Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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Does diachronic faith undermine perseverance and regeneration?

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13 minutes to read A reader asks whether adopting a Federal Vision-like perspective on faith and justification can stop there. Must it not logically lead us to deny the perseverance of the saints, and in turn the Reformed understanding of regeneration? I explain why I think this is broadly mistaken.

I have argued that Reformed histrionics over final justification are misguided, being grounded in an obviously mistaken view of faith as a one-time (“synchronic”) act. [ D. Bnonn Tennant, Is final justification unchristian? (February 2018).] In response, one reader who agrees with me wrote to express her concerns over the implications of this for the doctrines of regeneration and perseverance—and thus especially for assurance of salvation. What follows is our exchange:–

If faith is a synchronic event (preceded by the synchronic event of regeneration, followed by the synchronic event of imputation), it is impossible to fall away. You are moved from one box (unregenerate/unbelieving/unjustified) to another (regenerate/believing/justified). This scheme is purely spatial; it has no temporal dimensions, so it doesn’t account for the continued/diachronic exercise of faith.

I don’t think it’s right to say the scheme is purely spatial. The Reformed view is actually not that faith is synchronic; as I point out in my article, no one really thinks that faith is a one-time event. We all agree that it is something that must continue throughout life. It is regeneration and imputation that are one-time events. (I wouldn’t personally speak of imputation this way as I think the word itself is a confused choice to describe our covenantal incorporation into Jesus.)

This to say, the Reformed view is not primarily that those who fall away never had faith, but rather that those who fall away were never regenerate. Their not having faith was a result of their not being regenerate: they never had their hearts turned to God, and so never genuinely placed their trust and reliance and loyalty in him, even though they did a good job of imitating it for a while. Now, I somewhat agree with James Jordan’s point that the Bible does not speak of regeneration in the way that Reformed dogmatics does; but the Bible certainly does speak of men being taught and drawn and indwelt by the Spirit, and it speaks of this in a way that really necessitates the Spirit himself instigates it. He does not indwell us once we exercise faith, but quite the opposite: we cannot exercise faith without him first joining himself to us, for without the mind of God how can we know God in the first place? 1 Corinthians 2 is especially clear on this point, especially paired with John 6.

There is no clearer place in Scripture that describes the golden chain than John 6, even though Romans 8 is the locus classicus. Jesus is unequivocal there that all those who hear from God are taught by him, all those taught are drawn to Jesus, all those drawn will come, and all those who come will never be lost, but raised up on the last day. There is no exegetical possibility in that passage of even a single person being taught and drawn by God, but then failing to be raised up on the last day. Indeed, this airtight logic is presumably the exact reason that John reminds the readers of his first epistle that those antichrists who left them did so precisely to show that they were not of them; if they had been, they would have continued with them. 1 John 2:19 is highly reminiscent of John 6:44, and 1 John 2:20 is equally reminiscent of John 6:45 with its reference to having knowledge as a result of the anointing of God.

This is convenient, since we observe some people who exercise “worky”, diachronic faith who fall away at some point and stop exercising faith. So now it’s useful to say that they never had the real thing, but the upside is that faith then becomes this inscrutable, crazily subjective and uncertain reality, because it can’t be grounded in people’s behavior and in belonging to the covenant community.

This seems like a highly tendentious claim, and one which leads to obvious absurdities when applied consistently. The fact that some people look like believers, and think they’re believers, without being joined to God, doesn’t mean that those who are actually joined to God have no genuine knowledge or experience of it! This is a straightforward non-sequitur. The internal experiences of each group are simply not the same.

Perhaps I can’t have knowledge, in the strongest sense, of the regeneration of another believer. So what? The authors of the NT themselves would have agreed with that (e.g. Gal. 3:4; Heb. 3:6, 14; 1 Cor. 15:2). Yet outward appearance does create a presumption; and there is no principled difference here to any other situation in which some people are deceived with regard to reality. To take a close analogy, I don’t dissolve into radical skepticism about a prophetic dream that someone I know received—and even less one that I received myself—just because there are people in the world who claim to have received messages from God which are clearly from somewhere else. Or, to take a more general example, supposing I once met a celebrity, I wouldn’t feel inclined to abandon any confidence in that meeting just because people go to Vegas and get drunk and then swear blind that the lookalike they met was the real deal. I wouldn’t even be inclined to abandon any confidence if it turned out they hadn’t been drunk, and it wasn’t Vegas.

Now, personally, I have always seen the P in TULIP, as commonly explicated, to be one of the weakest points of Reformed theology. I think you have to tweak a lot of Bible verses concerning apostasy in order to arrive at the Reformed view on the matter (the handling of Hebrews 6 is particularly egregious).

The handling only looks egregious, I think, if you ignore Hebrews 3—and especially Hebrews 3:6, 14—which sets the context for the remarks in Hebrews 6 and 10. It doesn’t make sense to interpret warnings about apostasy as indicating that people united to Jesus can be lost, when the man writing those warnings prefaces them by saying that only those who persevere to the end were ever actually united to Jesus in the first place.

