Posted by Bob Mattes
I read Dr. Rob Rayburn’s letter to the PCA Standing Judicial Committee with some interest. I was curious to see how a church officer defends someone who holds virtually identical views to a man who was a hair’s breath from indictment a short time ago before fleeing the denomination. I found the read, though, greatly disappointing and even disturbing. I found the theological arguments to be more like blind assertions, and support was entirely lacking when Rayburn seemed to be making assertions about particular Scriptural texts.
I found the assertion that God forgives temporarily particularly disturbing, and that will be the subject of this post. Rayburn:
Justification – whatever else it is – is the forgiveness of sins. It is perfectly obvious that there is such a thing as temporary forgiveness because the Bible says there is (cf. Num. 14:20 with 1 Cor. 10:5; Ezekiel 16:1-14; Matthew 18:32-34; etc.). Whether we are entirely satisfied with Dr. Leithart’s effort to incorporate this biblical material into the larger picture of the way of divine grace, the fact is, temporary forgiveness is a biblical datum.
I’ll deal with his view of justification in another post. The assertion above, made without support, is that temporary forgiveness is perfectly obvious in the Bible – a given. Really? I’ve never seen it, and neither did Calvin, the Westminster Divines, or any other orthodox Reformed scholar I can find.
Let’s look at the Scriptures cited, starting with the most challenging. Matthew 18:32-34 (ESV) says:
32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.
33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’
34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.
This comes at the end of Chapter 18. Let’s place it in context. Starting in verse 15, Jesus teaches what to do if a brother sins against us. He closes verse 15 by clearly implying that one must forgive the brother if he repents. In verse 21, Peter, like us, wondered how far this forgiveness thing was supposed to go. Jesus’ response is that the Father’s forgiveness of our infinite debt of sin provides the model of how we should forgive our brothers. We have been forgiven so much, how can we in turn fail to forgive our brothers for so much less. That’s the point of the discussion. Jesus teaches this point in the form of a parable in verses 23 to 35.
But wait, didn’t the master forgive the one servant’s debt in verse 27? How does that fit in the picture? Rayburn would have us believe that by implication, God temporarily forgives sins and then can revoke that forgiveness. Is that really what the parable teaches? What have our Reformed forefathers said?
Matthew Henry wrote on this passage:
We are not to suppose that God actually forgives men, and afterwards reckons their guilt to them to condemn them; but this latter part of the parable shows the false conclusions many draw as to their sins being pardoned, though their after-conduct shows that they never entered into the spirit, or experienced the sanctifying grace of the gospel. [my emphasis]
Doesn’t sound like he believed in temporary forgiveness. Quite the contrary. But then how do we explain the parable? Some of the Westminster Divines wrote in the Westminster Annotations (ca. 1657) the Reformed interpretation of verse 34 (long but but a must-reading):
Compare this here with that which is said, v. 27. and it may be demanded, whether God ever recalls his pardon granted, or finally condemns that sinner, whom he had once forgiven: I answer,
1. As before, and elsewhere, parables are not over curiously to be strained so as to make every particle to agree in the moral explication thereof: similitudes they say, run not on four feet, they will go current if they agree in one, or a few points according to the scope thereof, and intent of the speaker. So here this parable is shewn; 1. The uncharitable temerity of men, who would find mercy at God’s hand, but shew none to men for God’s sake, and at his command. 2. The vain hopes of malicious persons: without mercy shall they be judged, who shew not mercy before they are judged.
2. God seemeth to remit the sin, where he deferreth execution of the punishment, or where he diverteth a plague or punishment denounced, in things concerning this life; as we may see in the several plagues in execution on Pharaoh and his people, or threatened as in the example of Ahab, 1 King. 21.19. and others, whose sins God forgave not; however the punishment temporal was either so diverted, or deferred to the next life, that it became not exemplary in this.
3. The gifts and graces of God are “without repentance”, Rom 11.29. such as he never repenteth of, nor wholly recalleth; as in election, sanctification, remission of sins. Where the Scripture speaks of God’s repentance as for giving the Kingdom to Saul, or the like, they descend to man’s capacity therein: for properly God cannot repent, because he cannot erre who is omniscient, or mistake in his election so as to repent, or recall his own grant, who foresaw the event of his giving so that, as where God remitteth the guilt of one sin, he remitteth all; so to whomsoever he forgiveth sins, he forgiveth them forever; yet here, where the punishment is not presently (or possibly all the sinners lifetime) remitted and taken off; as in David may appear, 2 Sam 12.13,18. 2 Sam 15. 2 Sam 23. but God never finally condemnes that sinner, whom he had once forgiven. [my emphasis]
Wow, great stuff from our Reformed forefathers. They obviously had no place for Federal Vision fantasies about temporary saving graces, including temporary forgiveness.
Their first point about parables is one that I made some time ago from Calvin relative to John 15:2 and the vine. Lane also wrote on John 15 and Federal Vision. Federal Visionists turn that passage into a botany lesson at the microscopic level. But in fact, our Lord was making a simple point, as he tends to do with His parables. We do well to heed the Divines’ and Calvin’s words.
What about Num 14:20?
20 Then the LORD said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. 21 But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD, 22 none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.
This goes directly to point 2 that the Divines made above. The 1599 Geneva Bible notes concur on verse 20:
In that he destroyed not them utterly, but left their posterity and certain to enter.
