Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Church in Frame's Frame, Part II

Part I

The Church is a Family

In the previous post, I argued that the Church is the company of God's eternally elect. But now as we examine the pattern by which God expands his people and thus causes the church to grow, we discover something startling: God's plan from the beginning has been for the Church to grow by means of human families. This fact leads naturally to a tension between the church as we see it and the church as only God can see it: the visible and invisible aspects of the Church.

When God created Adam and Eve, he created them to be the firstborn of a holy race1:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
-- Gen. 1.27 - 28

We often focus on the ruling nature of man, but sometimes lost is the significance of the juxtaposition of vv. 27 and 28: Adam and Eve were intended to propagate the image of God. Their mandate was to create a people who would have fellowship with their creator.

And of course, this mandate was frustrated by the fall. We see this in the dashed hopes of Eve in Genesis 4, when she begets a son by the help of the Lord (cf. 3.15), and yet her son turns out to be an agent of sin rather than the seed who crushes Satan.

And yet, the vision of a holy race is re-promised in 3.15 with the protoevangelium. It is further articulated in the restatement of the mandate to Noah (9.1 - 3).

Most importantly, the vision of a holy race is explicitly articulated in the covenant God makes with Abraham. God intends to create a people for Himself within Abraham's family. Of course, His purposes are larger still. He intends to bless all the nations through Abraham. Some of the Gentiles (Ruth, Rahab) will be incorporated into the holy race through adoption. But at this stage in the development of the people of God, His primary means of multiplying His worshipers is through the family.

This has some important implications for the descendants of Abraham. First, all of the males receive the sign of purity, the sign of cutting away of the sin nature, the sign of circumcision. More importantly, all of Abraham's descendants are ethically obligated to keep God's commands, and not merely by way of external obedience, but from the heart (Rom 2.28, 29, with reference to such passages as 1 Sam 15.22, Hos. 6.1-6). But also, all of Abraham's descendants have a certain right, though not absolute or inalienable, to participate in the worship of the Lord. In fact, nominally, Israel is a people, a race, set apart and holy to the Lord. We may even speak of them as "historically elect" with the clear understanding that this term means "chosen out of the nations and obligated to be holy" rather than "chosen to be a part of God's remnant."

As Israel moved through her history in the OT, her designation as a holy race came into tension with the designation of God's people as His eternally elect. The simple fact was that many of Abraham's descendants themselves were not eternally elect, beginning with Esau. This fact created a problem not merely for systematic theologians but in the reality of Israel's experience. While Israel was normatively obligated to be holy to the Lord, a significant proportion of Israel -- a majority at times -- were idolaters. This was the burden of the prophetic oracles such as Amos. God's response to this situation was two-fold: first, to promise an eschatological age, a New Covenant, in which the heart would be circumcised; and second, to pursue a program of pruning out the branches that did not properly belong to Israel because of their lack of holiness. We can see this at work in the time of the Judges; in the books of Samuel and Kings; in the Bablyonian captivity; and ultimately in the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. In all of these, God preserved the remnant that He knew to actually be His, and provided judgments that prefigured the eschaton (cf. Joel) to winnow away those who were not.

Israel's theologians had a hard time understanding the tension between God's election and His means of growth. It was easy for them to mis-read their family descent from Abraham as an actual entrance into relationship with God, or for them to place confidence in the performance of sacrifices In fact, one way of putting the Jew/Gentile problem in the early church is that the Judaizing party had come to mistake the plan of growth through a holy race for election itself. More succinctly, they mistook "historical election" for "eternal election."2

Hence, the emphasis on circumcision: if you wanted to be "chosen by God", you had to become a part of the race. This is of course backwards, and Paul refutes it clearly in Galatians 3. Peter also, in his own way, refutes this thinking in Acts 10. Why are the Gentiles given the sign of cleansing and the outpouring of the Spirit? Because they demonstrate the fruit of God's regenerating work in themselves; they are already a part of the holy race.

With the church, now, the growth plan shifts in emphasis. The full extent of the Abrahamic covenant, that he would be the father of many nations, is now implemented much more through evangelism and the fulfillment of the Great Commission. But this fact does not annul the growth of God's people as a holy race, His work through the family. The Great Commission does not set aside the growth plan. Rather, it merely brings adoption to the fore as a more prominent means of growth.

