Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, Part 3

Posted by R. Fowler White

Continuing with part 3 of our review of Jeffrey’s Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, we come to chs. 7-11 where Johnson carries on with what he calls his “direct and pointed attack on the covenantal framework in which paedobaptism is rooted” (p. 21). Our focus here is on his arguments devoted to the problems of conditions and covenant breakers (i.e., apostates) in paedobaptist covenant theology (chs. 7-9) and to the deficiencies and purpose of the old covenant (chs. 10-11).

As Johnson discusses in chs. 7-9 paedobaptist attempts to solve the problems posed by integrating conditions and apostates in the covenant of grace, his aim is to put a challenge to paedobaptists as follows: they should just admit that their every attempt to integrate conditions and apostasy into the covenant of grace (as they conceive it) destroys the grace of that covenant. Any covenant of grace worthy of the name must secure the grace needed to bring all its members in and keep them in, else membership in it is meaningless. With that challenge to paedobaptist covenant theology in mind, Johnson takes up the deficiencies and purpose of the old covenant. He tells us in ch. 10 that the deficiencies of the old covenant at fulfilling God’s promises were evident in that the bulk of its heirs were merely carnal, its blessings merely this-earthly, and its duration merely temporary. Having presented in ch. 10 what God’s purpose for the old covenant was not, Johnson explains in ch. 11 what His purpose was. That purpose was fourfold: 1) to expose the guilt and inability of sinners; 2) to point sinners to Christ; 3) to foster the nation’s political, moral, and genealogical security and purity; and 4) to reassert the standard to be satisfied for the ungodly to be justified (true heirs of Abraham).

In response to Johnson’s arguments in these chapters, let’s take the content of chs. 10-11 first. His treatment of God’s purpose in giving the old covenant is useful, especially in ch. 11. Even so, his primary interest is to show that, because God’s purpose in giving the old covenant was not to fulfill His eternal and spiritual promises, it cannot be a covenant of grace. This conclusion does not follow, however. We can agree that God’s purpose in giving the old covenant was not to fulfill His eternal and spiritual promises in their full and final form. We can agree that the old covenant was not intended to produce the true Heir of God’s promises: that Heir would not come through the old covenant tribe and order of Levi, but through Judah’s tribe and Melchizedek’s order. We can agree the old covenant was not intended to produce the true heirs of God’s promises: those heirs would look beyond Sinai and follow in the footsteps of father Abraham’s faith to find a righteousness better than their own and an inheritance better than Canaan. We cannot agree, however, that God’s purpose did not fulfill His promises in a temporary and physical form that instructed and built up the remnant in faith in the eternal and spiritual form available through the Surety to come. In other words, God’s purpose in giving the old covenant was to fulfill His promises in shadow and type, their deficiencies notwithstanding. For that reason, we can affirm that the justification of believers under the old and new covenants was one and the same, and that the old covenant was a covenant of grace sufficient and efficacious, through the Spirit’s work, to administer God’s eternal and spiritual promises to the remnant.

Turning back to chs. 7-9, is Johnson correct to say that paedobaptists should admit that their attempts to integrate conditions and apostates into the covenant of grace (as paedobaptists conceive it) destroy the grace of that covenant? As I see it, Johnson’s analysis is incorrect, and for reasons that he himself discusses. Focusing first on the issue of conditions, conditions are compatible with the grace of the covenant of grace because, but only because, both envision the true Heir of Abraham, the Surety of the covenant. Under both the old and the new covenants, it is the Surety’s obedience to the law’s conditions that guarantees justification for those of Abraham’s faith. Moreover, true believers in that Surety are not under the law as a covenant of works by which they are justified or condemned. In other words, the law is for believers a rule of life—the law (yoke) of liberty—training them in the holy character and conduct that are inseparable from justification as the fruits and evidences of justifying faith. In sum, then, because the Surety of the covenant of grace satisfies the law’s conditions and thus secures justification for believers in Him, conditions do not destroy the grace of the covenant.

