Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Who is in the New Covenant?

And some of you may have gathered, I have been struggling with those precise areas in which Reformed Baptists, a group in which I proudly proclaimed membership, have deviated from the Reformed theology of the reformers: covenantal theology, sacraments vs. ordinances, and paedobaptism, a theology for want of a better term I'll label Presbyterian. (I would include paedocommunion as well, but that is more of an internal debate within the Presbyterian reformed rather than a Presbyterian-Baptist issue.)

In some sense, the big struggle is over. I have come to accept covenantal theology and infant baptism. The struggle that remains is my scientist’s penchant for ducks-in-a-row orderliness. I want to be able to express these beliefs in a logical manner on paper. Not necessarily for the benefit of anybody other than myself. I just "feel" better when I can connect all the dots.

That would seem to be a long way off. My thoughts are all over the place, and so far I have yet to find a way to express them via a continuous thread. So be it. I still want to get some thoughts down on e-paper. So beware, posts are going resemble what they are: a sort of stream of consciousness.

One thing for sure: this whole question is related to covenants.

I think we all know what biblical covenants are. They are agreements unilaterally imposed by God. Contracts between the party of the first part, God, and the party of the second part, man. Except man has no negotiation rights or privileges. These contracts are imposed by a sovereign head of state.

As for Covenant Theology, that takes more time. A common and neutral definition is "a method of systematic theology in which all revelation is understood within the framework of biblical covenants." Fair enough, and good enough for now.

Counting covenants is another area in which I don’t want to comment at the moment. Let's just talk about the old and new covenants, in fact for today just the new.

I think most Christians will more or less agree on the substance of the New Covenant. Christ has redeemed us with His blood. We are to believe and obey. The enforcement portion includes eternal life or eternal damnation.

The question, and it proves to be a watershed, is this: Who are members of this covenant?

There is a lot to look at in terms of this question.

We can begin by making the assumption that all who claim the mantle "Reformed" believe in perseverance of the saints. One cannot lose one's salvation. There is hardly a doctrine easier to demonstrate from scripture. However, it is not without its difficulties, but only if one does not consider the complete implications of covenantal membership. Let's look at a familiar passage from Hebrews.
28Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people."

Who are these people under judgment, who have spurned the Son of God? There are three possibilities.
  1. Your garden variety unbelievers.
  2. Those who have lost their salvation.
  3. An intermediate group.

The first option is ruled out because a distinction is being made: this group will be punished more severely because they have spurned additional blessings. There would be no need of any distinction if the writer was referring to generic unbelievers.

The second option is ruled out because the doctrine of eternal security is taught so plainly throughout the bible. The bulk of scripture precludes interpreting this passage as teaching that you can lose your salvation.

The third option is the only one that is possible. The special warning of apostasy and its consequences applies not to "simple" unbelievers, or those who are saved, but to another group. This other group is: those who have betrayed membership in the covenant. In the old covenant, this would be the apostate Jews—a group distinct from gentiles (who were not in the covenant) and their covenantal comrades, the Jews who acknowledged God and strived for obedience.

As it is today. "The Lord will judge His people [more severely]". Logic demands that "His people", those in the covenant, includes some who will apostatize, i.e., it includes non-believers. "His people" is the professing church. The old covenant membership was comprised of the Jews, some of whom apostatized, and the new covenant is comprised of the visible church, and again we see that membership does not preclude apostasy.

This is point upon which much hinges: you can be in the covenant, and not be saved. The covenant is made with a people that God has set aside—some of which will ultimately be lost. It will be better for them had they not been in the covenant.

The next step is to recognize the biblically madated signs and seals, not of being saved, but of being in the new covenant, and to avoid restricting those signs and seals to a smaller subset than God intended. To see those signs as covenant-centered, not man-centered. To see them as signifying (and more than that) of God's promise, not of man's accomplishment.

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