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.


ETC4 said...


could you proide a link to some info over the puritan angst over conversion of which you speak?

Jeff Cagle said...

Interesting article here:

The Halfway Covenant
First Great Awakening

These aren't great links, but the 'Net hasn't really caught up with religion yet. ;)


P.S. Whose picture is that?! Or, are you masquerading as my friend Earl?

ETC4 said...

that would be Byron "Buster" Bluth of "Arrested Development," a character I am pretty sure was based on me. Buster by the way was played by Tony Hale, an actual confessing Christian in the world of tv actors.