Well, is Johnson correct to argue that any covenant of grace worthy of the name must secure the grace of justification and perseverance for all its participants, else participation in it is meaningless? Again, in my opinion, Johnson is incorrect. For him, what counts as a covenant of grace is only that which ensures the salvation of all its participants. We have to ask, however, from where does he get this definition? Not unexpectedly, time and again, Johnson appeals to Jer 31.31-34 (Heb 8.8-12). That text is certainly relevant to a discussion of the new covenant, but Jeremiah’s focus is on the promises of the new covenant. Elsewhere, the threats of the new covenant come into view. For example, in Rev 2-3, Christ addresses His church(es) with threats of judgment for apostasy as well as promises of salvation for perseverance. In Matt 7.21-23, He declares His intent on judgment day to disavow disciples of His who confessed His name as Lord but despised His law. In Rom 11.17-22 (cf. John 15.1-8), Christ’s apostle warns the church that all unnatural Gentile member-branches who fail to persevere will be broken off from Abraham’s covenant family tree, just as all natural Israelite member-branches who failed to persevere were broken off. In all this, the point is not, as Johnson alleges, that apostates, as portrayed by paedobaptists, cause Christ to suffer reproach as a poor federal head. Instead, the point is that, according to the new covenant, Christ is Judge of apostates as well as Head of the elect in His church. Yes, by their defection, apostates do bring reproach on Christ’s name. They will not, however, have the last word. Rather, in keeping with the retributive principle of the covenant, Christ will bring reproach, in final measure, on their names. Nor is the point, as Johnson claims, that the covenant itself, as conceived by paedobaptists, is faulty. Instead, the point is that the covenant of grace is not to be reduced to its proper purpose of grace, nor are the people gathered under Christ’s lordship to be reduced, before judgment day, to the elect given to Him by oath. Yes, salvation is the new covenant’s proper purpose. Before judgment day, however, the new covenant, like all other administrations of the covenant of grace, does not ensure the salvation of all in the covenant community. (That distinctive applies to the eternal covenant transaction between the Father and the Son.) The new covenant does, however, gather a community under Christ’s lordship for discipleship according to His promises of salvation and His warnings of judgment. In the experience of the historical, visible church, His promises are not always embraced; His warnings are not always heeded. Despite the faith some confess at the beginning, and despite the blessings they have in common with the remnant in the meantime, they prove in the end to have an evil, unbelieving heart and fail to persevere in faith (Luke 8.13; 1 Tim 1.19-20; 4.1; 1 John 2.19). So, even though the new covenant does not guarantee the salvation of all in the covenant community, it does afford them all the blessings of discipleship under Christ.

Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, Part 2

Posted by R. Fowler White

In part 1 of our series of posts reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, we covered his introductory survey and the two subsequent chapters on the absence of a NT command to baptize infants and on the analogy between circumcision and baptism. In this post—part 2—we’ll cover chs. 3-6, in which Johnson begins to present, in deliberately crafted increments, his exposé of the fundamental flaw of paedobaptist covenant theology. The four chapters of our present focus are devoted respectively to the continuity between the old and new covenants and to the nature of the old covenant.

