges in the forest. They also show a proclivity for water, and I've had more than one occasion to scoop one out of a pool.

These are very common in the South; I see them routinely in Houston, and have also seen individuals at Antietam, Myrtle Beach, Lisbon, North Bay, in our back yard, and elsewhere.

Species description
Click for shots


Myrtle Beach, SC Apr. 5, 2007


North Bay, MD Aug. 29, 2007


Scooped from our kiddie pool Aug 23, 2006

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Temporary Justification Excursis: Definitive Sanctification

Previous parts: Part I Part II

So far, the discussion of temporary justification has focused on the relationship of Dort to the theology of Non-Elect Covenant Members. Before focusing on Dort V, I wish to consider the concept of "definitive sanctification" and its relationship to justification and perseverance. I claim here that a genuine change takes place upon faith, and that this change is a guarantee of perseverance. I further audaciously claim that denial of this change amounts to an abandonment of monergism.

In this post, Xon put forward this idea:

"elect Bob and reprobate Sam experience the same things, but God does not sustain Sam; hence, he falls away."

That is, there is no ontological change wrought in the believer *except* for the direct operation of the Spirit which can be withdrawn according to the desires of God.

click to toggle Xon's full comments

Another problematic point in Dordt (I'm simply plagiariazing James Jordan on this observation), which is not directly related to the current discussion but still touches on 'FVish' issues. Dordt says that regeneration involves the elect being given an 'incorruptible seed" for a new heart. It speaks as though ONLY the elect are given this 'new heart.' But then it also speaks of the Holy Spirit being sent to preserve the faithful. But why do the faithful need preserving if they already have been given an 'incorruptible' heart?

The tension in Dordt is that it waffles (a few times; I have no systematic objection to this wonderful confession of the Reformed faith) between trying to speak of some 'a priori' differentiation between elect and reprobate other than God's decree, on the one hand, and trying to speak of the biographical experience of the elect and the reprobate, on the other.

The FV position, to me, is a claim that the 'a priori' difference is in the decrees of God. Bob is elect and Sam is reprobate b/c God decreed it that way. But that's pretty much all we can say with certainty, from Scripture about Bob and Sam's 'differences.' Bob and Sam are both baptized, they both are active in their local covenant community, they both seem to receive the Word with great joy, etc. And it's not just that Sam is 'faking' like a hypocrite. This is not just an epistemological problem of we finite humans being unable to tell who the 'genuine' believer is and who the 'fake' is. Sam may not be a 'fake' at all. He may very well genuinely enjoy a relatoinship with God, the wrestling guidance of the Holy Spirit, etc. In fact, at any particular 'cross-section' of their respective lives, Sam may be closer to God than Bob is. The difference between Bob and Sam in the decree of God works itself through time, biographically. Sam eventually apostasizes, loses faith, is excommunicated, etc. Until this happens, things are much more mysterious than we Reformed often want to say. We often want to cram these mysteries into tight categories of "elect over here" and 'reprobates over there," and then simply acknowledge that we don't know which camp Bob or Sam is in. But FVers think (as I read them) that there's something more going on than that in the experience of Sam.

But here comes Dordt, saying that the 'orthodox' position is that only the elect ever receive this 'new heart' called regeneration (which is itself a different usage of 'regeneration' than that of the original reformers, of course). So, presumably, when Bob and Sam both have their initial experience of faith (Bob's pemranent, Sam's temporary), Bob receives this 'new heart' which Sam doesn't get.

This move is logically unnecessary (Since Scripture teaches that the Spirit preserves the faithful, there is no need for God to give the elect an 'incorruptible' heart on the 'front end.' God will preserve them moment-by-moment in the faith, and they are just as secure that way. Plus, the giving of an initial 'incorruptible' heart seems an awfully close analogue to Deism, making God an unnecessary appendage to future perseverance.)

A similar comment is made as an aside by Mark Horne while engaging Samuel Miller's arguments:
"On other terms such as “born from above,” “born again,” “reborn,” etc, I would very much like to see a non-circular argument that these refer to an interior transformation worked directly by the Spirit which irreversibly guarantees persevering faith–that is, “great moral change, wrought by the Spirit of God, which must pass upon everyone before he can be in a state of salvation."

Mark Horne has since clarified (comm. 60-63) that he definitely believes in some kind of ontological difference between NECMs and ECMs; he just does not see it in the terms "born again."

What Xon apparently wishes to preserve is the continued dependence of the believer on the sustaining work of the Spirit, and I wish to stand with him on this point.

But more needs to be said, for the Scriptures *do* speak of an irreversible change wrought in the hearts of believers. This change, described as "definitive sanctification" by John Murray, as "regeneration" by John Calvin and Dort, and as being "dead to sin" in the Scripture, forms a part of the basis for our assurance of salvation.

Thus, if we are to faithfully present to the Church the promises of God, we must also present this one: all those who truly believe have died to sin, have been sealed with the Spirit, and thus are assured of God's faithful, continued work to preserve them to the end.

Hence, I've put forward a provocative thesis: Xon's premise is an abandonment of monergism. I aim to prove this below.

John Murray summarized an important aspect of Reformed soteriology in his teaching on definitive sanctification. In short, Murray taught that sanctification in the Scriptures often refers to "some decisive action that occurs at the inception of the Christian life and one that characterizes the people of God in their identity as called effectually by God’s grace."

Important here is that DS (a) is decisive, "once-for-all" and (b) characterizes the identity of the recipient as effectually called.

First and most importantly, what is the Scriptural basis for such a teaching?

The inadequacy of the Old Covenant can be described in this way: while the Israelites were given the promises of God, still they were unable to obey God's commands (Josh. 24.14-27). Hence, though they were within the scope of God's covenant, they lacked the resources -- specifically, the work of the indwelling Spirit -- needed to be obedient and faithful (Hos 1-3). In short, covenantal nomism was a failure.