Perseverance also has a viciously circular logic to it, and it ends up undermining the assurance it attempts to establish. God will persevere the saints; and who are the saints? Those who He has regenerated. How do we know who they are? Well, they are those who will ultimately persevere.

In the sense of assessing the regeneration of anyone else, that is true. But everyone who has been regenerated knows he has been regenerated because he experiences the effects of God’s spirit joined to his.

Now, there are other signs of saving faith/regeneration that people will mention (like works, a love of the Bible, love of worship, etc.), but there are undoubtedly people who exhibit all these signs and yet still fall away at some point. In order to uphold their doctrine of perseverance, Reformed theology will say that these people were never really regenerate (and so never exercised trusting faith), even though they might have seemed like it. But if the signs/evidences of regeneration are not reliable, then I myself can’t really know if I’m regenerate.

Again, this is just a straight-up non-sequitur; one that, if we carried it to its logical conclusion, would make us radical skeptics about absolutely everything. The fact that some people falsely believe they have experienced regeneration doesn’t cast any doubt whatever on the true belief of those who actually have.

A lot of Reformed people don’t appreciate this, and flout “assurance” as a great benefit of their theological position, but, honestly, it’s no accident the Puritans and their ilk experienced great inner turmoil over the question of whether they really were elect. Ultimately, you really can’t know. Assurance is in Christ and His promises, not in your regeneration.

I actually agree with you to a large extent here; even though the experience of the regenerate is qualitatively different to that of the unregenerate, I don’t see that it should constitute any special basis for assurance of salvation; especially if we’re coupling it with election. This is a point I make at length in my series on the atonement, where I demonstrate how relying for assurance on election, which in turn is based on a subjective and internal sense of God’s favor, is shifting sand that becomes quicksand at exactly the times you need it to be firmest. [ D. Bnonn Tennant, On the atonement, part 3: the objective grounds for faith (January 2009).] That said, one’s experience of God’s favor is not irrelevant to one’s assurance either. You’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Peter, for instance, reminds his readers both of their experience of God’s call, and of their need to make that call certain through obedience (2 Peter 1). His point is to not presume or hope that God has elected you, but to ensure it by acting as only the elect will.

You just have to trust in God and exercise faith. But if that’s true, why do we need the theological construction of regeneration at all? The answer would be: well, the Scriptures teach it. But in reading FV treatments of the relevant passages, I’m a lot less sure about the exegetical grounds for regeneration as commonly understood. John 3 and Ezekiel 36 are pretty clearly speaking in a redemptive-historical context rather than explicating a timeless ordo salutis. Saul got a “new heart”, yet fell away.

None of the passages the FV folks go to (Ezekiel 36, John 3 etc) are ones I would go to demonstrate regeneration. At least, not to lay a foundation. Since my understanding of regeneration is as the joining of God’s spirit to ours, I would go to 1 Corinthians 2, John 6, maybe 1 John 4, etc. The example of Saul may actually strengthen the case here, because the giving of the new heart in 1 Samuel 10 is obviously not permanent, and seems to be linked to the Spirit rushing on Saul, which happens intermittently. Saul only abides in God as long as the Spirit is abiding in him; between times, he is faithless and wicked. There is obviously no reason that God cannot act in such a way; but under the new covenant he has promised never to depart from his people. Hence regeneration is permanent in the NT.

Mind you, I wouldn’t want to make a general rule out of Saul’s specific case—and probably it isn’t helpful to use the language of regeneration here at all, given the connotations. I think we have to say that, even in the OT, people were still saved by being joined to God—that’s the point of Jesus’ incredulity in John 3, once you’ve actually established regeneration as a principle from 1 Corinthians 2 and John 6. But the NT also indicates that there was some kind of qualitative difference between what happened then, and what happens now. The Holy Spirit didn’t dwell in Israelites, but rather in the temple. Perhaps we should draw a distinction between being joined to the Spirit, and being indwelled by him; the trouble is that spatial metaphors are pretty hard to understand with respect to non-spatial things. We don’t even know how our own spirits dwell in, or are connected to, our bodies. More study is required.

Hebrews 6 seems to treat apostates as those who actually had actually shared in union and covenant with Christ, which is basically the same as being saved.

I’ve already commented on Hebrews 6, but I’ll make another observation: the language here is perhaps deliberately ambiguous. It can be understood in terms of regenerate experience, but it can also be understood in terms of a bystander’s experience; someone within the assembly who has been enlightened by the preaching of the word, has tasted the heavenly gift—presumably peace, joy, love etc—and become a sharer in the Holy Spirit through healing or prophecy perhaps. I think there is good reason for this language to be ambiguous: the author is emphasizing that spiritual experiences do not guarantee actual regeneration, whereas complacency does guarantee actual unregeneration. He has already stated that those who are really united to Jesus will persevere—but one of the means of ensuring this perseverance is precisely the warnings he then goes on to give. God uses ordinary means as well as supernatural ones, and although perseverance is ultimately on the grounds of the Spirit’s power and decree, its mechanism is nonetheless our willing obedience over time. And willing obedience requires encouragement and exhortation and warnings to safeguard and ensure.