Chapters 3-4 set the course for chs. 5-6 (and, in fact, the rest of part one of Johnson’s book). So, in chs. 3-4, we find Johnson intent on showing that the legitimacy of infant baptism hangs especially on the continuity between the old and new covenants: that is, it hangs on the belief that the covenants and the communities formed under those covenants remain essentially the same. Johnson identifies the principles that governed membership under the old covenant as 1) racial distinction, 2) national affiliation, 3) racial perpetuity, and 4) the federal headship of parents—all signified by circumcision. Throughout his discussion, however, Johnson emphasizes that something even more fundamental than those principles is at work: the old covenant did not secure (guarantee) a saving relationship with God to anyone participating under its terms (p. 63; cf. pp. 63-64). In that emphasis we get our most explicit clue into what Johnson believes is the trait that distinguishes the old covenant from a covenant of grace (i.e., that differentiates it from an administration of the covenant of grace). Any covenant that does not guarantee salvation for all its members is no covenant of grace. With that trait in mind, Johnson goes on in chs. 5-6 to offer observations to support his conclusion that the old covenant was a covenant of [based on] works and not of grace. In ch. 5 he lays out four such points: the old covenant 1) made its promised blessings contingent on Israel’s obedience; 2) threatened Israel with curses for their disobedience; 3) was breakable and broken by Israel; and 4) is described in Scripture with terms that identify it as a covenant of works (e.g., law, commandments, ministry of death). To close out his argument in ch. 5, Johnson anticipates the objection that, if the old covenant made its promises contingent on Israel’s obedience, then their identity as God’s elect people must also have been contingent on their obedience. Johnson answers the objection by urging that election applies only to a remnant within the nation, and the ground of the remnant’s election was according to grace. Capping off his contention that the old covenant was a covenant of works and not grace, Johnson devotes ch. 6 to a consideration of Gal 4.21-31. In that passage he finds what he calls a ‘singular refutation’ of the paedobaptist claim that the old and new covenants were each covenants of grace (i.e., were essentially the same covenant). No, says Johnson, in Gal 4 Paul denies the continuity between the old and new covenants and thus denies the continuity of the communities formed under them.

What can we say about Johnson’s arguments in chs. 3-6? First, with regard to chs. 3-4, Johnson’s point that covenant continuity is foundational for infant baptism is certainly relevant. Even so, Johnson’s agenda is driven fundamentally by the fact that the old covenant did not secure salvation for all its participants and so is no covenant of grace. In response, we have to observe that no covenant before the new covenant (as Johnson defines it) guaranteed salvation for all its participants, and no covenant community before the new covenant was coextensive with the elect in Christ. Hence, on Johnson’s terms, no covenant before the new covenant qualified as a covenant of grace. Observations such as these highlight a key question for us to answer: when, if ever, are we to reduce divine covenant to an administration of election in Christ and guarantees of salvation? More specifically, are we to identify the new covenant (i.e., the new covenant administration of the covenant of grace) with God’s eternal purpose in Christ (i.e., the covenant of redemption), or are we to distinguish the two? Once more: are we to identify the new covenant community with the elect in Christ or to distinguish the two? Briefly, in my view, the argument of Heb 7.20-22, 28; 8.6 is decisively in favor of distinguishing the two. Since the new covenant has been enacted on the oath-promises of the Father to the Son—since the oath is the basis of the new covenant, we must distinguish the one from the other. In addition, we must also distinguish the people given to the Son by oath (Ps 110.3; Isa 53.10; John 6.37, 39) from the community formed under the new covenant. Thus, the new covenant is not reducible to an administration of salvation to the elect; the new covenant is also an administration of judgment to the reprobate. In other words, Christ, as Lord of the new covenant church, is both its Savior and its Judge. We’ll have occasion to come back to this topic, but for now it looks to me that in all preconsummate historical covenants (i.e., administrations of the covenant of grace), covenant is broader than individual election according to grace.