(In fact, the nature of the Spirit's work is indistinct in the Old Testament. Clearly, believers did at times experience the work of the Spirit -- cf. Gal. 3.14, Ps. 51.11. But such work was not as direct or continual as in the New Testament. This should lead us to be cautious in applying, e.g., Saul's experience in 1 Sam 19.23-24 to believers post-Pentacost, or to reckon his experience as typical for an NECM).

Thus, the promised New Covenant included not only the fruition of the sacrificial types but also the promise of the indwelling Spirit to "write the Law on the hearts" (Jer 31, Ezek. 37). Importantly, the work of the Spirit is specifically designated as an antidote to apostasy.

Now as the New Covenant is proclaimed in the Gospels and epistles, it is expressed in a variety of terms:
  • being "brought from death to life" (Eph. 2.1-5)
  • "dying to sin" (Rom. 6.1-14, 7.6)
  • "being crucified with Christ" (Gal. 2.20)
  • being "transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the Son (Col. 1.13-14)
  • Being given "eternal life" (John 3.14-18, 5.24, 6.32-51)
  • Being made a son of God and heir of a promised inheritance (John 1.12, Rom 8.15-17, Gal 3.26-29).
  • Being predestined to adoption (Eph 1.5)
  • Being sealed with the Holy Spirit as a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance (2 Cor 1.22, Eph 1.14)
  • Being given a "new man" or "new nature" created to be like Christ (Eph. 4.22,23; Col. 3.10)
  • Entering into God's rest (Heb 3) -- though Gaffin reads this as exiting this life and entering heaven.

Now to answer Mark's query above: there are several strands of evidence that indicate that Definitive Sanctification is irreversible. First and foremost, we should note that the language is that of permanent change in status. It is difficult to imagine that the metaphor of "dying to sin" could include later becoming alive to sin once more. It is likewise difficult to understand how God could give "eternal life" that could actually be temporary, or how He could predestine a person to an adoption that he would later not receive.

Second, at no point in Scripture is it ever predicated that one of these changes is reversed. To be sure, there are warnings against "falling away" (to be addressed in another post). And it is possible to read those warnings as indications of real contingencies for people described by the list above. But in the end, we search in vain for any clear indication that such a reading is certainly correct.

So for example, we read in the parable of the soils of people who show faith for a time and then fall away (Matt 13). But Jesus does not say of them that they received eternal life, then lost it. In fact, in the parable, it appears that these were doomed from the beginning by virtue of their "soil." The construction of the parable suggests that there was an underlying ontological reality from the beginning that guaranteed their apostasy, and that the faith they exhibited above ground did not come from the root of genuine faith.

To analyze Matthew 13 in detail here would carry us too far afield. The main point still stands: the various warning passages do not, in the end, provide dispositive evidence that one can receive the items listed above and then lose them. The closest we might come to such a passage would be Hebrews 10.29, yet even that passage is by no means clear.

Third, the passages above are passages of promise intended to shape the Christian's self-image, leading to a particular attitude towards sin and a confidence in future salvation. These promises can only make sense if the changes made are permanent ones. We see this most clearly in the Roman and Corinthian epistles:
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. -- Rom 6.8-12

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. -- Rom 8.9-11

Here, Paul is asking the Romans to see themselves as irreversibly dead to sin and indwelt by the Spirit. On that basis, they are to trust the Spirit to give life and put to death the misdeeds of the body. If DS were irreversible, it would make no sense for Paul to tell them to reckon themselves as dead to sin, or to trust that the Spirit *will* give life to their mortal bodies.

So given that Definitive Sanctification is a reality for the Christian, what can we say of it? Xon wishes to register the opinion that Definitive Sanctification is not an autonomous change, but rather one maintained by the Spirit.

I fully agree. Romans 8 and Galatians 2.20 and 5.16-26 seem proof positive that the fruit of the new nature is the result of the ongoing work of the Spirit, so that if He were to withdraw His hand, our "new nature" would come to naught.

At the same time, the language above is so, well, "definitive" that we must insist that the Scripture presents the change as a *change in us*, a new ontological reality.

So from the Scriptures, we are left with this picture: Definitive Sanctification is a real change in us that is maintained and empowered by the Holy Spirit. We simply don't have enough information to say more than this, but it appears to be the case that DS is both *real* but also *dynamically maintained.*

The direction I've taken here coincides with the teachings of Calvin and Dort. Calvin labeled the change wrought in the believer as "regeneration."[1] He says,

click to toggle Inst. 3.3.9
Both [mortification of the flesh and quickening of the Spirit] we obtain by union with Christ. For if we have true fellowship in his death, our old man is crucified by his power, and the body of sin becomes dead, so that the corruption of our original nature is never again in full vigor. If we are partakers in his resurrection, we are raised up by means of it to newness of life, which conforms us to the righteousness of God. In one word, then, by repentance I understand regeneration, the only aim of which is to form in us anew the image of God, which was sullied, and all but effaced by the transgression of Adam. -- Inst. 3.3.9

For Calvin, the possession or otherwise of "regeneration" was the distinction between the elect and the reprobate:

