Posted by Bob Mattes
Many of the various blog discussions on the Federal Visionists’ so-called “Non-Elect Covenant Members”, which orthodox Reformed folk have called simply “reprobates” for almost 500 years, concern the benefits that these reprobates receive while members of the visible church. One Federal Visionist was honest enough to admit that they haven’t worked out the detail on this yet. On the other hand, Steve Wilkins said of the reprobate in the visible church:
They may enjoy for a season the blessings of the covenant, including the forgiveness of sins, adoption, possession of the kingdom, sanctification, etc., and yet apostatize and fall short of the grace of God. (The Federal Vision (Monroe, Louisiana: Athanasius Press, 2004), “Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation” on page 62)
I thought that I would help out by covering what orthodox Reformed theologians have garnered from the Scriptures over the last almost 500 years, and even way before that.
For the purposes of clarity and accuracy, I will join my orthodox brothers by referring to the Federal Visionists’ “Non-Elect Covenant Members” or NECMs by what they really are: “Reprobate Covenant Members” or RCMs. This makes it clear that they were never, are not, and never will be saved, nor share in pseudo-saving benefits that Wilkins offers them. Their eternal destiny was, is, and ever shall be hell.
Common grace, of course, benefits everyone on the face of the earth, plus those aliens that visit us in their flying saucers. (Well, just kidding about the aliens.) Berkhof, on page 122 of his Summary of Christian Doctrine, defines common grace as:
When we speak of common grace, we have in mind either (a) those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted; or (b) those general blessings which God imparts to all men without any distinction as He sees fit.
This meshes with Jesus’ words in Mt 5:45b:
for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (NKJV)
and Paul in Acts 14:17:
Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.”
These passages which mention God’s grace as shared in common by all men take this fact for granted as part of other arguments. So with Calvin on Mt 5:45b:
He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. He quotes two instances of the divine kindness toward us, which are not only well known to us, but common to all: and this very participation excites us the more powerfully to act in a similar manner towards each other, though, by a synecdoche, he includes a vast number of other favors.
In the Old Testament, Psalm 65 treats God’s providence to man, especially in verses 9-13:
9 You visit the earth and water it,
You greatly enrich it;
The river of God is full of water;
You provide their grain,
For so You have prepared it.
10 You water its ridges abundantly,
You settle its furrows;
You make it soft with showers,
You bless its growth.
11 You crown the year with Your goodness,
And Your paths drip with abundance.
12 They drop on the pastures of the wilderness,
And the little hills rejoice on every side.
13 The pastures are clothed with flocks;
The valleys also are covered with grain;
They shout for joy, they also sing.
These verses lay out the extent of the category of common grace: the natural process through which God blesses all men without exception, their church affiliation notwithstanding. Berkhof, continuing from his except above, states this very well:
In distinction from the Arminians we maintain that common grace does not enable the sinner to perform any spiritual good, nor to turn to God in faith and repentance. It can be resisted by man, and is always more or less resisted, and at best affects- only the externals of social, civil, moral, and religious life. While Christ died for the purpose of saving only the elect, nevertheless the whole human race, including the impenitent and the reprobate, derive great benefits from His death. The blessings of common grace may be regarded as indirect results of the atoning work of Christ.
But what about the reprobate in the visible church? WLC Question 63 offer the following:
What are the special privileges of the visible church?
The visible church hath the privilege of being under God’ s special care and government; (Isa. 4:5–6, 1 Tim. 4:10) of being protected and preserved in all ages, notwithstanding the opposition of all enemies; (Ps. 115:1–2,9, Isa. 31:4–5, Zech. 12:2–4,8,9) and of enjoying the communion of saints, the ordinary means of salvation, (Acts 2:39,42) and offers of grace by Christ to all members of it in the ministry of the gospel, testifying, that whosoever believes in him shall be saved, (Ps. 147:19–20, Rom. 9:4, Eph. 4:11–12, Mark 16:15–16) and excluding none that will come unto him. (John 6:37) [bold added]
I left the Scripture proofs in the text as an exercise for the reader. Note that, in comparison to our previous discussion above, these benefits are not accorded to those outside the church. They are not part of the broader “common grace” as summarized so aptly by Berkhof, but specialized gifts given to the visible church. Yet, nothing on this list constitutes a saving benefit or even remotely resembles one. Hence my bold in the excerpt to emphasize grace “offered” vs. “possessed.”
Also note in the proof texts some with which Federal Visionists take great liberties, like 1 Tim 4:10 (especially Jim Jordan as covered in two updates here) and Acts 2:39. Yet, the Divines did not take these verses beyond their context to accord psuedo-saving benefits to reprobates as Federal Visionists like to do. The Divines understood that the gifts shard by the reprobates in the visible church fall way short of the saving benefits accorded only to the elect. This is in all senses, not just “in some sense”–the FVer’s favorite wiggle phrase.