Second, respecting chs. 5-6, Johnson’s attempt to support his conclusion that the old covenant was a covenant of works and not of grace fails to convince. It does so because he omits from consideration the role of God’s designated sureties of grace in the election of both the nation and the remnant under the old covenant. To God’s designation of sureties, even those born under the old covenant, Scripture gives careful attention, as when God gave certain of His servants as sureties in the promises, prophecies, ordinances, and other types (“shadows”) of the old covenant, especially those related to the messianic-mediatorial offices. This is not to say that the pre-Christ designees were sufficient and efficacious to prevent the nation’s loss of election and temporal blessing for its disobedience, much less to secure the nation’s election to eternal blessing with their exemplary obedience. To the contrary, their failings made the nation’s election revocable. The remnant’s election to eternal blessing was a different matter, however. It was irrevocable because of the perfections of the Surety to come. In fact, God’s designation of sureties under the old covenant was sufficient and efficacious, through the work of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the remnant in faith in the promised Surety. Thus, Johnson is mistaken not to recognize that by setting forth the promised Surety in shadow and type, the old covenant was a covenant of grace. This is not to deny that the old covenant spoke of conditions, curses, and covenant-breakers. Nor is it to deny the discontinuity between the old and new covenants. It is to say that the folly of the Galatian churches (Gal 3.1) was to consider the works of the law apart from God’s promises of a Surety. In doing so they would have to regard their own works as adequate to qualify them (or their children) as true heirs of Abraham, as adequate to secure their justification and eternal salvation. In doing so members of the Galatian churches would fail to listen to the law, would break its conditions, and would subject themselves to God’s curse, all because they had severed themselves from the Surety God had promised.

Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw

Posted by R. Fowler White

In this post and (God willing) a series of posts to follow, I plan to work through the chapters of Jeffrey D. Johnson’s book, The Fatal Flaw of the Theology Behind Infant Baptism (Free Grace Press, 2010). Yes, it’s been out a while, so perhaps you’ve seen it mentioned here and there. The initial reasons for my interest in the book are that I was once a convinced credobaptist myself (even publishing on the topic!) and that Johnson’s book has been applauded by some noteworthy (self-identified) “sovereign grace Baptist” leaders, such as Tom Nettles and Richard Belcher, Sr. The more significant reason that I picked up the book, however, is that it is part of a relatively recent flurry of activity among Baptists who have been reexamining covenant theology (e.g., Tom Wells, Fred Zaspel, Gary Long), and Johnson states that his own position on covenant theology is very similar to that of Meredith Kline, Michael Horton, and Kim Riddlebarger (p. 22 n. 70). All these factors provoke my interest in Johnson’s critique of paedobaptist covenant theology.

Johnson divides his book into two major parts, the first of 16 chapters on “The Fatal Flaw” behind paedobaptist theology and the second of 8 chapters on what he calls “Covenantal Dichotomism” and in which he discusses the relationships between Abraham, Moses, and Christ. For the purpose of interaction, I don’t expect to review each of these 24 chapters in detail, but to focus on what Johnson tells us is the primary thrust of his book, namely, “a direct and pointed attack on the covenantal framework in which paedobaptism is rooted” (p. 21). Even with that emphasis, “the purpose of this work is not so much to convert the die-hard paedobaptist as much as to help prevent credobaptists from changing their position” (p. 20). In addition, the book is not offered merely to deliver negative commentary (ibid.). For Johnson “there are many sturdy stones, which must be left alone” (ibid.) in paedobaptist covenant theology. Not least among those stones is the progressive unfolding of God’s eternal plan of redemption in each of His covenants throughout history. Given Johnson’s purpose and primary thrust, I’ll leave aside the helpful introduction in which he surveys the history of infant baptism and various paedobaptist interpretations of its rationale and settles on engaging presbyterians who’ve adopted the Westminster Confession. I’ll use this opening post to look at his first two chapters (pp. 25-48), where he takes on the absence of a NT command to baptize infants and the analogy between circumcision and baptism.