click to toggle Inst. 3.2.11
I am aware it seems unaccountable to some how faith is attributed to the reprobate, seeing that it is declared by Paul to be one of the fruits of election; and yet the difficulty is easily solved: for though none are enlightened into faith, and truly feel the efficacy of the Gospel, with the exception of those who are fore-ordained to salvation, yet experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them. Hence it is not strange, that by the Apostle a taste of heavenly gifts, and by Christ himself a temporary faith, is ascribed to them. Not that they truly perceive the power of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith; but the Lord, the better to convict them, and leave them without excuse, instills into their minds such a sense of his goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption. Should it be objected, that believers have no stronger testimony to assure them of their adoption, I answer, that though there is a great resemblance and affinity between the elect of God and those who are impressed for a time with a fading faith, yet the elect alone have that full assurance which is extolled by Paul, and by which they are enabled to cry, Abba, Father. Therefore, as God regenerates the elect only for ever by incorruptible seed, as the seed of life once sown in their hearts never perishes, so he effectually seals in them the grace of his adoption, that it may be sure and steadfast. But in this there is nothing to prevent an inferior operation of the Spirit from taking its course in the reprobate. Meanwhile, believers are taught to examine themselves carefully and humbly, lest carnal security creep in and take the place of assurance of faith. We may add, that the reprobate never have any other than a confused sense of grace, laying hold of the shadow rather than the substance, because the Spirit properly seals the forgiveness of sins in the elect only, applying it by special faith to their use. Still it is correctly said, that the reprobate believe God to be propitious to them, inasmuch as they accept the gift of reconciliation, though confusedly and without due discernment; not that they are partakers of the same faith or regeneration with the children of God; but because, under a covering of hypocrisy, they seem to have a principle of faith in common with them. Nor do I even deny that God illumines their minds to this extent, that they recognize his grace; but that conviction he distinguishes from the peculiar testimony which he gives to his elect in this respect, that the reprobate never attain to the full result or to fruition. When he shows himself propitious to them, it is not as if he had truly rescued them from death, and taken them under his protection. He only gives them a manifestation of his present mercy. In the elect alone he implants the living root of faith, so that they persevere even to the end. Thus we dispose of the objection, that if God truly displays his grace, it must endure for ever. There is nothing inconsistent in this with the fact of his enlightening some with a present sense of grace, which afterwards proves evanescent. -- Inst. 3.2.11

It is clear, then, that for Calvin in whatever external sense the reprobate might "believe" (and it might be in such a sense as to deceive even himself), he is never for a moment delivered from death or the possessor of the living roots of faith.

Also important here are Inst. 3.14.7,12; 3.17; 3.18; 3.21.7; and 3.23.

The Canons of Dort saw in regeneration the promise of perseverance:
Those people whom God according to his purpose calls into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord and regenerates by the Holy Spirit, he also sets free from the reign and slavery of sin, though in this life not entirely from the flesh and from the body of sin. -- Dort V.1

So it is not by their own merits or strength but by God's undeserved mercy that they neither forfeit faith and grace totally nor remain in their downfalls to the end and are lost. With respect to themselves this not only easily could happen, but also undoubtedly would happen; but with respect to God it cannot possibly happen, since his plan cannot be changed, his promise cannot fail, the calling according to his purpose cannot be revoked, the merit of Christ as well as his interceding and preserving cannot be nullified, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit can neither be invalidated nor wiped out. -- Dort V.8

Concerning this preservation of those chosen to salvation and concerning the perseverance of true believers in faith, believers themselves can and do become assured in accordance with the measure of their faith, by which they firmly believe that they are and always will remain true and living members of the church, and that they have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. -- Dort V.9

For Dort, regeneration is the linchpin in the argument for monergistic perseverance. God has begun a work; He will be faithful to complete it. If we could mess up our own salvation, we would.

But also in Dort, regeneration flows from union with Christ. Hence, all who are united with Christ receive the promise of perseverance that comes from the sealing of the Holy Spirit.

Thus, there is a genuine ontological difference in Reformed theology (and Scripture!) between the NECMs and the elect. The former have not received DS; the latter have. The former have not died to sin; the latter have. The former have not been brought from death to life; the latter have. The former do not have a deposit guaranteeing their inheritance; the latter have.

Finally then we come to the exchange here:


"If anyone is lost, it cannot be on account of God's unwilli[n]gness to make good His deposit."


"I'm not sure about this. I wouldn't call it God 'not making good.' God never had any intention of preserving that person to the end. Either the 'deposit' was different for that person than for the elect, or (probably a more natural way of speaking) the deposit is contingent upon remaining faithful. Deposit/earnest are legal/covenantal concepts, and the covenant can have terms. There is no need to insist that the 'deposit' in Eph. 1 refers to an unbreakable contract."

Let's examine this objection in more detail.

Xon is postulating that a deposit could be given by God, but subject to certain conditions. Certainly this is possible.

But now we consider the sad case of Alice, who believes (temporarily) and dies to sin, comes to life in Christ, is predestined to adoption, forgiven of sins past present and future in Christ, and is given the deposit of the Spirit guaranteeing her inheritance.

And ten years later, she falls away and dies a reprobate.

What can we say of her reprobation? It seems that we must either say

(a) Alice chose of her own free will to fall away, OR
(b) God chose of his own free will to stop maintaining her faith.

If (a), then perseverance is synergistic. If (b), then what condition did Alice possibly fail to meet that would cause God to cease to maintain her? It was not her lack of perseverance, for that was caused by God.

One might object that God simply elected to allow her to have faith for a time, so that her falling away is ultimately contingent on election. But in that case, we cannot say that God sealed her with the Spirit as the guarantor of her inheritance. Rather, He sealed her with the Spirit as a guarantor of ... well, her inheritance if she maintained it.

But we cannot say that the deposit was given contingent upon remaining faithful. For in the end, Alice was not dropped because she was unfaithful; she was unfaithful because she was dropped. The contingency rested not with her, but with God.

In short, monergism requires unconditionality. Put differently, a salvation that is solely the work of God cannot be thwarted by human contingencies.

But one may say, "Salvation is contingent on faith as an instrument" -- and this is true. But the faith itself is also the free gift of God. God in his election does not leave our faith "to chance."

So also, when God seals us with the regeneration of the Spirit, with definitive sanctification, He is pledging to us that our perseverance has not been left to chance. It is guaranteed to the end.

1. Calvin's use of "regeneration" is somewhat more in keeping with Titus 3.5. For the second generation Reformers, the term took on quitea different meaning, the work of the Spirit preparatory to faith.
2. It is worth noting that there is equivocation here in Xon's language vis-a-vis WCoF 17.1-2. For Xon, the elect are those who persevere to the end according to God's choice. For WCoF, those whom God has chosen to be elect will persevere according to the changes wrought within them. The set is the same, but the causality is subtly changed.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Temporary Justification II -- Election and Dort

Previous Parts: Part I

So far, I've argued that the FV notion of "Temporary Justification" is in real (not apparent) conflict with the Canons of Dort, Article I.

