Drawing Crooked with Covenant Markers

Luther door2

Notes on Douglas Wilson’s
21 Theses On Assurance and Apostasy

“Paedofaith is like the New Testament, but with midichlorians.”

Doug Wilson likes to quote the Proverb that says God draws straight with crooked lines, so my post title is a little cheeky. Anyhow, I thought it would be helpful, for myself at least, to work through his thoughtful list with a red marker. A red, permanent marker.

1. There are only two final destinations for human beings after the day of judgment, those two destinations being the final damnation of the old humanity in Adam, and the final salvation of the new humanity in Christ.

Agreed, but what is this “new humanity”? The hope of the saved in the New Testament was not salvation (from God’s judgment) but resurrection.

2. Throughout all history, God has kept a visible covenant people for Himself, intended to declare, model, test drive, instantiate, train for, grow toward, and otherwise approximate that final redeemed humanity.

Certainly, but this statement points out the similarities between Israel and the Church and does not mention the vast differences, the major one being the union between the visible and the invisible: the filling of the Spirit, and the ability to discern the spirits and fight them. The way to deal with a misguided focus on the invisible Church is not to shift to an equally misguided focus on the visible Church. That leaves us with something akin to circumcision. The telos of the Old Covenant was God with us, but the New began with God in us. And the first sign of God in us is profession, some kind of testimony as a firstfruits of the Spirit.

3. Depending on location and era, that visible covenant people has ranged between a grotesque parody of that final redeemed humanity and a genuine approximation of it. As history grows toward its glorious consummation, the historical progress toward that final eschatological goal will be more and more unmistakeable.

Very optimistic, and I agree in many respects once again. But where we disagree is the hangover from Christendom when it comes to the definition of “Christian.” Is a Christian someone under the sound of the Gospel, or a someone who has heard, responded and is now proclaiming that Gospel? Any “boundary of flesh” is just a revived circumcision, the Church as zombie Israel.

4. But in either case this means that the rosters of names involved, those of the visible covenant people, and the final redeemed humanity, the elect, are not identical rosters.

Firstly, the real difference here is Pastor Wilson’s very Abrahamic definition of “covenant.” If the Church is a “Covenant people” like Israel was, then there are those who are “inside” the New Covenant and under its obligations, and those who are outside of it, which would logically mean they are not under any obligations. Even Gentile believers were under no obligation to join Israel, but they could certainly repent and believe. The New Covenant, however, is global. There is no one outside of it, not one. This is why the New Testament does not speak of a “Covenant people” but of a royal priesthood. The Church is visible gatherings of regenerate people working as priests within all nations. The “Covenant community” is thus not in here but out there.

Regarding the rolls in heaven and on earth, we cannot judge people’s hearts but we are called to know them by their fruits. The Church is quite clearly called to make the roll on earth resemble as closely as possible the one in heaven. That is what Church discipline is for.

The fact that we cannot know men’s hearts is no excuse for resorting to institutional Christianity. The question here is not whether we can know, but the biblical definition of what a Christian is. Being “Christian” is nothing like being Jewish. There is no tribal or national identity involved at all, which is exactly why both circumcision and uncircumcision were superseded. If paedobaptism had been the Old Covenant rite, Paul would have said that both baptism and un-baptism were now meaningless. The cultural expression of the indwelling (invisible) Christ is the outflow, not the source. A true Jew is someone whose religion begins in the heart.

So defining the Church outwardly is a wrong move, and it has consequences.

5. God has always given His visible covenant people visible covenant markers. In our time of the new covenant, these markers are gospel and sacrament. God is sketching His preliminary drawing of His final redeemed humanity in charcoal — Word and water, bread and wine. It does not yet appear what the final oil painting will be like.

Very poetic, but once again, the differences between Old and New are conveniently ironed out. And although Israel was a type of the Church, the Church is not a “people” in the sense that Israel was. The “mark” that Israel bore was like the mark of Cain. It was a sign of mercy. Baptism is not a sign of mercy but a sign of authority. I’ve argued this for years and so far nobody has responded. It’s very clear in the text. The role of the Church is witness, including martyrdom. Where Israel’s mark meant that animal substitutes carried their sins, the New Covenant marker makes us the actual sacrifices. The baptizand now speaks of Christ with the authority of the Church. Arguing that baptism is all about a declaration from heaven (as Peter Leithart does) totally overlooks what Jesus was commissioned to do after His baptism.