Zeroing in on the paedobaptist appeal to OT inferences to fill in where no NT command exists, Johnson argues that those inferences leave too many uncertainties to justify infant baptism. He insists that, if OT inferences are really to make up for a missing NT command, then some related issues should also be considered: 1) that, besides baptism, no duty of the local NT church comes from the OT; 2) that baptized children are excluded from the Lord’s Supper even though circumcised children were included in the Passover meal; 3) that the NT church experienced much confusion on almost everything related to the old covenant; 4) that the NT church experienced major controversy over circumcision in particular; and 5) that NT Gentile converts, largely ignorant of circumcision’s meaning, doubtless needed instruction on baptism and its participants. With these uncertainties as backdrop, Johnson moves on to take up the circumcision-baptism relationship itself, intent on showing that the two ordinances are only analogous and not identical. Contending that “the NT must set the limits of the analogy” (p. 45; see also p. 47), he concludes that they are similar, not in that both involve children, but only in that both signify circumcision of the heart (regeneration). Citing Jer 31.34, he goes on to urge that, “unlike the old covenant, the new covenant leaves no room for unbelieving participants” (ibid.). All told, then, Johnson maintains that neither OT inferences nor the circumcision-baptism relationship can be authoritative for determining the nature of baptism or its participants (p. 47).

The absence of a NT command to baptize infants – What shall we say about Johnson’s claim that OT inferences leave too many uncertainties to warrant infant baptism? In my view, the uncertainties that Johnson highlights do little to discourage the paedobaptist appeal to the OT to locate the warrant for infant baptism. For example, when he argues that, besides baptism, no requirement for the local NT church comes from the OT, Johnson asks us to presuppose that the administrative principles of the NT church originated without any connection whatsoever to OT Israel. Leaving aside the question of baptism, this is a bridge too far: we cannot simply concede that the administrative principles of the NT church generally or the basis of its membership specifically are disconnected from OT Israel. After all, we know that God is administering one household in redemptive history, not two (Heb 3.1-6). Going on, Johnson observes that, unlike circumcised children, baptized children are excluded from the covenant meal. We acknowledge, of course, that paedobaptists differ on this point, though we cannot pursue it here. Suffice it to say, then, that back of Johnson’s objection is the debatable assumption that the function and basis of the OT ordinances differ from those of the NT. Further, Johnson points out that almost everything related to the old covenant, including circumcision, created confusion or controversy in the NT church that was eventually dominated by largely uninformed Gentile converts. The difficulties of the transition from the old covenant to the new notwithstanding, Johnson offers no evidence that there was ever confusion or controversy in the NT church about the membership status or baptism of children. In sum, Johnson’s collection of uncertainties does not touch the fundamental concern of the paedobaptist argument from the OT. More pointedly, if the administrative principles of the NT church, including the basis of its membership, originated without any connection to OT Israel as Johnson argues, there would have been an obvious and profound need for and expectation of an exposition not unlike the one we find in the Epistle to the Hebrews to make this change emphatically clear. Instead we find that the principles and practices of the NT church are stated in language that imitates the language in which the principles and practices of OT Israel were stated.

The circumcision-baptism relationship – Moving on to Johnson’s take on the circumcision-baptism relationship, we can agree with him that the relationship is one of analogy and not identity. There are clear differences between the two (thus the denial of identity), but both rites testify to the same realities (thus the affirmation of analogy): death to sin and new life to God (otherwise known as circumcision of the heart). In fact, because both rites speak as one, we can understand better why circumcision became obsolete and baptism superseded it. The transition came to pass because Christ’s death-and-resurrection was both a circumcision (Col 2.11) and a baptism (Mark 10.38; Luke 12.50). Whether we say that Christ was circumcised or baptized in His death and resurrection, God’s witness to us is that the death He died He died to sin, and the life He lives He lives to God (Rom 6.10). In that light, it makes sense that the circumcision of Christ made circumcision obsolete as a covenant sign, while the baptism of Christ established baptism as the covenant sign that continued to testify of the realities formerly signified by circumcision.