With Xon's help, this thesis has been shaped a bit (see below). Now, the second piece of the argument will be advanced:

That TJ is Contrary to the Second Canon of Dort

Update on where we are:

(1) It appears that TJ needs to be modified as follows:

TJ: Some people acquire the verdict of 'forgiven' that they then lose.

click for Xon's comments

But clearly, as Rich Lusk's quote shows, what we are talking about is some sort of 'quasi-justification'. Something that is not necessarily the same as what we usually think of as 'justification,' but close enough that the it makes sense to use the word. This is what I tried to describe in TJ: a judicial verdict that brings about a positive change in status, but only temporarily. And you have modified TJ slightly here into "a judicial verdict of 'forgiven' from God." And that's an okay modification to make, especially since you seem to have some FV quotes to back up the word 'forgiveness' being used.

But anyway my point is just that we need to be extra clear as to what we are talking about when we say 'justification' in J1. FVers are not saying that 'justification' in the full sense described in the Westminster Standards can be acquited, then lost. So I think we need to build some sort of qualification into J1. Perhaps we should continue to use the description given in TJ, so something like this results:

J1: There is a verdict of 'forgiven' that can be acquired, then lost.

The point is that FVers do not deny that there is also a verdict of 'forgiven' which can never be lost. So we have to be sure to speak of these things in a way that makes it clear that we are not discussing 'justification' full stop, as though there is one such thing as 'justification' and now we are debating whether it can be lost or not. We are really discussing two things that are subject to both similarities and differences. Similar enough to both be called 'justification.' But different enough that one is permanent and one is temporary.

(2) One way of sharpening the FV position is that the Elect Covenant Members and the Non-Elect Covenant Members have the same experiences on the "front end" of salvation. The difference is that God, at some point, withdraws His hand from the NECM, resulting in a falling away. In this way, the FV continues to affirm monergism while at the same time allowing that (covenantal) salvation can be lost.

click for Xon's comments

The FV position, to me, is a claim that the 'a priori' difference is in the decrees of God. Bob is elect and Sam is reprobate b/c God decreed it that way. But that's pretty much all we can say with certainty, from Scripture about Bob and Sam's 'differences.' Bob and Sam are both baptized, they both are active in their local covenant community, they both seem to receive the Word with great joy, etc. And it's not just that Sam is 'faking' like a hypocrite. This is not just an epistemological problem of we finite humans being unable to tell who the 'genuine' believer is and who the 'fake' is. Sam may not be a 'fake' at all. He may very well genuinely enjoy a relatoinship with God, the wrestling guidance of the Holy Spirit, etc. In fact, at any particular 'cross-section' of their respective lives, Sam may be closer to God than Bob is. The difference between Bob and Sam in the decree of God works itself through time, biographically. Sam eventually apostasizes, loses faith, is excommunicated, etc. Until this happens, things are much more mysterious than we Reformed often want to say. We often want to cram these mysteries into tight categories of "elect over here" and 'reprobates over there," and then simply acknowledge that we don't know which camp Bob or Sam is in. But FVers think (as I read them) that there's something more going on than that in the experience of Sam.

But here comes Dordt, saying that the 'orthodox' position is that only the elect ever receive this 'new heart' called regeneration (which is itself a different usage of 'regeneration' than that of the original reformers, of course). So, presumably, when Bob and Sam both have their initial experience of faith (Bob's pemranent, Sam's temporary), Bob receives this 'new heart' which Sam doesn't get.

This move is logically unnecessary (Since Scripture teaches that the Spirit preserves the faithful, there is no need for God to give the elect an 'incorruptible' heart on the 'front end.' God will preserve them moment-by-moment in the faith, and they are just as secure that way. Plus, the giving of an initial 'incorruptible' heart seems an awfully close analogue to Deism, making God an unnecessary appendage to future perseverance.)

(I have to point out now that this is actually the outer reaches of FV space. Jordan's position is controversial even to other FVers. Doug Wilson and he have gone back and forth (amicably) on this topic. FYI.)

(3) At this point, JRC has made the audacious claim that this point surrenders monergism. Clearly, JRC's definition of monergism is different from XH's!

(4) And now, XH has also offered the hypothesis that "All blessings, special or common, come from Christ" -- specifically (apparently) from His death on the cross.

click for Xon's comments

But any grace that a person recieves from God, be it 'common' or special, can only come on account of Christ. It is Christ who has reconciled the world to God, and this must be true of the whole world, in whatever sense the whole world is indeed reconciled. Many people are not in fact ultimately reconciled to God; they are judged and go to perdition. But these folks, even the rankest unbelievers, nonetheless experience 'common grace,' as we say. But this common grace must have been secured by Christ on the cross, mustn't it? Otherwise how can God show grace (even the merely common kind) to sinners?

So Christ's death is applied to all people, in some sense. Any time a reprobate person receives a temporary blessing from God in his earthly life, that's Christ's death on the cross working to his benefit.

This hits precisely at why I have a problem with Dordt, and it's not b/c I deny any of the TULIP letters. I affirm all of them; but Dordt takes a few of them beyond what they logically entail. All we need the "L" of TULIP to mean, for example, is that Jesus died for the elect only with respect to eternal salvation. But Dordt goes on to say that Christ died for the elect only, period. (I'm paraphrasing, clearly.) This leaves us in quite a fix, as Scripturally nothing is more obvious than that all people benefit in some way from Christ's death. (Just the establishement of a Christian civil order, of western civilization, could be a very modest way in which this is true.)