6. The visible covenant people therefore necessarily contains two kinds of people, regenerate and unregenerate — lines that will be used in the painting forever and lines that will be erased.

This is truth mixed with error. The New Covenant marker is supposed to be a sign of regeneration, not a sign that somebody is merely under the sound of the Gospel. Even during Jesus’ ministry, the disciples were not merely those who heard (Israel first), but those who heard, recognised God’s voice, and followed. Again, the question is not whether there are unregenerate people in the Church but the standard itself. The misguided idea that “Christian” and “regenerate” are two different things is the source of all the silly fights. These gents act as though this issue is tough to work out from the Scriptures, as though it is highly nuanced and that various shades of interpretation are possible. Guess what? The Baptist preacher on the street with an IQ half yours is way ahead of you on this one.

7. Christ is always present and offered in His gospel and through His sacraments. When an unregenerate covenant member does not close with Christ, the issue is his absence, not Christ’s. With their lips they approach Him, but their hearts are far away. Christ was not far away, they were far away.

It’s one thing to argue that the sacraments are efficacious. But logic dictates that one should first work out from the Scriptures what those sacraments are for, and thus what they are actually doing when they are efficacious. Most of the Reformed world simply refuses to submit to the obvious on this one. When presented with a New Testament text, they take you back to the Passover, as if it wasn’t the Lord’s Table itself which put Passover to death! Jesus killed Passover and pulled the Lord’s Supper out of its side like a freshly washed rib. If Judas had lived a few more decades, he would likely have celebrated Passover with no problem at all, being Jewish.

My main issue here is the despicable idea that there is a “New Covenant membership” which is divorced from regeneration. No. Everyone is already a member of the New Covenant when it comes to obligations to Christ. He is King of Kings. If Pastor Wilson is correct, then the body of Christ has members which are dead in their sins. He would argue that Jesus cuts off the branches that don’t bear fruit, but that was a text concerning Israel. Its membership was Abrahamic, tribal, genealogical, earthy. The fruit which God is after is spiritual, and it is that fruit, the fruit of righteousness rather than the womb and the Land, which is the baptismal entry standard.

Personally, I think the idea that Christ is offered to people in the sacraments in a salvific sense is akin to heresy. It turns the sacraments into a rival Gospel, which is basically what Paul was arguing against in Galatians: a set of “Covenant obligations” from which the Spirit of Christ frees us. I could go on about the specifics, but the heart of the matter here is that the New Covenant sacraments are not offered for salvation but as means of testimony. To what do they testify? Repentance and faith. Faith comes by hearing, so the sacraments are not object lessons to us to call us to Christ. They are object lessons to the world. Pastor Wilson’s Abrahamic definition of the New Covenant no doubt springs from a pastoral heart, but it boils down to legalism.

8. When covenant members who are not elect are erased from the preliminary drawing, this means there was something wrong with their presence there from the beginning. God is all wise, and so their presence was no mistake. At the same time, that presence does not function at all like the presence of the elect.

I have covered the mistaken definition of Covenant, so here it is probably better to point out how parochial this thesis is. When Paul spoke about vessels of destruction within Israel, the Abrahamic era was not yet over. But it is over now. The Church is not a tribe or nation but a priesthood. The standard for service is election, and the government of the Church is supposed to be Spirit-filled. The chasm between carnal Church government and the government of the Spirit is not to be bridged by defining the Church in pre-Pentecostal terms. Yes, there are unregenerate people in the Church, but the reason they are there is usually because the Church itself has lost sight of its mission. When the saints get out and witness the “non-elect” can rarely keep up the act. If they are sincere but unregenerate, it usually leads to conversion. In the Reformed world, it seems to me that since the standard for “Covenant membership” is not regeneration, the non-elect set the standards, and the bar is very low. All Christians are prone to legalism, but this philosophy institutionalises it — from birth. It creates exactly the kind of culture out of which Christ eventually calls His people.