Meanwhile, however, the differences between the two and the change from the one to the other do nothing to revoke the membership status of children in God’s covenant. How can we be so sure? Because the NT narrates the administration of baptism by the apostles in language that imitates the narration of the administration of circumcision and baptism in the OT. In particular, the apostolic company is said to have baptized households (Acts 11.14; 16.15, 31-34; 1 Cor 1.2), just as God is said to have baptized the household of Noah in the flood (1 Pet 3.20-22; Gen 7.1) and the households of “our (circumcised!) fathers” in the cloud and the sea (1 Cor 10.1). Strikingly, in the baptism into Moses, the baptized are even said to have been those who “feared the Lord and believed in Him and His servant Moses” (Exod 14.29-31). Paedobaptists might ask, then, shall we dispute that those OT baptisms included both parents and their children? Can we imagine Joshua saying anything other than, “as for me and my house, we were baptized into Moses”? If baptism into Moses was administered thus to our circumcised ancestors, it at least strains credulity to maintain that the apostles administered baptism into Christ differently to those who are the descendants of those baptized into Moses. To press the point still further, paedobaptists might ask, would not the Jews at Corinth (Acts 18.1-8), who were among those addressed in 1 Cor 10.1, have justifiably inferred that just as parents and children were baptized into Moses, so also parents and children were to be baptized into Christ? Consider here especially what Crispus, the ruler of Corinth’s synagogue, and his household (Acts 18.8) would have been thinking. Insofar, then, as we observe the parallel language in the narration of the baptisms of Noah’s household, Israel’s households, and the church’s households, there is warrant sufficient for paedobaptists to urge that the apostles’ practice of baptism into Christ took place on the same principle as did OT baptism and circumcision: “you and your household.” All this to say, then, that we can agree with Johnson that the relationship of circumcision and baptism is one of analogy, but we cannot agree that the analogy makes infant baptism less than clear. To the contrary, the administration of baptism in the NT imitates the administration of circumcision and baptism in the OT. To be sure, other questions and passages remain to be considered.

Maximum Fruitfulness: Discipleship for Unity, Discernment, and Stewardship

Posted by R. Fowler White

In a previous post – “Maximum Fruitfulness: A Statement of Aspirations” – I laid out a working hypothesis about the fruitfulness to which we aspire in church ministry. My view is that, accepting that the church’s purpose is to gather and perfect (i.e., grow) the saints, we pray and work to see the saints bear the fruit of unity, discernment, and stewardship. United, discerning, and faithful, we saints will stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by our opponents (Phil 1.27-28).

That said, the question arises as to how we’ll see those aspirations fulfilled. Even in what we’ve said so far we’ve implied the general answer to this question: God grows His saints through the ministry of discipleship, that is, through the life-long process of being renewed to know God (Col 3.10) and His will (Rom 12.1-2). It’s a process that focuses on learning from and with others the historic doctrines and practices by which God has built Christ’s church (Rom 6.17-18; Eph 4.20-23). We say “learning from and with others” because that learning occurs in community with others devoted to fulfilling the duties of Christian discipleship. Furthermore, that devotion has to be grounded in a shared confidence that God gives growth to Christ’s disciples by His appointed means and that He gives His Spirit and gifts for their common good. So, confident in God’s means of growth, disciples commit themselves especially to the ordinances of the Word, prayer, and sacraments. Likewise, confident in God’s Spirit and gifts, those gifted in the ministries of the Word and leading commit themselves to equipping others for Christian living, mindful that, for good or ill, “everyone when fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6.40; cf. Eph 4.12; Heb 5.12-14). Discipleship, then, is a lifelong process of renewal that takes place in community.

Now, if discipleship may be said to consist of learning historic Christian doctrine and practice, it is no surprise to expect that, in that process, the early beliefs and behaviors of disciples will change. Take beliefs first. Converted to the elementary truths of the gospel, we expect disciples to mature over time as they learn the core doctrines of Scripture (e.g., Heb 5.12; 6.1-2). Yet, because both Scripture and the church are rooted in history, we have also to anticipate that learning Scripture’s doctrines will involve discovering the key storylines of revelation and redemption and of the church and its doctrinal standards. Those discoveries made, disciples appreciate more and more how Scripture is the rule of faith and life for the church and its members. That is, Scripture does not just formally organize the gathered disciples as God’s house (e.g., 1 Tim 3:15); it orders their beliefs, the better to perfect them in the knowledge of God and His will (2 Tim 3.14-17).