So this leads us to the Second Canon of Dort. First, it is important to note that Dort sees Jesus' death operating to save the elect both from eternal punishment and temporal:
God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just. His justice requires (as he has revealed himself in the Word) that the sins we have committed against his infinite majesty be punished with both temporal and eternal punishments, of soul as well as body. We cannot escape these punishments unless satisfaction is given to God's justice. -- Article 1: The Punishment Which God's Justice Requires

Since, however, we ourselves cannot give this satisfaction or deliver ourselves from God's anger, God in his boundless mercy has given us as a guarantee his only begotten Son, who was made to be sin and a curse for us, in our place, on the cross, in order that he might give satisfaction for us. -- Article 2: The Satisfaction Made by Christ

Second, we note that Dort republishes the free offer of the Gospel expressed in John 3 and 6:
Moreover, it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel. -- Article 5: The Mandate to Proclaim the Gospel to All

The picture created by Dort is that all who believe "shall not perish"; that is, they receive a promise from God of eternal (rather than temporary) life. That this promise is intended decretally is confirmed:
But all who genuinely believe and are delivered and saved by Christ's death from their sins and from destruction receive this favor solely from God's grace--which he owes to no one--given to them in Christ from eternity. -- Article 7: Faith God's Gift

And finally, we note the proposition of "limited atonement":
For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son's costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones, in order that he might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God's will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father; that he should grant them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit's other saving gifts, he acquired for them by his death); that he should cleanse them by his blood from all their sins, both original and actual, whether committed before or after their coming to faith; that he should faithfully preserve them to the very end; and that he should finally present them to himself, a glorious people, without spot or wrinkle. -- Article 8: The Saving Effectiveness of Christ's Death

Now, the following conclusions can be drawn about the theology of Dort with respect to NECMs:

(1) The "those and only those" language prevents, in the eyes of Dort, attributing "saving faith", "the Holy Spirit's other saving gifts", and "cleansing by his blood" to any but those whom he faithfully preserves to the very end.

(2) We thus see again the Bifurcation Principle of Dort at work: that Dort drives a wedge between the decretally elect and the decretally non-elect, and restricts certain language to be reserved for the elect alone.

(3) This reservation of language is not simply an arbitrary normative rule ("We don't say things like that around here!"), but rather reflects exegetical readings of certain texts.

Specifically, Dort is connecting the language of John 3 and 6, Romans 8, Ephesians 2, and so on to the content of their teaching.

Hence, even if we came up with entirely new terms, such as "Temporary Non-attribution of sins", Dort would still reject an exegesis that found support for such terms in the texts of those passages.

So now, Xon, what of your hypothesis of Universal Death: "But any grace that a person recieves from God, be it 'common' or special, can only come on account of Christ. It is Christ who has reconciled the world to God, and this must be true of the whole world, in whatever sense the whole world is indeed reconciled."? This proposition is very reminiscent of "Chuck" Hodge's words:

[Christ's death] is the ground on which salvation is offered to every creature under heaven who hears the gospel; but it gives no authority for a like offer to apostate angels. It moreover secures to the whole race at large, and to all classes of men, innumerable blessings, both providential and religious. It was, of course, designed to produce these effects; and, therefore, He died to secure them. In view of the effects which the death of Christ produces on the relation of all mankind to God, it has in all ages been customary with Augustinians to say that Christ died 'suffcienter proomnibus, efficaciter tantum pro electi—' sufficiently for all, efficaciously only for the elect. There is a sense, therefore, in which He died for all, and there is a sense in which He died for the elect alone.--Charles Hodge, "For Whom Did Christ Die?"

Except that your claim is somewhat stronger: *all* of God's grace flows from Christ. I wonder about this. For example, I've always associated common grace with the "it is good" of the creation.

But no matter; let's take it as it stands. Does it therefore follow that (a) Jesus' death secures a blessing for the NECMs that can reasonably be called justification, and (b) that any passages of Scripture teach this?

That will really have to be taken up in the third post, but for now it suffices to note that the BF perspective of Dort claims certain passages in its support, which would automatically put the Federal Vision at odds if the latter reads those passages in some other way. Foremost in my mind here is Ephesians 1-2, but also the phrase repeated so often in John, "eternal life." So in particular, if Dort reads, say, Romans 8.28ff as affirming the "Golden Chain", but the FV reads it covenantally, then there is a gap between the two systems.

If then enough exegetical decisions "go the other way", then the gap becomes really large, even if the FV might agree with Dort's language wrt the "decretally elect." In the end, after all, the systematic categories are secondary to the Scripture. If Dort and the FV agree on the systematics but disagree on the exegesis, then what real agreement is there?

A related question: the parable of the wheat and the tares suggests that the leniency towards the tares is for the benefit of the wheat, not the tares. This fits with the many OT passages in which Israel's judgment is postponed "for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." It also fits with the notion of final judgment being postponed for the sake of the elect in 2 Peter 3.

Could it be the case that the benefits extending to the NECMs (which I do not wish to deny, thinking of Heb 6) are simply exaggerated versions of common grace rather than lesser versions of special grace?

Finally, an observation. From October 31, 1517 onwards, one of the major thrusts of the Reformation was a repudiation of the notion that one could lose one's salvation (except perhaps in extremis acc. to Luther). The 95 Theses were a revolt against the Indulgences because they preyed upon people's fears of loss of grace, using those fears as a hook to motive compliance with the sacramental system.

Likewise, Arminianism was rejected not so much because of its emphasis on free-will entrance into the kingdom, but because it opened the door to free-will exit from the kingdom (no more than a crack: Remonstrant's Proposition 5). One piece of evidence that this is so is the disproportionate ink spilt on perseverance in Dort, over against the very tentative questioning of perseverance in the propositions of the Remonstrants.

Thus, the perseverance of the (true) saints was seen not simply as an abstract affirmation of decrees -- i.e., all that God wants to maintain, He will maintain -- but rather as a Biblical affirmation of assurance: If you have salvation, you cannot lose it.

The FV accepts this in decretal theory, but in covenantal practice1 it plays up the necessity to persevere rather than the assurance of perseverance.