We see this in part in 1 Cor 7.14, in which the families of believers have been "sanctified." Not made holy in the sense of magically turned into believers by virtue of parentage (cf. Luke 3.8), but sanctified in the same sense that Israel as a whole was sanctified: set apart and obligated to be holy. Children of believers are not themselves automatically believers, but they should be. That is to say, from the perspective of human contingencies, the children of believers have every opportunity and therefore have even less excuse than the pagan for disbelieving the Gospel (cf. Rom. 3.1-2).

We see this further in the commands given to families in Ephesians 5. Husbands, wives, children, and parents are all obligated to act in the Lord towards one another. Noticeably absent is any exemption for children who are unbelievers. Paul gives no qualification that children are to obey their parents in the Lord, unless they happen to not belong to Christ. No, the obligation is laid upon all children with the expectation that "this is right." The ethical obligations enjoined upon Israel are also enjoined upon all who belong to the Church (cf. 1 Cor 5, 6).

Even empirically, we see that God calls people by means of families as well as evangelism. Around the world, historically, Christianity has been a family affair. Given the safe assumption that all whom God has effective called have come to faith, it is worth noting that God has apparently chosen to disproportionately elect children of believers.

And finally, the continuation of the plan to grow a holy race is seen in the language employed to describe God's people. They are "children of God", "brothers of Christ", "brothers of one another", "a holy nation."

So within the Church, as within Israel, God's plan of growth by means of family continues. This plan of growth, along with the very real evangelistic problem of pseudo-faith (cf. Matthew 13), creates the same tension in the Church that was present in Israel: the "Church as we see it" is not the same as "the Church as God sees it."

In the New Covenant, the promised Holy Spirit helps to better define the boundaries of the Church, but He has not (apparently) chosen to make those boundaries crystal clear. Our knowledge of the Church, as with many things, is "through a glass, darkly."

The next post will consider our knowledge of the Church by means of various perspectives.


1. I am indebted to a conversation with Dave Durant for the particular way of putting this. Also present here are ideas from O. Palmer Robertson and John Murray.
2. It also seems that the schools of the Pharisees mistook remnant theology (the notion that God had chosen a remnant by grace) for covenantal nomism (the notion that their status was "in the covenant" unless they fell away by failing to keep the law).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Church in Frame's Frame, Part I

For various reasons, the PCA has recently become embroiled in a debate over this question: What is the Church? Who belongs to it? What can we say about those who are visibly members of our church, yet do not have true, fruitful, and persevering faith?

The questions are a direct result of the tension inherent in the Scriptures between God's eternal decrees to save His people and His visible outworking of those plans. On the one hand, the Church is the set of those who are effectually called by God to salvation. On the other, the way in which God works out His calling, seen especially in the government of the Church and also His special consideration for the family, requires us to honor the boundaries of the Church as we see it.

I will argue that the tension between the decrees and their visible outworking denies us the ability to view God's Church through a single lens. There is no salvation-o-meter by which we may measure "the true Church as God sees it." That leaves us collecting knowledge about the Church by means of various perspectives. The Scriptures speak at times of the Church in terms of our ethical obligations to a visible body; at times, in terms of the fruit that we see in ourselves and others; and at times, in terms of our own knowledge of our faith and participation of the promises of God. These three perspectives cohere together to give us approximate knowledge of the Church of God.

The Church is the Company of the Elect

Most obvious in the Scriptures is that the Church is Jesus' bride for whom He died, the flock for whom He laid down His life. This perspective is brought out clearly in the writings of John (John 10; Rev. 5.9-10; Rev. 21), Paul (Eph. 5.25-27), and Peter (1 Peter 1.1-2). The death of Christ for His people is the basis for their forgiveness of sins (Eph. 1, Rom. 5), enabling them to be God's justified people (Rom. 3). Hence, it is the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham to "be a God" to his descendants, to Eve that her "seed would crush the head of the serpent", and to Israel concerning the new covenant that would remove the principle of sin and death.

In short, when Scripture speaks to and of the Church, it often speaks of it as "the Church as only God can see it" in all of its glory throughout time, the company of the elect who form together a temple in whom God dwells and is worshiped (Eph. 2).