9. Because the covenant markers can be abused by unregenerate covenant members, these covenant markers cannot be a ground of assurance. True evangelical faith can and should use them as a means of assurance, but never as the ground of assurance.

This is the kind of muddy thinking that results from hybridising a social demarcation (circumcision) with a spiritual/ethical one. Certainly, Abraham believed God, but he was not given a spiritual marker like baptism. Circumcision was about who was in school (“Hear, O Israel!”) whereas baptism is about who can teach (“Go and tell…”).

Peter Leithart seems to believe that baptism actually is a ground of assurance, but I could be mistaken. This whole debate is so confused simply because these gents won’t submit to the New Testament. Can you every imagine a Jew wondering if he really was a Jew checking under his robe for assurance? (I’m not sure what the females did.) If being a Christian is merely a social demarcation, then check your paedobaptism certificate, silly. But if you think that this social demarcation also somehow magically infused you with the Spirit, and you are relying on your baptism for either the means or ground of assurance (this is just semantics), you’ve just discovered how mistaken this philosophy is. A credobaptism is a testimony that somebody has looked to Christ. A baptism is not a means or ground of anything for the baptizand, except authority to witness. Dr Leithart rightly says that the baptism texts are disempowered by most paedobaptists, but why does he never entertain the idea that those text might in fact not be talking about the kind of baptism that could ever be carried out on an infant?

10. Covenant markers can never be a ground of assurance because unbelief and/or apostasy can be hidden and secret. Countless hypocrites have had all their external papers in order. If externals were a ground of assurance, then hypocrites could have true assurance. But a true Christian is one inwardly, and real baptism is of the heart, by the Spirit.

Somebody needs to take the Covenant markers away from Pastor Wilson. He keeps colouring outside the lines drawn by the New Testament, and then wants us to honour those lines. How about colouring inside the lines? Certainly, we baptists misjudge the line every now and then, but at least we know what the standard is.

And someone also needs to ask him if an infant can have a real baptism of the heart. If so, did the infant know it? Did the infant repent and believe? If a true Christian is one inwardly, then a baptised infant is by definition a false Christian until he or she hears the Gospel and repents. Why be a false Christian factory? The fact that he a mentions a baptism of heart rather than a circumcision of heart is telling. What was a true Jew? A person whom the law had wounded and brought to faith, whether Jew or Gentile. That is the kind of person who was and is baptised. And circumcision always comes first. Pastor Wilson, if you are reading, it’s never going to work. Give up now.

11. Believers who struggle with assurance should constantly be encouraged by pastors, family and friends to look to Christ wherever He has promised to be — in the proclaimed Word, in His people, in the sacraments, in the reading of Scripture and prayer.

Good stuff. My take on this is, if you are worried about assurance, and are not resting on your works, that’s a pretty good sign you are regenerate. Non-believers don’t care.

12. When such believers continue to struggle, they need to be strongly encouraged to repent of and abandon false and unbiblical notions of what a “true” conversion must look like. If God had wanted everyone to have a Damascus road experience, He would have given everyone sandals and a horse.

The experience of a pastor. Very glad that conversion is at the heart, here. Peter Leithart extends conversion to infant baptism, which redefines conversion like letting women into the men’s club redefines men’s club, or gay marriage redefines marriage. It becomes a meaningless definition, or something else entirely, like when a friend tells you they have “converted” from Catholicism to Judaism. No thanks.

13. When a professing believer comes to question his assurance, and his life is one characterized by drunkenness, fornication, a foul mouth, bitterness, backstabbing, out-of-control parties, pot smoking and the like, questioning his assurance is exactly what he ought to be doing, and about time. It is not pastoral care to try to squelch questions that have been a long time coming. People who live that way will not inherit the kingdom of God, and should not be allowed to think they are going to.

Yep. Church discipline is a bit like witch dunking in this regard. If the one disciplined repents and is restored, they were always regenerate. And if they weren’t regenerate, they are now, so who cares? The standard has not been compromised by well-meaning sociology and carnal fears for offspring.

14. To repeat, for such persons, we ought not to ask why Christ didn’t show up in the covenant markers for them. Christ was always present there. Somebody else didn’t show up.