It is that piece of monergism, the assurance of perseverance, that I believe FV may be abandoning.

In short, the conflict between the FV and Dort 2 is this: Dort 2 appears to restrict the justifying benefit of Christ's death to those who are decretally elect; the FV expands it to (temporarily) include NECMs.



1 I should say, "in rhetoric"; I haven't visited any FV churches. I just feel like I know Christ Church through many issues of Credenda back in the early days before "Federal Vision" was a buzzterm.

The American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas)

The American Copper is a beautiful little gem that flies in MD in late June and early July. My first sight of one here was in summer 2006, but July 2007 yielded a bumper crop. There were about 25 sightings, including one at Watkins Park in Mt. Airy, one in Lisbon, and multiple in northern Carroll Co.

Species description
Will Cook's Shots
My Shots

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Schalk Rd, Carroll Co. 7/4/2007
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Schalk Rd, Carroll Co. 7/4/2007
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Watkins Park, Carroll Co. 6/30/2007
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Egg laying!
Watkins Park, Carroll Co. 6/30/2007

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

John 15: The Fruitless Branches

John 15.1-17 recounts a portion of Jesus' final discourse to the apostles. Therein, He speaks of Himself as the vine and them as branches, and He exhorts them to abide in him by love and thus bear much fruit. But He also speaks of branches in Himself who do not bear fruit. These are broken off, cast into the fire, and burned. Calvin in his Commentaries takes the branches that are cast off to be those who apparently within the vine, but are not so in reality. By contrast, Steve Wilkins asserts that the branches cast into the fire were people savingly united to Christ (in a covenantal sense) but who later apostasized.

This post will argue that Calvin's reading fits more nearly with the story that John tells. The branches that are broken off and burned are ones who, like Judas, were in Christ's circle but who never believed.

click to toggle John 15.1-17

John 15.1-17 (ESV):
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

Calvin says of this passage,
As some men corrupt the grace of God, others suppress it maliciously, and others choke it by carelessness, Christ intends by these words to awaken anxious inquiry, by declaring that all the branches which shall be unfruitful will be cut off from the vine But here comes a question. Can any one who is engrafted into Christ be without fruit? I answer, many are supposed to be in the vine, according to the opinion of men, who actually have no root in the vine Thus, in the writings of the prophets, the Lord calls the people of Israel his vine, because, by outward profession, they had the name of The Church.

-- Calvin, Commentaries, John 15.1-6

However, in "The Federal Vision", Steve Wilkins explicates John 15 in this way:
Jesus here declares that He is the vine and His hearers are branches united to Him. He then exhorts them to continue abiding in Him so that they might bear fruit. If they refuse to abide in Him, they will be fruitless and incur the wrath of the Divine husbandman and, finally, will be cast into the fire. Here, then, we have those who are joined to Christ in a vital union (i.e., a union that could and should be fruitful) and yet who end up cursed and condemned.

Often this passage is interpreted along these lines: There are two kinds of branches. Some branches are not really in Christ "in a saving way," but only in an external sense -- whatever fruit they bear is not genuine and they will eventually be destroyed. Other branches are truly joined to Christ inwardly and savingly, and they bear more and more fruit as they are pruned and cultivated by the Father...

The Calvinist embraces this implausible interpretation because he (understandably) does not want to deny election, effectual calling, or the perseverance of the saints. The exegetical problems one must embrace with this position, however, are nearly insurmountable. If the branches are not truly joined to the vine, how can they be held accountable for their lack of fruit? The distinction of "external" and "internal" union seems to be invented and is not in the text. All can and should be fruitful. The pressure to preserve the Scriptural teaching of God's sovereignty in salvation ought not be allowed to push us to deny these obvious points. But in order to resist this pressure the text must be interpreted as it is intended to be interpreted -- i.e., covenantally.

-- Wilkins, "The Federal Vision", 62-63.

Wilkins' understanding rests in the belief that the phrase "in me" (v.2) refers to vital union with Christ, much as the Pauline phrase "in Christ." Because they have union with Christ, therefore all of the branches have, roughly speaking, equal access to the resources of Christ. It is possible for any of them to bear fruit. They have all been saved, at least in the historical, covenantal sense.

Let us consider now the gospel within which this passage sits. John's gospel is notable for its binary imagery. For John, there is light, and there is darkness (1.4-5,8-9; 3.19-21; ch. 9; 12.35,36,46). The two are at war, but darkness is unable to prevail over the light (1.5).[1]

Likewise, there are those who believe and those who do not believe. The ones who believe receive eternal life and become children of God (1.12, 3.1-21, 4.13-14, 5.24, etc.). Those who do not believe remain under God's wrath (3.36) and subsequently perish.

Further, belief itself is dictated by the decrees of God (6.35-40,44), so that no one can come except by the drawing of Father; and all who do come will not be cast out.

These categories are binary in that there is no middle ground, no third kingdom to which one may belong. We can see the binary categories at work in passages like John 8.31-59, in which Jesus excludes the middle, declaring that those who thought themselves children of Abraham are actually children of Satan as evidenced by the works they do.

But along with the binary categories, John also creates a certain amount of paradox. Jesus comes to "his own", but they do not receive him (1.11). Certain of the Jews "believe" in Jesus, yet they are of Satan (8.31ff.). And most significantly, Judas, one of Jesus' own chosen (6.70), is an unbeliever (6.64). These various paradoxes are resolved as the story develops. Those who were God's own according to the flesh reveal their nature as the Light shines on them. The supposed children of Abraham reveal their true father. Judas reveals himself at the Supper to be Christ's betrayer.

Now as we consider John 15, it is clear that Wilkins' reading is entirely out of place in John's story. Rather than understanding "in me" as synonymous with Paul's phrase, it makes much more sense to read those "in Jesus" as like those who are "his own", who "believe", who "are chosen" -- and yet, from the start, are of the darkness rather than the light.

