Fear Not!

I have had the honor of conducting about fourteen funeral services in the three and a half years I have been a pastor here in North Dakota. Every time I conduct a funeral service I have been so grateful for the training I received at Tenth Presbyterian Church’s Round Table discussions. I don’t even remember the name of the pastor who led it, but he had many years of experience ministering to the dying and the bereaved. I was delighted, then, when I read this book, for all the same emphases were there. In fact, this book is a gem, because it states the issues not only eloquently, but pastorally. This is the perfect book to give to someone who is bereaved or on their death-bed. It is not long, but is full of comfort and truth.

What is so good about this book? These things: it shows the true character of death as sin in full flower; it shows the bankruptcy of the worldly way of thinking about death; it shows that death is unnatural and yet defeated; it shows the difference between Christian grief and non-Christian grief (the latter having no hope); it shows the vital importance of the resurrection as the lodestar for comfort; it concentrates heavy emphasis on the physical nature of the resurrection (so important because in large part it is the physical nearness of the beloved one that the bereaved miss) without de-emphasizing the importance of the vindication of truth that the resurrection provides; and finally takes all the sting out of death and judgment for the believer, while proclaiming the Gospel clearly to the lost. What more could you want in a single book dealing with death? May this book not only be instrumental in death-bed conversions, but may it spread comfort to Christians facing death and to Christians facing bereavement, and may it help Christians be equipped to help others in these kinds of circumstances.

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The Divine Decrees

My previous handling of section 7 is here. This section really gets at one of the key issues separating the FV from its critics: what can we say about the non-decretally elect?

What I like about this section: Wilson affirms that the elect cannot increase or diminish. Obviously, he is using the term “elect” here in a decretal sense, not in the so-called “covenantal” sense. Then, however, we come into terminological difficulties. Let me explain three ways of seeing the covenant: 1. The covenant is made only with the decretally elect, and there is nothing more to say. This is the typical Baptist position. 2. The substance of the covenant is made with Christ and with the decretally elect in Him (see WLC 31). However, there is a covenantal administration that includes the decretally elect and the non-decretally elect, and is the basis for infant baptism. This is the position of Witsius, a’Brakel, Turretin, and most if not all the Post-Reformation guys (and many of the Reformation guys, too). This is also my position. It is equivalent to the inner/outer distinction made by, say, Scott Clark. 3. The covenant of grace is undifferentiated between the elect and the non-elect (used in a decretal sense). This is the FV definition of the covenant. There is no way to harmonize the FV definition with WLC 31, by the way. They cannot say that the covenant of grace was made with Christ, and with all the elect as His seed, unless they want to change the definition of “elect” in WLC 31. I think the original writers of the WLC meant decretally elect there, not covenantally elect.

Moving on to the “common operations,” it would be helpful if the FV would clarify precisely what those common operations are. In the comments on my last post (linked above), this was a serious question. What does “varying degrees” mean? Is Wilkins’s covenantal justification a common operation?

Thirdly, concerning the supposed overlap of covenantal terminology with decretal terminology, this question arises: why use the language that way, when every last Scripture used to prove this point from an FV point of view can be just as easily (I would argue more easily) be described as a judgment of charity? I have yet to find a single FV proponent argue exegetically that the judgment of charity argument holds no water. Wilkins, for instance, is constantly dismissing the judgment of charity position, but he will not engage in the exegetical reasons why the judgment of charity argument doesn’t work. In other words, on this topic, the wheel wasn’t broken, and the FV has tried to fix it. Fixing something that isn’t broken usually results in breakage.

The statement about “trumping” also came in for a fair bit of confusion in the comments. What does it even mean to say that the decrees don’t “trump” the covenant? The answer to this question presupposes, of course, the discussion concerning the participants in the covenant, and how they are participating, as shown above in paragraph two. From my perspective, of course the decree doesn’t trump the covenant, since the covenant is made (in its substance) with the elect! Then the judgment of charity argument explains why Paul uses decretal language to describe people who may or may not be decretally elect. This is a perfectly reasonable and logical explanation of the use of language. Now, I am not saying that certain terms of the ordo salutis have only one definition. “Justification” means something different in Paul than it does in James, as many, many, many Reformed scholars have noted before me. But that isn’t the issue. The issue is this: when Paul uses an ordo salutis term to describe the non-elect, what is happening? Is Paul assuming that all the members of the church have justification unless proven otherwise? Or is Paul actually stating that non-elect members of the church really do have “justification,” whatever that means now that it doesn’t mean the ordo salutis sense? FV writers have never been able to clarify what this covenantal justification is and what it isn’t. Sometimes (when not under the pressure of examination) they will say that it has overlapping meaning with the ordo salutis term. Other times (when under the pressure of examination), they will say that it does not have any overlap in meaning with the ordo salutis sense. Regardless, the question still remains: in what does this “covenantal justification” consist? What is it? I would propose that if the FV cannot answer this (and I have yet to see a definition of covenantal justification sufficiently distinct from the ordo salutis sense), then it is a very unhelpful term. Why use a term that you cannot even define? The difference between Paul and James in the term “justification” has been defined. Paul means it in a declarative sense, whereas James means it in an evidentiary sense. Declaration and evidence are two clearly distinct categories. No doubt the FV will accuse me of wanting to have all my t’s crossed and my i’s dotted. No doubt they will accuse me of wanting everything compartmentalized into a nice neat box, when there is “mystery” concerning some of these things. However, I am talking about justification, which is surely central to the Christian faith, and if we cannot be clear on justification, then we should chuck the whole thing and become Mormons.