Exegetical Gains vs. Theological Losses
I was recently hanging out with a PCA pastor friend, and we were discussing the exegetical and theological issues surrounding the Federal Vision. As you may know, one of the biggest difficulties one encounters when comparing the confessional Reformed theology with that of the Federal Vision is this: How are we to understand the New Testament’s descriptions of the baptized? For example, when Paul writes to “the saints in Corinth” who were “washed, sanctified, and justified,” what does he mean? Is he saying that each and every person in the church is a believing saint who has experienced the saving benefits of the gospel? Or is he only addressing the elect members of the church who had indeed experienced such blessings? Or is he simply addressing the entire church and attributing saving blessings to all without distinction, despite at the same time realizing that many have not actually been washed, sanctified, and justified?
The reason Paul’s descriptions of his hearers are so puzzling for the Reformed is due to the idea that no saving blessing of God can ever be bestowed upon someone who is not among the elect, and that saving gifts such as justification and sanctification are by definition indicators of one’s elect status. So when Paul describes someone he has never met as “justified,” he must either be displaying knowledge of that person’s elect status or be using the term in a kind of covenantal way (as in, “You may be a reprobate in reality, but since you’re a baptized member of the church I will use language to describe you that may not in fact be accurate”).
The one thing a Reformed theologian must never do, however, is simply allow the language of the New Testament to be echoed without qualification. So when Paul says something like, “As many of you as were baptized have been united to Christ,” what must be explained very clearly is that it is not baptism that unites all its subjects to Christ (even though that’s what Paul just got through saying), but rather, it is the saving faith that the new birth produces that unites the elect to Christ, and only when saving faith has been exercised can we appeal to our baptism as the source of the gospel’s saving benefits (even though it isn’t, strictly speaking).
I suggested to my friend that all of this ambiguity could be cleared up rather simply. If he were to just adopt as his basic paradigm the idea that baptism confers divine life and mortal sin extinguishes it, he would immediately be able to read Paul’s descriptions of his hearers and allow them to say exactly what they seem to say. So when Paul blanket-ly speaks of the Corinthians as “washed, sanctified, and justified” he really means it, since by their baptisms they had truly been united to Christ and conferred saving blessings upon each of its subjects. But when Paul also warns the very same people that those who commit heinous sins “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (as he just did a verse prior), that statement can also be taken at face value. Simply put, you who have been baptized are justified, but if you die in a state of mortal sin, you will be finally lost. There is no need, when working from this paradigm, to hem and haw and qualify Paul’s words about baptismal efficacy, and neither is there any need to read into the text the idea that what Paul is really concerned with is that on Judgment Day the Corinthians hadn’t “practiced” these heinous sins (whatever that means — how often do you have to commit a heinous sin before you are practicing it anyway?).
Now for just about all the Reformed, the exegetical gains one may achieve by adopting the stance that baptism confers divine life and mortal sin extinguishes it are not worth the havoc that such a posture wreaks upon one’s systematic theology. For if such a paradigm were implemented, and if Scripture were read through those lenses, doctrines such as the once-for-all imputation of Christ’s obedience through faith alone would immediately become nonsensical and would have to be jettisoned. And of course, no amount of exegetical dividends is worth such a cost to Reformed systematics. In a word, adopting this paradigm fails the cost/benefit analysis.
But for my part, that just gives rise to the even greater question of whether it is prudent and proper to allow a theological tenet — one that is attested to in only a few highly disputed passages — to hold hostage the rest of the New Testament, to the point where clear statement after clear statement is forced to die the death of a thousand qualifications. Would it not be better to adopt a paradigm that makes the most sense out of the most data, rather than clinging to one that renders the majority of the New Testament’s teaching on salvation incomprehensible unless you immediately explain away what is actually said in favor of what isn’t?