Certain features within John 15 demand this reading also. The same binary pattern appears here. Branches broken off are branches who bear no fruit at all. By contrast, Jesus declares to the apostles that he has chosen and appointed them to bear fruit that will last. Hence, Jesus allows only two categories: the fruit-bearers and the fruitless. There is no mention of branches who bear some fruit, then cease bearing, as would be required by Wilkins' reading.

Most importantly, directly after the warning concerning branches broken off, Jesus declares, "you are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you." (v. 3) This declaration is a direct allusion to the evening's previous conversation in chapter 13. There, after Jesus has washed the disciples' feet, Peter asks Jesus to wash his entire body, understanding that the washing is symbolic of cleansing from sin. Jesus replies:
The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you. For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, "Not all of you are clean." (13.10-11)

After this conversation, the Last Supper occurs, Judas departs, and then Jesus begins a dialogue in chapter 14 that continues into 15 and beyond.

Notable about 15.3 then, are these features:

(1) The juxtaposition of 15.2 and 15.3: "Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you." Somehow, Jesus' declaration of cleanliness is intended to clarify or qualify the warning concerning branches.

(2) The linguistic connection between 15.2 and 15.3. The branches that are "pruned" in 15.2 are καθαιρει, cleansed or pruned, in order to become more fruitful. The apostles in 15.3 are declared already clean or pure, καθαροι.[2]

[Note 2007.12.09 -- the original post was incorrect, citing "καθαρει" (a verb that doesn't exist, AFAIK!). The verb καθαιρεω (to prune, clean) in v. 2 is not directly related in meaning to καθαριζω (to purify) which is the root in v. 3. However, the similarity in meaning and sound strongly suggests that Jesus is making a pun here. Hence, the general point still stands, but is not as strong as I previously believed.]

(3) The change from 13.11. With Judas departed from the scene, Jesus no longer qualifies that "not all of you are clean." By this shift in language, He confirms to them that the unclean one, the betrayer, was indeed the one who shared the morsel (13.30) and departed.[3]

(4) The living parable taking place as he speaks. Who is it that has failed to abide in Jesus, and is in the process of being cast away and burned? Judas.

Now, this is not to say that Jesus is speaking only of Judas; certainly, he is making a general pronouncement. But the purpose of that pronouncement is not to "hold them accountable" for bearing fruit. Rather, it is to "make their joy complete." (15.11) How? By encouraging them that they are already appointed to bear much fruit. By telling them how to bear fruit. And by declaring to them that, unlike the branch who failed to abide, they are already clean. Contrary to Wilkins' assertion that "if [his hearers] refuse to abide in Him, they will be fruitless" (62), Jesus has already begun the pruning process so that they will be even more fruitful.

At the same time, he is allowing that there are branches that are, apparently, in him, yet who are not clean. These branches are revealed over time because they fail to bear fruit. As with all of the other binary categories in John, these branches are unfruitful from the beginning.

So while Jesus is not speaking only of Judas, the branch he is using as an example is certainly Judas. And like Judas, the unfruitful branches are "in him", but are never of him.

Consider now the two exegetical questions raised by Steve Wilkins in his analysis:

If the branches are not truly joined to the vine, how can they be held accountable for their lack of fruit?

They are held accountable because they did not believe from the beginning, and the wrath of God remains on them. Must God give equal opportunities to all in order to hold all men accountable?

Contrariwise: If branches bear no fruit at all, how can we say that they have been "vitally joined" to Christ? And, if all branches have been vitally joined, what is the difference between the ones that do bear fruit and the ones who do not? This last question suggests that one must either stipulate a different type of joining for the fruitless branches, or else abandon monergism.

The distinction of "external" and "internal" union seems to be invented and is not in the text.

Granted: the terms "external" and "internal" are not in the text. But the concept that one belongs to God nominally, or to outward appearances, or according to the flesh, without actually being a child of God, is strewn liberally throughout John. Judas is his chief example.

Contrariwise: If Wilkins' exegesis is correct, then we are required to go back and re-read all of the passages in John promising that no believer will be lost or cast out or snatched away from Christ. These passages are no longer absolute, despite appearances. Rather, they are contingent on ... what, exactly? Our efforts? God's willingness to maintain us? The first would be Arminian; the second would accuse Christ of receiving people as His children and then deliberately losing them.

From these considerations, it is clear that Calvin's reading accords with the story that John is telling. His is a story of two kingdoms, a story of those who are saved by belief over against those who appear to believe but reveal their true natures through their fruit.


1 In John 1.5, "comprehend" is ambiguous both in English and Greek, but the ESV is probably correct here.
2 I am indebted to Jeff Moss for pointing out this connection.
3 In 13.30, the different themes converge: Judas finally reveals his true nature, the clean and the unclean are separated, and it is night.

For Further Reading:

Bob Mattes
Lane Keister -- This post contains a number of comments from John Barach and other FV folk; the approach is more nuanced than Wilkins'.
Rich Lusk
Mark Horne -- not on John 15, but a somewhat different take on obedience and assurance from Wilkins'. Read more...

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Perfective Aspect of God's Promises

From the discussion over at Green Baggins has bubbled up a very cogent article by Joel Garver concerning the possible meanings of "baptismal regeneration."

The upshot is that Joel defends the concept (while carefully avoiding the issue of the wording) of "baptismal regeneration" in this sense: baptism can grant regenerating grace in "seed form" to children, and this grace comes to fruition within the elect. (This is a vast oversimplification; read his article).

The problem becomes obvious: when, in time, are such children actually cleansed of sin? If we ask this question and insist on a direct answer, we will be forced to acknowledge that cleansing actually happens at the moment of faith (Calvin tends to emphasize this aspect in his discussions of sacraments and baptism, Inst. 4.14-15). It is clear that the Puritan angst over "conversion" represents a logical outcome of pursuing this question to the bitter end.

On the other hand, if we leave the question unresolved, or affirm that faith justifies *and* baptism cleanses, then we run the risk of contradicting Romans 4.10, which clearly indicates that Abraham was justified, "once-for-all", prior to his circumcision.

