Saturday, December 3, 2011

Can Unbelievers and Apostates Belong to the New Covenant?

A question begged by biblical typology (see my previous post)--and several New Testament texts themselves--is the degree to which the church, as the covenant people of God, is analogous to Israel prior to Christ's death and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Listen to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:
I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

Now these things happened as examples [tupoi, "types"] for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. . . . Now these things happened to them as an example [tupos], but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (vv. 1-12)
Note that Paul uses language of the Christian sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper to describe the experience of Israel in the wilderness. He is reading back present-day experiences into the life of ethnic Israel 1400 years earlier, who foreshadowed the global people of God. Despite being delivered from Egypt and sharing in the goodness of God's presence and nourishment, they failed to enter the promised land because they set their hearts on evil desires. Nonetheless, these were those who had been "baptized into Moses in the . . . sea." They were those whom God had saved in the exodus, and they had come under the leadership of Moses and the covenant put into effect through his mediation. Paul seems to be warning the baptized new covenant church, delivered from bondage to sin and under the leadership of Jesus. He warns that if they likewise presume upon their religious privileges and the gifts of God (particularly in worship and sacrament, as chapters 10-11 of 1 Cor. unfold), but do not embody obedient faith and repentance from idols, they will fall under God's judgment (cf. Deut. 29:18-21) and "fall in the desert."

In similar fashion the author of Hebrews issues dire warnings of God's judgment upon those who have experienced Christian teaching, nurture, and worship and have made some profession of faith, and then have fallen away (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 6:4-8; 10:26-31; cf. similar warnings in Num. 15:30-31; Deut. 29:18-21).

The question I have is this: Is this faithless idolater a person who is a member of the new covenant people of God? I think Scripture is clear that all genuine believers are sealed by the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption (Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30; 2 Cor. 1:21-22), are kept from stumbling by Jesus Christ (Jude 24-25; John 10:28-29), and remain faithful because Christ's death has secured it (Col. 1:21-23). Apostates are not recipients of the promised new covenant blessings of faith and love towards God, the seal of the Spirit, and forgiveness of sins, because they fail to meet its condition (persevering, repentant faith). But nonetheless in Hebrews 10:29 we read that there are those who've trampled Christ underfoot, who have "profaned the blood of the covenant by which [they were] sanctified" (v. 29), and who belong to God's people and will be judged accordingly (v. 30). Such passages appear to indicate that someone can belong to the covenant and thus set apart (sanctified) to God, at least externally, by virtue of an empty profession of faith (Heb. 4:14; 10:23).
But other passages--even within the book of Hebrews itself!--point in the direction of a one-to-one relationship between new covenant membership and faithfulness toward God. The author quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 in 8:8-12, which says that the new covenant is unbreakable. In this covenant, God's new people and have the law written on the hearts, God will be their God, they will all know him, and he will forgive their sins. No unbeliever or apostate enjoys these benefits. In fact, it is the repeated blessing of the new covenant that apostasy will be impossible. Ezekiel 36:24ff. makes it clear that God will give his people a new heart and cause his people to walk in his ways. They will be planted in "the land" (the new heavens and earth) and will live forever under the Messiah in communion with God (37:22-28). Nearly identical promises are sworn by God in Jeremiah 32:38-41, where God especially promises, "I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever . . ." and "I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me." Such declarations of the new covenant reveal that covenant members cannot turn away in unbelief and apostasy. So what is the biblical solution to this paradox?*

With that all on the table, I'd love to hear anyone's responses to the following questions:

1) Is there a way to belong to the covenant people externally by an empty profession of faith or by having Christian parents, and yet not receive the new covenant blessings?

2) Is verbal hearing and reception of God's gospel promises (e.g., "repent and be baptized . . . in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit," Acts 2:38)--perhaps even in the rite of baptism in paedobaptist churches--considered belonging to the covenant? Does hearing the gospel and being visibly affiliated with the church (by choice or by family solidarity) make someone a covenant member?

3) In Presbyterian and Reformed churches, children of believers are baptized as recognizing that they already belong to the covenant people of God (that is, believers and their household under their care and authority). Baptism doesn't make them part of the covenant, but is administered to them because they are already part of the covenant. But the Westminster Larger Catechism--a binding confession of Presbyterian faith--also says that "The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed" (Q & A 31). The Westminster standards explain that the elect are those who have "faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they [have] full remission of sins, and eternal salvation" (Westminster Confession of Faith, 7:5) and are "appointed unto glory" (3:6). Since we all know that not every child of a believer comes to faith or remains faithful to Christ, how can it be said that God makes the covenant of grace with the elect who are in Christ, and yet also that their unbelieving children belong to the same covenant while not elect?

4) Is it possible to view passages like Jeremiah 31 and 32 in an "already but not yet" paradigm? These blessings are now secured through Christ, and a foretaste of them in already enjoyed by God's people, but the full reality of the love toward God and the purity of his people awaits the coming Day. Obviously the language of the Spirit as a "deposit guaranteeing what is to come" (arrabon, 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:14) means that we presently experience and possess some, but not all, of the promised salvation and kingdom life. Is this paradigm the solution to this paradox?

*One branch of the Reformed tradition (a position called the Federal Vision) resolves this conundrum by saying that unconditional election, salvation, and covenant membership are temporal. Unconditional salvation can truly be possessed temporarily, but only the "really elect" (whose chief virtue is faithfulness) possess it eternally. They do not distinguish between the "visible church" and the "invisible church," preferring instead the language of "temporal vs. eternal church" (see Douglas Wilson, Reformed Is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the Covenant). While the Bible doesn't explicitly use the terms "visible" and "invisible" in reference to the present-day church, there is plenty of teaching to show that false believers whose hope is in something other than Christ--weeds sown by Satan himself--are present within the visible assembly (Matt. 13:1-50; Acts 20:29-30; 2 Peter 2; 1 John 2:19). But such false brothers' abandonment of the faith makes it evident that they were never really part of the church in the first place (1 John 2:19). I also find it unacceptable to say that "covenant children" are to be presumed regenerate unless they publicly or by virtue of continuous evil deeds reject the faith, but the FV folks seem to say just that (if I'm not misunderstanding them).

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