Amazing how consistent the Reformers were across the years. The Annotations make an almost identical comment, adding that God also didn’t destroy the older generation immediately but deferred their punishment for a while (again see Annotations Point 2 above). We see that God judged those who failed to partake of His goodness in faith. God did forgive and preserve those that partook in faith – Joshua and Caleb (Num 14:24,30).
1 Cor 10:5 is simply a restatement of this same incident. Calvin defers his comment on 1 Cor 10:5 to his discussion on 1 Cor 11:29. There he writes:
He had previously pointed out in express terms the heinousness of the crime, when he said that those who should eat unworthily would be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord Now he alarms them, by denouncing punishment; for there are many that are not affected with the sin itself; unless they are struck down by the judgment of God. This, then, he does, when he declares that this food, otherwise health-giving, will turn out to their destruction, and will be converted into poison to those that eat unworthily.
He adds the reasons because they distinguish not the Lord’s body, that is, as a sacred thing from a profane. “They handle the sacred body of Christ with unwashed hands, (Mark 7:2,) nay more, as if it were a thing of nought, they consider not how great is the value of it. They will therefore pay the penalty of so dreadful a profanation.” Let my readers keep in mind what I stated a little ago, that the body is presented to them, though their unworthiness deprives them of a participation in it. [my emphasis]
The Ezekiel passage provides more of the same. None of this should surprise anyone remotely familiar with WLC Q. 62 & 63:
Q. 62. What is the visible church?
A. The visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children.
Q. 63. What are the special privileges of the visible church?
A. The visible church hath the privilege of being under God’s special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages, notwithstanding the opposition of all enemies; and of enjoying the communion of saints, the ordinary means of salvation, and offers of grace by Christ to all the members of it in the ministry of the gospel, testifying, that whosoever believes in him shall be saved, and excluding none that will come unto him.
There are indeed benefits to being baptized into the visible church, but the saving graces (forgiveness of sins, justification, sanctification, etc.) are reserved only for the elect through faith, and they are permanent. WLC Q. 64-66
Q. 64. What is the invisible church?
A. The invisible church is the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head.
Q. 65. What special benefits do the members of the invisible church enjoy by Christ?
A. The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory.
Q. 66. What is that union which the elect have with Christ?
A. The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband; which is done in their effectual calling.
Rayburn went on to write in his letter:
The panel has the audacity to say that “What Scripture says about a particular topic is set forth in our Standards.” [C vi] Really? Where do the Standards deal with temporary forgiveness? If, indeed, Holy Scripture is really our only infallible rule of faith we cannot possibly object to a man working hard to understand how such teaching is to be incorporated into the system, all the more if, as in Dr. Leithart’s case, he confesses loyalty to that system and proves it in his writings. What is more, our loyalty to Holy Scripture absolutely requires us in such a case as this to acknowledge in our discussion of his views of justification and the other benefits of Christ’s redemption that there is obviously a sense in which forgiveness may be temporary, holiness temporary, a family relationship with God temporary, “life” itself temporary, even the love of God temporary (Deut. 7:7-11; Hos. 11:1).
Audacity? Well regardless of what Leithart confesses, we’ve already seen that Scripture does not teach temporary forgiveness. The argument against the erroneous idea of God loving temporarily in a saving way (Rayburn’s last sentence) parallels that against temporary forgiveness. The Westminster Standards don’t mention temporary forgiveness, temporary justification, or any temporary saving benefit because such things don’t exist either in Scripture or by extension Reformed theology. Perhaps Dr. Rayburn and the Federal Visionists have discovered something missed by orthodox Reformed scholars for almost 400 years, but I don’t think so.
After typing the above analysis, it occurred to me that Rayburn’s and Leithart’s arguments on this subject seem much closer to Open Theism than Reformed theology. Carefully reread the Divine’s Point 3 above. The Bible states clearly that God does not repent or change His mind (e.g., Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29). Where verses imply otherwise, they are using anthropomorphisms to condescend to the human level, just as noted in the Annotations excerpt above. That’s the traditional Reformed view.
If, as Federal Visionists seem to be saying, God truly repents in the human sense of the term – changes his mind about forgiving someone as the master does in the parable – then as open theism posits, He must not be omniscient and therefore learns the future along with us. That’s pure heresy, but that’s where temporary forgiveness as described by Federal Vision leads when taken to its logical conclusion. I’m guessing that they haven’t thought that far ahead.
They should have, because if we take Jesus’ parable at the end of Mat 18 at the level of detail which Federal Visionists read it, then the master had no idea that the first servant would not forgive his fellow servant. That’s implicit in the revocation of debt relief in the story. So, does the parable teach that God doesn’t know the future and therefore revokes His forgiveness when you sin or show ingratitude? That’s the logical extension of Federal Vision’s reading of this passage, and by extension the others that Rayburn cites.
The alternative to an open theism basis of temporary forgiveness would be works-righteousness like the Roman Catholic system, where forgiveness and justification can be lost through subsequent sin. That might be more consistent with Federal Visions “final justification”, but open theism could fit that bogus concept as well.
So in this post, I presented the Scriptural, orthodox Reformed view that God’s forgiveness is always permanent. I’m very interested in seeing a cohesive, Scriptural response from Federal Visionists on how their temporary forgiveness doesn’t imply or require an open theism view that God doesn’t know the future, or alternately that doesn’t imply a works-righteousness scheme where forgiveness is lost through subsequent sin. How does Federal Vision theologically mechanize temporary forgiveness? There’s certainly no support within Calvinism, which is based upon God’s absolute sovereignty and unchangeable decree of all that comes to pass (Dan 4:35, WCF 3.1).
Posted by Bob Mattes