Well, for a start, with the NEW Covenant marker, used obediently, this would not be such a tough question. “Why did you choose to get baptised?” would be the question. Baptism is not a social marker like circumcision. The baptizand did show up. The question is why? Were they coerced? Did they just go along with the crowd? Did they fear being ostracised? Baptist baptism theology needs a lot of work, too. The best candidates for baptism are those who truly desire it to identify them with Christ’s testimony and suffering.

And the idea that these “Covenant markers” are a priestly calling is just Judaizing. The entire point of the second birth is that it makes the first birth redundant. A Christian baby is not a baby Christian. This really is not hard to understand.

15. A person who shows up physically to the covenant markers with habitual and characteristic sin in his life, of the sort that Scripture repeatedly says is inconsistent with inheritance of eternal life, does not need to be told to “believe.” He needs to be told to “repent and believe.”

Repent always comes before believe, unless you have messed with “believe” and invented paedofaith so babies can be Christians without repenting. I guess if you do paedobaptism, you’re going to have all sorts of weird paedobaptism problems. Paedofaith is like the New Testament, but with midichlorians.

16. When they are genuine, repentance and faith are two descriptions of the same motion, considered from two different vantage points. Sin and salvation stand opposite one another, and so to turn away from the former and toward the latter can be described as two actions — either as repentance or as faith — while being at the same time the same motion.

Cool. Now show me a baby that can do that. One that doesn’t look like Baby Herman.

17. This means that repentance and faith are inseparable. One cannot be removed without simultaneously removing the other.

Well, if you hadn’t redefined faith as something a baby can do, this thesis would not be necessary.

18. Therefore faith in the presence of sermons or sacraments that does not result in actual detestation of sin is not the kind of faith that can derive any grace whatever from any of the available means of grace.

I agree with this in the way Oswald Chambers put it, concerning thoughts which were mere sentiments but not acted upon, a faith which is merely “sentimental.” But in this case it is probably a way of dealing with those who have been given the Lord’s Supper since before they can remember, and now that bad tree of wild redefinitions is bearing its bitter fruit.

“But you told me I was a Christian? You told me that I belong to God?”

“Yes, but it seems you are a vessel fashioned for dishonour, a chamber pot, a servant not a son.”

This is where confusing the sons of Abraham with Abraham the son of God gets you.

19. Wise pastoral care does not want to in any way encourage this kind of impotent faith. It is not a faith that gets it part way right, not in any meaningful sense. A corpse is not partly resurrected, and dead faith is not most of the way there.

A baptism that doesn’t resemble putting a corpse into the ground isn’t a good place to start. Just saying.

20. It is possible to encourage weak believers who have a true but wavering  faith and simultaneously disrupt the hypocritical assumptions of those who want to hide from God by dint of great noise and observances. Sound preaching is good for both of them, and the same kind of preaching is good for both of them.

Yes! The Gospel! Yes!

21. The new birth is the one thing needful. It is the only reality that creates repentance and faith together, which is the only way any of this makes any sense.

Agreed. So why divorce the definition of “Christian” (or “Covenant member”) from the new birth, if that is the only thing that is needful, the clarity of the sharp black lines inside which we must colour? As I have written before, I believe the Federal Vision focus on faithful parenting is a good reaction to the failures in modern Western Christian culture, and the tireless attempts to get into the minds of our children. But turning to paedosacraments and God-parents, all markers of the first birth, is not the solution. They are not only not “needful,” they are entirely redundant. The New Covenant is bigger than that.

What is the solution? The Gospel is the solution.

I think I remember Pastor Wilson saying that he came to Reformed Theology like falling down the stairs. There is a certain amount of logic in the Reformed view, but the Abrahamic view of the New Covenant is not logical, and in fact contradicts the New Testament at many points. It is like finding your way around London with a first century street directory. This is why a Reformed commentary on Galatians is as clueless concerning Paul’s main argument as is a Dispensationalist commentary on Hebrews.

To sum up, lots of good points, but I think the teaching of “Covenant membership,” or membership of Christ without personal regeneration, confuses not only the people in the pew, but also those who teach it. And there is no end in sight.

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