Here, I would like to suggest a third way of looking at this: from the lens of the perfective nature of God's promises.

It has long been recognized that the OT frequently uses the "prophetic perfect": that God's promises in the prophecies are often spoken of in the past tense, as if they had already happened[1]. Genesis 15.18 is a stellar example of such a promise: "to your descendants, I have given this land." In this passage, the giving of the land is so certain that it is a "done deal." The perfect aspect is used here as a device to communicate certainty.

There are instances in the New Testament that suggest such a perfective way of thinking. In James 2, the faith that justified Abraham is said to "work together" with his action of offering up Isaac -- an event that occurred about 30 years later! In a similar way, Paul attributes Abraham's faith in the conception of Isaac as the reason that his "faith was reckoned to him as righteousness" (Rom. 4.22).

Attributing Abraham's later faith or works to his earlier justifying faith is a nonsensical move if we are thinking chronologically. Hence, some have posited "subsequent justifications" or else "proofs of justification" as a way of understanding James 2.

But if we step out of time for a moment and see Abraham's faith, perseverance, and works as a perfective unity -- a "done deal", accomplished by the Holy Spirit subsequent to and because of his justifying faith -- then the problem vanishes. Abraham was justified entirely by faith, prior to circumcision (Rom 4.10). And yet, that faith was never alone. It was guaranteed, by the promises of God, to be accompanied by perseverance and good works, which promise was fulfilled by the work of the Spirit. And we can, using perfective aspect language, say that Abraham was "justified by works", knowing that works cannot themselves justify and also that Abraham was in no need of further justification in Genesis 21.

We see a similar way of thinking in Romans 8: "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified." (8.29-30). Notice that Paul is speaking here both of the Roman church and also of people not yet born! Yet he speaks of their callings, justifications, and even glorifications in the past, as if the entire package is a "done deal."


And this brings us back to the subject of baptism. In Romans 4, Paul is clear that Abraham is justified before he is circumcised. But then, says Paul, Abraham receives circumcision as a "sign and seal" of the faith that he had prior to the circumcision. God grants the sign of the cutting away of the sin nature 24 years after Abraham is justified. So when was Abraham cleansed? Clearly, when he believed. And yet, God seals that at a much later date; the "cleansing power" of circumcision occurs out of time with respect to the faith that cleanses.

The same issue arises now in Romans 6: Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. -- Rom 6.3-4.

Paul's plain language attributes the power of salvation -- uniting with Christ -- to baptism. But Paul's other plain language in Romans 4 makes it clear that faith, and not circumcision (|| baptism!), is what justified Abraham. So which is it?

Like the puzzle of works in James, this puzzle can be solved by appealing to the idea of a perfective aspect to our baptism. If we *must* watch the film and locate a moment of cleansing, that moment is certainly our moment of faith (assuming one can pin a definite moment of faith down!). But the sacrament of baptism, which "preaches Christ's cleansing" to us, is attributed the power of cleansing to us perfectively. Baptism is a part of the package.

I used to read WCoF 27 and 28 in a certain way:

27.2 There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.
28.6 The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in His appointed time.

I thought of it like this: "When infants are baptized, we know that they don't really believe yet, except in rare cases like John the Baptist, but when they grow up and come to faith, then we retroactively assign the effect to the baptism."

This isn't a terrible way to think about it, but it does create a couple of problems. One obvious one is that baptism signifies cleansing (Acts 22 uses strong language: "be baptized and wash away your sins."), and yet for adults being baptized upon profession of faith, we all admit that the cleansing happens upon faith, not upon baptism. So the "union" mentioned in 27.2 is quite nominal, on this account.

Another obvious problem is that the account above seems like linguistic sleight of hand. We *say* that a child's baptism was efficacious, but what we *mean* is that faith cleansed him.

Let's try to refine the account a bit, using the notion of "perfective aspect."

"God saves us by faith. But in His grace, he gives us signs to preach the gospel to us: the Word, Communion, and Baptism. These signs are used by the Holy Spirit to cause real changes in us; specifically, to increase and engender our faith. In the case of baptism, God uses it to "cleanse" us by causing us to believe in the promise of forgiveness of sins. When? Not necessarily at the moment of baptism! In fact, baptism can be used by God to bring us to faith *even before we are baptized*, in this sense: an adult who believes (and is justified at that moment), believes in the promise that baptism offers. He is justified "by baptism" (i.e., by what baptism means) at that moment. Then, later, he receives baptism physically as a sign of the promise.

Or, a child is baptized at age 2. She then grows up and comes to believe the promise offered in baptism at age 20. She is therefore cleansed. "Baptism" -- the promise preached by baptism -- has saved her much later than her physical reception of the sign."

All of this is odd from our chronological way of thinking. But if we consider God's eternal purposes to elect and call and justify and glorify, the baptism and the faith form a perfective whole. The faith does the justifying; the baptism preaches the content of the faith; the two are united, but that union has nothing to do with time. In fact, the only people who are chronologically cleansed at the moment of their baptism are the ones who happen to believe right as the water hits their heads!

The Prize

I think understanding the union of baptism and faith as a perfective aspect rather than as a chronological claim can disentangle several arguments.

First, the fight over "baptismal efficacy" has typically swung between two poles: On the one hand, some insist that faith alone justifies. But others insist that the sign is united with the that which it signifies. This has left considerable disagreement about exactly when a baptized believer is cleansed of his sins.

The "perfective aspect" of the union between baptism and faith allows us to affirm the former: faith alone justifies. At the same time, it allows us to affirm that for the vast majority of believers, the sign *does* have a union with what it signifies, in this sense: the baptism cleanses at the moment of faith.

A second argument can also be disentangled here. What is baptismal efficacy? Faith. Baptism preaches the cleansing of Christ to us; we receive it by faith; the baptism is thereby efficacious, regardless of when it has been applied.


1. I am indebted to Dave Durant for reminding me of this idea.