My friend has finally finished his published book on adoption, and it looks to be a dandy. I have only read the sample so far, but it looks to be encyclopedically informed, confessionally Reformed, exegetically sensitive, Vossian biblical-theologically, historically exhaustive, systematic theologically incisive, and pastorally rich. Adoption really is the most under-rated doctrine of all. It is fully as important as justification itself, and is a key plank of union with Christ, which has finally come into its own. Take it and read!
On the one hand, we have passages that tell us that God does not change (James 1:17, Malachi 3:6, Numbers 23:19, and Hebrews 13:8. These are quite clear: God does not change. God does not move on to plan B. God is not “open” in this sense to the future. Since these are the clearer passages, we should start with these, and not with the passages that are less clear, like the repentance passages. Going from the clear to the unclear is what the orthodox do. Going from the unclear to the clear (and imposing thereby their own pre-conceptions on to the texts) is what heretics do. This is the error of the open theists (read Socinians!).
So, if these passages are that clear, then what do we make of passages like Genesis 6, where God “repents” of making humanity? Is this a contradiction with the above set of passages? The answer is no. It doesn’t contradict at all. There is not even any paradox involved. What happens is this: God is utterly consistent in His treatment of human beings, depending on their state and their relationship to Him! Those who are God’s children and have a relationship to Him of child to Father (through adoption) can expect to be treated in a very consistent way. This would be a way that includes discipline, for the Lord disciplines those He loves. However, the Lord will never again treat His child the way a judge treats the defendant.
Similarly, those who are not in a right relationship with God can always expect Him to treat them as a judge treats the guilty defendant. God is long-suffering, and so sometimes that judgment takes a while. Nevertheless, the judgment will come. In other words, what changed in Genesis 6 was humanity, not God. It kept on changing for the worse (see verse 5). When that happens, the relationship changes, and God is always consistent in His treatment of people based on the state of that relationship.
The idea of covenant is heavily involved here. The first category of people we described above are members of the covenant of grace, and will always receive consistent covenant-of-grace treatment. Those not in that covenant are still condemned under the covenant of works, and thus, the more evil they do, the closer to judgment they get.
To sum up here, God does not change. He is always consistent with His character, and always treats people based on the state of the relationship that person has with God, a relationship that is covenantally determined.
One other thing must be mentioned here, and that is the “relenting” of the prophetic literature. Take the case of Jonah, for instance. After Jonah’s rebellion, he goes into Nineveh and preaches the world’s shortest sermon, (“40 days, and you’re toast”). The people repent and God relents. What is going on here? Take note of the 40 days. Why give Nineveh 40 days? Why not just say that it’s going to happen tomorrow? Because, built into every single judgment oracle in the OT, is the understood condition that if the people repent (i.e., their relationship with God changes!), the judgment will either be delayed or eliminated. So the relationship change works in reverse, too. If the relationship changes for the worse, God brings judgment. If it changes for the better, God holds off on judgment. God is rigidly consistent in this! In other words, God does not change, man does.
To go alont with Joel Beeke’s new book on adoption, there is going to be a conference this fall on the doctrine. I have long felt that adoption is an under-studied doctrine in Reformed circles. The privilege of being called God’s family is inestimable. So, check out the book and the conference, which has such speakers as Rick Phillips and Carl Robbins speaking.
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.
Thomas Goodwin, in his Ephesians sermons, makes this point about salvation: that there are two kinds of benefits: benefits of reputation (consisting of God’s actions upon us and towards us), and benefits of real change (the working of God in us). See volume 2 (of his complete works), pp. 314-316 for this distinction. He argues against the Roman Catholic understanding of adoption in a way that is unique to theology, I believe. Maybe others who know more can correct me on this. Here is what he says:
They (the Roman Catholics, LK), to maintain that we are justified, not by being accounted righteous, but by being inherently righteous, say that our adoption doth not consist in a relation to God as a Father, but in the image of God wrought in us. Why, if that adoption did imply a real change in the person that is made a son, it must make a real change in the father, for father and son are relatives; and so when God becomes a Father to us, you must make a real change in him, for always for things that are relata there is the same reason, as we use to say.
A very interesting argument, I think. What say you?