Berkhof, in his Systematic Theology, lays out three definitions of the church. He summarizes the three on pages 568-569:
Thus the Church was defined as the company of the elect who are called by the Spirit of God (coetus electorum vocatorum), as the body of those who are effectually called (coetus vocatorum), or, even more commonly, as the community of the faithful or believers (coetus fidelium). The first two of these definitions serve the purpose of designating the Church as to its invisible essence, but give no indication whatsoever of the fact that it also has a visible side.
These first two definitions exclude the reprobate, or non-elect. The third definition, then, touches on the reprobate in the visible church from the point of view of baptism and profession of faith:
From the point of view of baptism and profession the Church has been defined as the community of those who are baptized and profess the true faith; or as the community of those who profess the true religion together with their children. It will readily be seen that this is a definition of the Church according to its external manifestation. [bold added]
Note the words “profess” and that last phrase, “according to its external manifestation.” There is no inner change in the reprobate’s hearts nor possession of true faith (fiducia), just an external imitation of those that the Spirit has changed. Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, i, 7, covers the difference exceedingly well:
The judgment which ought to be formed concerning the visible Church which comes under our observation, must, I think, be sufficiently clear from what has been said. I have observed that the Scriptures speak of the Church in two ways. Sometimes when they speak of the Church they mean the Church as it really is before God—the Church into which none are admitted but those who by the gift of adoption are sons of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit true members of Christ. In this case it not only comprehends the saints who dwell on the earth, but all the elect who have existed from the beginning of the world. Often, too, by the name of Church is designated the whole body of mankind scattered throughout the world, who profess to worship one God and Christ, who by baptism are initiated into the faith; by partaking of the Lord’s Supper profess unity in true doctrine and charity, agree in holding the word of the Lord, and observe the ministry which Christ has appointed for the preaching of it. In this Church there is a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance: of ambitious, avaricious, envious, evil-speaking men, some also of impurer lives, who are tolerated for a time, either because their guilt cannot be legally established, or because due strictness of discipline is not always observed. Hence, as it is necessary to believe the invisible Church, which is manifest to the eye of God only, so we are also enjoined to regard this Church which is so called with reference to man, and to cultivate its communion. [bold added]
Note carefully Calvin’s argument, especially the parts that I bolded. Again, profession of faith is a far cry from possession of faith. Calvin could not be clearer that the reprobate in the visible church “have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance.” This is the orthodox Reformed view and stands contrary to the Federal Vision, the latter nicely summarized by Steve Wilkins in regards to the reprobate in the visible church:
“In fact, covenant is a real relationship, consisting of
real communion with the triune God through union with
Christ. The covenant is not some thing that exists apart
from Christ or in addition to Him (another means of
grace) – rather, the covenant is union with Christ. Thus,
being in covenant gives all the blessings of being united
to Christ. There is no salvation apart from covenant
simply because there is not salvation apart from union
with Christ. And without union with Christ there is no
covenant at all.” (”Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation,” in
The Auburn Avenue Theology, pg. 262)
The contrast between real Reformed theology and the Federal Vision could not be clearer than this contrast between Calvin and Wilkins. Again we find ourselves at 1 Jn 2:19:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out gthat they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.
Turrretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 3, Page18, covers this beautifully. He writes on 1 Jn 2:19:
The foundation of the apostle’s reasoning is the perseverance of true believers, of which they who are destitute by that very thing testify that they are such and of the true members of the church. Augustine explains this satisfactorily when he distinguishes the sons of God–of whom he says there are some who are not yet considered us, but still are reckoned as sons of God; others on the contrary are called sons by us, who are not sons to God himself. “There are those who are called by us sons of God on account of grace received even temporarily, and still are not such to God, of whom John says, ‘they went out from us, but because they have not remained with us, they were not of us.’ He does not say, ‘they went out from us, but because they have not remained with us, they are not now of us'; but he says, ‘they went out from us, but they were not of us,’ that is, even when they seemed to be in us, they were not of us” (Admonition and Grace 9[FC 2:269; PL 44.928]). And a little after he says, “Those who did not remain, were not even then sons of God, when they were in the name and profession of the sons of God” (ibid.). [my bold]
Thus Turretin and Augustine provide no comfort for Federal Visionists. Contrast their words with Wilkins’ own where he gives reprobates in the visible church “all the blessings of being united to Christ.”
The reason that the title of this post says “Again” is because this is the fourth time that I’ve written on this topic. You can read the others here, here, and from the WLC here. Each one approaches the topic from a different vantage point and/or cites different Reformed witnesses. While some Federal Visionists continue to assign RCMs pseudo-saving graces and others simply say they possess some pseudo-saving benefits but haven’t worked out the details, I have tried to show that the Scriptures HAVE worked out the details and that our Standards, faithful Reformed expositors, and their forebearers have explained it at great length.
Unless, of course, a handful of clever men in the later 20th and early 21st century have discovered what our learned forefathers have missed for 2000 years, including orthodox Reformed theologians for almost 500 years. But I don’t think so.
Posted by Bob Mattes