My Dear Friends,
One of the aims I had in taking a sabbatical break was to have a little more time to reflect on the theological issues that are currently troubling the church. One of these troublesome theological issues has to do with how a Christian can be assured of his/her salvation. Men (with at one time impeccable reformed credentials) promoting the so-called “Federal Vision”, are teaching that we should allow our baptism to assure us that we are truly Christians, savingly united to Jesus Christ. “Is not our baptism a ”sign and seal of our ingrafting into Christ?“ they argue. ”If so, let us take our baptism seriously and rest the weight of our Christian assurance upon it. Instead of looking in to ourselves, let us look out to God’s covenant sign and be delivered from introspective subjectivism.“ What can we say about this ”objective/hyper covenantalism?" Much in every way!
In the first place, you would be a poor, deluded fool to rest the weight of your assurance of salvation on any sacramental sign. One question alone explodes the deep error of these Federal Visionists: Are all baptised people saved? Furthermore, is the church visible identical with the church invisible? The history of God’s old covenant people Israel, was a history of covenantal presumption; many of them trusted in and rested upon the outward signs of their belonging to God and did not trust the God of covenant mercy - with many of them “God was not pleased!” Israel was always trusting in the wrong things: in Jeremiah’s day they cried, “The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord,” as if having the Temple would shelter them from God’s wrath and judgment. Paul’s searing words at the close of Romans 2 should be enough to warn us against ever putting our trust for salvation/assurance in sacramental signs.
Secondly, and even more importantly, God’s own Word calls us to find our Christian assurance in the sure promises of the Father, the perfect work of the Son, and in the transforming, indwelling ministry of the Spirit. We are summoned to believe Him who says, “Whoever believes in him (Christ) will not perish but have everlasting life;” who says, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved;” who says, “Being justified by faith we have peace with God;” who says, “Whoever trusts in him will never be put to shame.” Alongside these “great and precious promises,” we are to trust the perfection of the Saviour’s work. We are to look out to our blessed Saviour who has paid in full the price of our sin and who has provided for all who believe an everlasting righteousness. He is the Lord our righteousness. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Faith is fundamentally extraspective, not introspective. But we are not to leave things there, we are to look to the indwelling, character-transforming ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The truly believing life is a Holy Spirit transformed life: that is, the Spirit marks our lives with the grace and moral glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. Where there has been no transformation, there has been no salvation. So, Paul tells the Christians in Corinth, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.” The First Letter of John highlights the three tests of true faith: Do we trust Christ alone? Do we keep from the heart God’s commandments? Do we love the brothers? These are searching tests - “Do you not realise that Christ Jesus is in you - unless, of course, you fail the test?” In addition, the “Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we are God’s children,” so that we cry “Abba, Father.” Christians have an inward, divine testimony, along with the testimony of their own hearts, that they are God’s children. It is true that the witness of our own hearts may at times be halting and punctuated with the deep sense of our sin; but no less is it true that it is the Holy Spirit’s gracious ministry that causes the child of God to “cry”, “Father,” even as he/she feels the pressing weight of sin.
The gracious work of the Trinity, for us and in us, is the only solid ground on which to rest the weight of our undying souls - all other ground is sinking sand. It is a great sadness that Reformed churches are being unsettled by teaching that would emasculate the gospel of its grace and spirituality. God has graciously and mercifully given his church signs to help confirm his grace to us in Christ. They are ‘helps’, no more, no less. They point to our Saviour Jesus Christ, the Lord our righteousness. Rest the weight of your hope on him and him alone. Say with Paul, “God forbid that I should glory, except in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
There appears to be in some, who say they are “Reformed”, almost a retreat in “medievalism.” Sacramental signs replace the transforming experience of grace as the marks of a Christian. No Reformed Christian has ever denied, least of all the Westminster Divines, that God may sovereignly choose to regenerate a child at baptism (in the womb for that matter), if it pleases him to do so. The Spirit blows where he wills. But the only evidence of a renewed heart is a renewed life; and in every renewed life this is true: Jesus Christ is the foundation, centre and sum of everything. The hymnwriter put it well, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness... All other ground is sinking sand.”
Yours as ever in Christ,