While this view of the Church is in some sense eternal -- "eschatological" -- it would be a mistake to believe that it is a view only possible or practical at the end of time. Far from it; when Paul writes to the church in Rome, he clearly presents their present experience as an intrusion of the eschatological into their lives. Hence:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
-- Rom 6.1-7

Here, as elsewhere, Paul argues from the Roman Christians' participation in the eschatological new life, resurrection, and freedom from sin to their behavior in the here-and-now. He is speaking to them as if it were a settled issue that they have been granted the salvation that characterizes membership in the people of God. The same kind of language is evident throughout the epistles, both Pauline and catholic (e.g., 1 Pet 1).

In systematic terms, of course, we are talking about nothing more nor less than the invisible church of WCoF 25.1.

Further, it is clear in Scriptures that God considers this Church, the company of the elect, to be "the real Church." That is to say, those who do not believe and are not elect have no real right to be there. Instructive on this point are 1 Cor 5, 2 Cor 6.14-18, and Matt 13.24ff).1

More can be said about this Church as God sees it, the "invisible church." It's probably best to let the Scriptures speak for themselves.

Rom. 1.6-8
Eph. 1.18-23
Eph. 3.4-12
Eph. 5.22-33
Phil. 1.1-11
Col. 1.17-23
1 Tim. 3.15
Heb. 12.18-24

But one necessary point needs to be made in preparation for what follows: Our knowledge of this church is necessarily incomplete. There are those who imagine themselves to be a part of it, and yet are not (Matt. 7.21-23). There are teachers who participate in the fellowship of the saints, yet have no legitimate part in it (Jude, 2 Cor 11.1-15). Conversely, there are those who worry about their salvation and yet definitely belong to Christ (Rev. 2.8-11). This body to which we belong, the Church, looks fuzzy to our eyes.

The next post will examine the visible outworking of God's plan in the Church, and why it is that we must speak of and honor the visible aspect of the Church.

1. John Murray makes this point in "Christian Baptism", ch. 3.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Nature of Saving Faith

Can Faith Be Equated With Faithfulness?

"To believe is to obey." This was the thesis of Pastor Dave's sermon this Sunday. He and his wife had lunch with us afterwards, and it gave an opportunity for talking with him about this very point, which has in God's providence been one of my ruminations over the last couple of weeks.

Dave's sermon, incidentally, developed the point by examining why it is in Luke 9 that Jesus did not meet with Herod despite the fact that Herod seemed eager. Why not? Because disobedience -- cutting off the head of John the Baptist, say -- amounts to a denial of God's truth, amounts to unbelief. Clearly, Herod's eagerness to see Jesus was something other than faith.

Dave didn't mention 1 Cor 10 or Heb 10.26-39 in this context, but such were obviously in the background. To disobey is to deny; hence, to believe is to obey.

This was interesting for me because of recent conversations concerning the nature of saving faith (here , here, and here). Is it legitimate to speak of saving faith as "faithfulness"? Is it legitimate to require that saving faith include obedience as a part of its definition? Is it legitimate to require that saving faith be purely receptive of the grace of God? At the back of these questions are concerns on the one hand about legalism, and concerns on the other about antinomianism.

All of these questions are raised by a pair of recent books, the latest in the ongoing Protestant quest to nail down "saving faith" to the systematic subflooring with nary a bubble. These two are Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry and A Faith That Is Never Alone. The former is a product primarily of Westminster Seminary West and argues (I am told) for a hard separation between faith and obedience in a definitional sense. The latter is a product primarily of Norm Shepherd and those influenced by him, including many Federal Vision lights. It argues, apparently, that faith must include obedience by definition; that is, that faith is faithfulness.

Both are on my reading list, so the summaries above are second hand. Certainly, this post will not be an attempt to interact with either work!

Rather, I thought merely to blog some preliminary thoughts about faith viewed from two perspectives. From the "black-box", empirical perspective, faith looks like faithfulness. When we open up the box and peer inside, it turns out that faith proper is an instrument that receives God's grace, which leads necessarily to obedience. In other words, the inner workings of faith do not properly include obedience; and yet, living faith is always necessarily obedient.

Think about faith as it is presented in James. Not merely in chapter 2, but in the whole of the epistle, the burden of James is this: if your faith is genuine, then it will be seen in the works of your hands (Jas 1.26, 3.13, 4.4 but also 1.3-4, 1.5-8, passim). Or as I often say to my students, "You don't really know something until you know it in your hands." James says in effect, "You don't really believe something until you believe it with your hands."

The author to the Hebrews presents the contrapositive: that those who disobey are unbelievers. So for instance, he warns

So, as the Holy Spirit says:

"Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the desert,
where your fathers tested and tried me
and for forty years saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation,
and I said, 'Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.'
So I declared on oath in my anger,
'They shall never enter my rest.' "

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. As has just been said:

"Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion."

Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.
-- Heb. 3.7-19

Time does not permit examining Jesus' take on saving faith (think for example of the fruitful soil of Matt. 13 or the Rich Young Ruler of Luke 18), nor even Paul's confirmation that the disobedient are unbelievers (1 Cor 5.11-13, Eph. 5.6 || Col. 3.6, Tit. 1.16).

All of this is strong confirming evidence that to believe is to obey. We might call this the 'empirical perspective' on faith. From the outside without any access to the inner workings of faith, what does it look like to believe? It looks like obedience to God's commands. As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.

In many pastoral settings, this is exactly what is needed. Indeed, as I work with students in my Ethics class, we talk often about integrity as a person; that is, having actions that are consistent with our stated beliefs.

The 'empirical perspective', then, can include obedience within faith as a matter of operational definition. If we think of faith as a kind of black box whose inputs are the promises and commands of God and whose output is obedience, it makes sense to view 'faith' as faithfulness.

But it turns out that not all pastoral problems can be solved by this approach. Indeed, one of the problems that Paul frequently felt the need to counter in his ministry was the problem of legalism.

By "legalism", I don't mean what Wright is so anxious to clear the Pharisees of -- a kind of merit-gaining by means of racking up righteousness points. Nor do I mean the addition of human laws to God's law; nor strict scrupulousness in keeping God's law. All of these are, of course, kinds of legalism.

But the more general definition of "legalism" that fits best what Paul argued against is this: legalism is obedience to the Law in the power of the flesh.1

It's immediately obvious that legalism in this sense can look exactly like our black-box definition of faith. Inputs: commands and promises of God. Outputs: obedience (at least by the metric of the legalistic community).

And yet, Christians all agree (following Paul) that legalism amounts to a different gospel -- unbelief! Or better, pseudo-belief.


To get at this, we must follow Paul and open up the black box, examine what goes on inside the inner workings of faith.

And when we do, we find that the faith that saves is not actually itself obedience to the Law. Instead, for Paul as he addresses the Romans, Galatians, and Philippians, faith is an instrument that lays hold of the promises of God and receives as a result the work of God: justification, sanctification, adoption, the indwelling of the Spirit. Faith in this sense is separate from obedience to the Law.

We can see this most starkly in Luther's favorite epistle, Galatians. Crucial for Paul in his argument there is that we receive the Spirit by trusting in the promises of God over against obeying the Law (Gal. 3). He insists that we are justified by faith apart from performing works of the Law (Rom. 3, 4)2.

This is mind-bending. Our black-box definition of faith was comfortable in including obedience as a part of its definition. Yet the inner workings of faith are set, apparently, apart from obedience. How?

The key (I think) is to view the black box as consisting of two components under the hood. Faith itself is that which lays hold of God's promises. As a result, God acts. He unites us to Himself, working in us through the power of the Spirit. As a result of that action, we are changed, both in initial salvation and also in its ongoing expression of sanctification. The result of that change is ... obedience.

Now, the relationship between our faith and God's work in us is inseparable from a causation perspective. Genuine, living faith will always result in God's work, resulting in obedience. Hence, the black-box perspective is operationally valid.

However, it is also incomplete. To those who labor under the illusion that their flesh-generated obedience is the same as the work of the Spirit, it must be told: faith is a receptive, not generative, instrument. 'Faithfulness' is not faith; it is the outcome of God's work in us that comes through faith.

Put another way, an emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit is an irreducible part of teaching on faith and obedience. Without that teaching, legalists are led from bad to worse. With it, we can say to both antinomians and legalists: "The cure is to believe."


1. I am indebted to Jack Miller for this definition. It makes sense of Paul's frequent coupling of the flesh/Spirit dichotomy with his faith/works of the Law dichotomy. It also makes sense of the Pharisees' simultaneous reliance on the Law *and* antinomian tendencies -- both of which are sourced from the flesh nature.
2. Utterly unconvincing are solutions that try to make Paul's disparagement of fleshly obedience to the Law mean something limited: Jewish separatism from Gentiles, or adherence to OT ceremonial law. To argue thus makes light of Paul's robust view of the Law, which was in line with Jesus' (cf. Gal. 5.14). The "curse of the Law" was not visited on Jesus because Gentiles ate pork! Read more...