Just as Scripture orders the beliefs of Christ’s disciples, so it also orders their behaviors. As their renewal continues, disciples acquire “know-how” with respect to self, family, church, workplace, and civil government, in order then to bear fruit in their relations and occupations and in the use of their gifts. New “habits of holiness” are formed: devotion to the Word, prayer, and sacraments improves; membership vows, marriage vows, baptism vows are taken seriously; and duties as a worker and a citizen are fulfilled. In sum, these holy habits will find disciples declaring the gospel of forgiveness (justification) and obeying the law of love (the Two Great Commandments and the Ten Commandments), whether in family, church, workplace, or society.

We like to say that there is a regulative principle of worship. We should also say that there is a regulative principle of discipleship. Just as we cannot worship any way we want, so we cannot make disciples any way we want. As people covenanted together to bear witness to the historic Christian faith and moral vision, each congregation of Christ’s church receives the joyful commission to make disciples and is required to teach them to observe all that He commanded. Barbeques, bake sales, bounce houses, and ball games – as fun as they may be – are not the stuff of discipleship. Our assignment is to pass on the gospel of forgiveness and the law of love that our Lord taught while on earth. Such is how we will make disciples and see the unity, discernment, and stewardship that we seek. Broadly speaking, it seems to me, this is what it means to gather and perfect the saints.

Maximum Fruitfulness: A Statement of Aspirations

R. Fowler White

Is there any congregation of Christ’s church who doesn’t aspire to see maximum fruitfulness from her ministries? Seems doubtful, doesn’t it? Even those churches who don’t buy into goals of “big attendance, big budget, big building” want to see “maximum fruitfulness.” But, of course, if we don’t define fruitfulness in terms of bigness, how will we define it? Exactly what fruit are we looking for? With that last question in mind, what follows is a brief exposition of a working hypothesis about fruitfulness in local church ministry – a statement of aspirations, if you will.

So, where to start? I start with what I take to be a biblically faithful “purpose statement” for the congregations of Christ’s church. Granted that the chief end for which Christ’s church and all other things exist is to glorify God, I find a purpose statement for the church in WCF 25.3. There, according to the Assembly, the purpose for which Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God is this: “the gathering and perfecting of the saints.” Understandably, we think of “gathering the saints” primarily in terms of evangelistic fruitfulness. And well we should. That’s not our focus here, however. Rather our attention is on “perfecting the saints.” Lest I misinterpret this “perfecting,” I look back to WCF 13, where I find that the term perfecting is virtually interchangeable with the process of sanctification, that is, with the saints’ “grow[th] in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (WCF 13.3). In that context, we recognize that the growth in view is that of the saints’ traits (qualities), not their number (quantity). Please note: that’s not to say that numerical growth (even “big attendance”) is irrelevant: it’s just to say that the number of gathered saints is not the Assembly’s point in their choice of the word perfecting. So, if you’re looking for a purpose statement for your congregation, here’s one: to gather and grow saints. Simple, brief, memorable.

But maybe too brief. It’s possible and desirable to describe the perfecting of the saints more fully. Surely, increasing holiness and decreasing worldliness in the individual saint’s life are in view. Again, however, we can say more. We can focus on the perfecting/growth of congregations as well as of individuals. It’s vital for us to look for the fruit of more holiness and less worldliness in our congregations. Yet we should not overlook other fruit in which “congregational sanctification” should be expressed. As far as I can tell, in addition to growth from evangelism that gathers the saints, Scripture points to three other categories of fruitfulness – three crops, if you will – yielded by congregations who grow the saints they’re gathering.

