Questions for the CanRC (10-B)

Scott's 10th question (again): In the Nine Points, the URCs said, “we reject the errors of those…who teach that all baptized persons are in the covenant of grace in precisely the same way such that there is no distinction between those who have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace by baptism and those who are united to Christ by grace alone through faith.” At least one current CanRC minister has, in the past, preached publicly a sermon teaching that, at baptism, every baptized person is united “head for head” with Christ. What is the range of teaching in the CanRCs regarding “baptismal union with Christ”?

I think at some level Can Ref folk can agree with this. We all affirm that not every baptized covenant child is finally saved. Moreover, we agree with the Belgic Confession, article 29 which speaks of "hypocrites, who are mixed in the church along with the good and yet are not part of the church, although they are outwardly in it." Jelle Faber explained this with the memorable analogy of kidney stones. Kidney stones are in your body, but they are not of your body (see Lectures on the Church [Kelmscott: Pro Ecclesia, 1990]). The church is an assembly of "true Christian believers" and it is by faith that we partake of Christ and all his benefits (LD 25). Those who persist in unbelief don't belong in the church any more than kidney stones belong in the body; they should be excommunicated.

Scott would like us to say that baptized members of a church are not all in the covenant in exactly the same way, but that some are in the covenant outwardly by baptism and others are united to Christ inwardly by faith. At some level, this is a theologically precise formula and it can be reconciled with the Belgic Confession's teaching with little difficulty. Hypocrites are in the covenant outwardly by baptism and are not united to Christ inwardly by faith.

Why then do some Can Ref object to this formulation? Just because a theological statement can be defended, doesn't mean it should be used. After Dr. Faber notes that the Westminster Standards use expressions which reflect Calvin's concern about visible and invisible aspects to the church, he says, "It doesn't mean that you should say, 'I am happy with those expressions or I will take over those expressions.'" Dr. Faber goes on to say that behind these expressions was a legitimate "fight against a monolythic, 'positivistic' concept of the church." (Lectures on the Church, p.20).

Similarly, I can agree with the legitimate rationale behind Scott's distinction without utilizing the distinction. The church should not tolerate unbelievers. Unbelievers have no place in the church. We should preach, warn and exhort against spiritual apathy and presumption. We must stress the necessity of faith and conversion and repentance. We should not assume every member in our congregations will be finally saved.

What's so problematic then about utilizing the distinction between those outwardly in the covenant by baptism and those inwardly united to Christ by faith? Several things.

1. This distinction diminishes the value of baptism, seemingly making baptism dispensable. The sense you get from this distinction is: "Baptism is not what counts; faith is. Being in the covenant is not what counts; being united to Christ is." This seemingly reduces baptism and covenant inclusion to something merely external, if not superfluous. But baptism is God's sacrament and the covenant is His bond of love with us. Moreover, at baptism God sincerely promises us to wash away our sins and to present us, without spot or wrinkle, among the assembly of God's elect in life eternal and formally includes us in the body of His Son, the church (cf. Lord's Day 27; Belgic Confession, article 34). How dare we diminish those promises or denigrate that inclusion? Are covenant children insignificant little rugrats until they make public profession of faith? No, all covenant children---head for head---enjoy the saving promises of their Father and inclusion in the body of His Son. And if they die without spurning those promises they will be saved.

2. The distinction ignores ways in which all covenant children are members of Christ. The Reformed formulary for baptism says that the Holy Spirit assures baptismal candidates by the sacrament of baptism that He will make them living members of Christ, imparting to them what they HAVE in Christ---namely, the washing away of sins, etc. That promise, as I've indicated in previous posts, is not a prediction awaiting fulfillment, but a declaration summoning faith. Covenant children---head for head---are members of Christ by covenant promise and must grow up to embrace it or else be excluded from the church. Those who are excluded from membership in Christ and covenant with God are the unfruitful branches of John 15 which are cut off the vine of Christ. For this reason, I love the baptismal hymn in the Augment to Hymnary of the Book of Praise (Can Ref Hymnal) which has: "We praise you, Lord, that this dear child is grafted to the vine, and as a member of your house, now bears the cross as sign." That's a profound baptismal hymn!!

3. The distinction betrays a gnostic influence. This is something I learned from Sinclair Ferguson. Descriptions of authentic Christianity as inner or inward or internal represent a deviation from the holistic anthropology of Scripture. In a conversation we had a number of years ago, Dr. Ferguson said to me, "There is no such thing as faith; there are only believers." His point is that faith is not a commodity to be housed, but a gift to be lived. It is given to us to believe, much like it is given to us to suffer. Ever since that conversation I recoil when I hear "internally in the covenant" as if external means evil.

4. The distinction lacks pastoral sensitivity by shifting the focus from the objective promises of God to the subjectivity of one's spiritual health. If I begin to press the distinction in my preaching between those outwardly in the covenant by baptism and those inwardly members of Christ by faith, I suspect most parishioners of mine would conclude they are not inwardly members of Christ by faith. This is what lay at the heart of the Liberation of 1944. The issue was assurance of faith and the trustworthiness of God's covenant promises. Similarly, it would lack pastoral sensitivity for me to press the distinction between those externally called to ministry and those internally called to ministry. At some level this distinction is useful, but when pressed leads people only to doubt whether their minister is internally called to ministry.

5. This distinction can easily be employed with more biblical and therefore suitable terminology. Why not say: "some live in terms of the covenant; others break the covenant" or "some embrace the covenant promises with faith and others reject them in unbelief." Instead of talking about "those only outwardly in the covenant by baptism" I would prefer to use the language of "unbeliever" or "covenant-breaker." Instead of talking about "those inwardly united to Christ by faith" I would prefer to use the language of "believer" or "covenant-keeper."

Popular Posts