First, congregations are to grow in unity. It’s striking how frequently the NT authors address the duty not just to maintain unity (see Phil 1.27–2.2), but to attain it too. Eph 4.1-16 provides a sweeping overview of the two tasks. In 4.1-6 Paul makes an appeal to “maintain the unity” created by the one Spirit (4.1-3), an appeal based and expressed in seven unifying confessional acclamations (4.4-6). In 4.7‑16 Paul highlights how the diverse gifts bestowed on the church enable her members to “attain to the unity” of faith and knowledge. The context of Ephesians 4, then, sees the church moving from the unity of childhood (4.4‑6, 14) to the unity of adulthood (4.13, 15‑16). From the unifying articles of her immaturity (4.4‑6), through the “speaking the truth in love” of her maturation (4.15), to the unity of faith and knowledge in her maturity (4.13), confessional unity is at the heart of the church’s identity. In fact, as one commentator puts it, oneness is essential “to the very being and life of the church. She can only live as a confessing church.” And lest we think that Paul has only the universal visible church in mind in Eph 4.1-16, we should note that he speaks of “pastors and teachers” in 4.11, gifts whose ministries are associated primarily with local church contexts. Thus, maturation unto unity in the faith takes place in and through the local congregations of Christ’s universal visible church. Most notably for our purposes, however, maturation in the faith is conceived in terms of confessional unity (i.e., shared convictions and witness about what to believe and how to behave) at the congregational level.

Second, congregations are to grow in discernment. As the pillar and bulwark of the truth, the church is responsible to grow, corporately as well as individually, in her discernment of God’s revealed will (Rom 12.2; 16.17-19; Eph 4.13-16; Col 1.9-10; 2 Pet 3.18) and to bear public witness to that will in word and deed (1 Tim 3.15-16; Jude 3; 1 Pet 3.15; Eph 4.3-6, 13-16). To empower the church to fulfill these responsibilities, Christ gives her the Spirit of truth, thereby enabling and obliging her members to distinguish truth from error, right from wrong, good from evil (1 Cor 2.12–3.3; 12.1-3; Heb 5.11-14; 1 John 2.27; 4.1). Possessing the same Spirit, God’s household also possesses at least the seed of those saving graces necessary to make public confession even from its childhood. Yet congregations are expected to grow in discernment too, so that members are no longer little children in the faith (Eph 4.14). Accordingly, parents generally and fathers particularly are exhorted to instruct their families (Gen 18.19; Deut 6.7; Prov 1.8; 22.6; Eph 6.4). Moreover, through training and practice, some in God’s household will emerge to exercise saving graces more ably and fully than others, thus distinguishing themselves as examples worthy of emulation (Heb 5.14). In this light, we understand that a congregation’s maturation will be recognized in their increasingly shared discernment of what is true, right, and good.

Third, congregations are to grow in their stewardship of the gifts-for-ministry that the Spirit has distributed among His saints for their perfecting (1 Cor 12.11; 1 Pet 4.10-11). Out of love for neighbor (1 Cor 12.31–13.7), saints are exhorted to devote themselves to “the common good” (1 Cor 12.7) – in other words, to edifying one another (1 Cor 14.12). In that devotion, a division of labor emerges: both Paul and Peter teach us that some will minister in word; others in deed (Eph 4.11-12; 1 Peter 4.11). Whatever one’s gifts, the saints are told to remember that “each has received a gift,” and each is to “use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet 4.10; cf. 1 Cor 14.12). So, growth in the household of faith at the congregational level will find members with a justifiable conviction of what their gifts are (Rom 12.3) and also a spirit of accountability to employ those gifts for the common good (1 Pet 4.10).

So there you have it: a working hypothesis that, when it comes to perfecting the saints, the fruitfulness we’re looking for in local church ministry is that God would grant our congregations to be united, discerning, and good stewards of our gifts for ministry. Let me know where you agree or disagree, especially where I have wrong or incomplete information or where I reach wrong or incomplete conclusions.

R. Fowler White