Now since God predestines all things, He has obviously predestined some to heaven, and those will get there for sure. The question is whether he predestines some to only temporarily be united to Christ and thus enjoy justification and covenant membership for a time. The problem with this notion is that it ends up saying that God’s grace is actually resistible, though maybe not initially. The Spirit quickens our hearts to faith, but we can fail to abide in the covenant.

I agree this is a problem, because the whole point of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31–32 is precisely to overcome the fact that people kept breaking the old one. The new covenant is better because it is unbreakable, and it is unbreakable because God writes his law on his people’s hearts—as John 6 recapitulates. If we can fail to abide in the covenant, God has failed in his promise.

I don’t really like this idea, but it does seem to comport with certain parables, for example. In the parable of the sower, the seed does actually sprout in the two cases where it later dies. The person did believe and nothing in the parable indicated he never really believed. But Reformed theology says you can’t exercise trusting faith without being regenerate.

But the point of this parable isn’t to teach about regeneration; it is to teach about the different kinds of responses to the gospel. Moreover, Reformed theology doesn’t imply that unregenerate people never believe the gospel, or never feel strongly about the gospel; it rather argues that they never have their hearts changed to commit to Jesus as Lord. Obviously plenty of people receive the gospel with initial enthusiasm because it meets their felt needs; but without the Holy Spirit inclining them to place God over themselves, when crunch-time comes, they choose themselves and abandon God. So that’s a feature of the Reformed view, at least the way I’d articulate it. I don’t think this parable selects for one view or another as regards regeneration, because it’s not intending to teach anything directly about regeneration. But it’s certainly compatible with the Reformed understanding.

And in the parable of the vine (John 15), where Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches (a very clear image of our union with Christ), He also says that every branch that does not bear fruit is pruned away!

But a recurring theme in John is how Jesus accumulates disciples who then fall away and turn out to be false converts. In John 8, we hear that many believe in him while he preaches in the temple; yet the very next discourse is Jesus then telling these disciples that they are sons of the devil. The same basic thing happens in John 6: it starts with thousands following him, and ends with the twelve alone; everyone else is pruned away. So I see no reason at all to suppose that Jesus is speaking of union with him by the Spirit in John 15, as opposed to the outward discipleship that John is constantly illustrating and dealing with. Indeed, John 14, which sets the context for the vine analogy, is a lengthy rehearsal of the same comments in John 8 which culminate in the accusation that his disciples are sons of the devil.

I think the key to this lies in the relationship between election and covenant. FV says these are basically the same, while classical Reformed thinking frames them in terms of visible/invisible church.

I think both views are wrong in this case. To be in the new covenant just is to be joined to and represented by that covenant’s head, Jesus. And that happens through the Spirit. Only the elect are drawn and taught and indwelt and kept and represented and raised up on the last day by Jesus. That is why I am a baptist :P Baptism is a self-identification with Jesus. Hence it is only for those who are actually identified with him. Getting baptized doesn’t place you into the covenant; it testifies that you’re already in the covenant. A false convert who gets baptized isn’t joined to the covenant; he is just testifying falsely.

Indeed, the Federal Vision’s belief that baptism is the means of transferring us into the new covenant leads its theologians to incoherent readings of John 3. As I’ve covered here, it’s exegetically untenable for Jesus to be describing baptism to Nicodemus. [ D. Bnonn Tennant, What is being born of water in John 3:5? (October 2015).] When a position leads one to nonsensical interpretations, it’s a good indication that something is wrong.

I’m quite confused. I only recently became Reformed, and now I’m already questioning some of the things I so heartily accepted. I kind of feel like a traitor. Being Reformed really makes you feel like a part of an in-group, so it feels really bad to be in a position where you’re questioning some of these fundamental assumptions.

I think it is wise to recognize our desire to be part of a group…and to put it to death! It is good to desire inclusion in a faithful assembly, and to be in harmony with them theologically; but that desire has to be predicated on the greater desire for inclusion in Jesus, and to be in harmony with him theologically. There is obviously much that is good in the Reformed tradition, and I still consider myself basically Reformed. The focus on systematics, for instance, is helpful—it makes you think logically about how the doctrines of Scripture fit together. But the Reformed stream does seem to largely neglect biblical theology in ways that produce serious problems. And like any theological tradition, the cement dries, and an in-group mentality grows up. This is poison to a life of faith that really treats the word of God as living and active. I’ve met way too many Reformed people who are committed to Reformed dogmatics, rather than to the Bible. They excuse this, of course, by saying that Reformed dogmatics is just a system for expressing the Bible’s teachings. But some of them are so extreme that they literally will not even cite Scripture in defense of their views—they simply go straight to some confession. Others are more reasonable, but ultimately remain extremely inflexible with regard to revising or improving their theology in response to new arguments and data (cf. dried cement).

It’s frustrating, but at the same time, I think it’s kind of profitable to know that there isn’t any one system that has everything perfectly worked out, such that those people are the One True In-Group, and everyone else is just a bit below par. God is no respecter of persons; he is content for everyone to be equally wrong at various times and on diverse points.

If anything, that should encourage us to rely more on him and his word, and have a relatively indifferent attitude to theological tradition when we can’t validate it against what he has actually said.

 2 comments

mark e mcculley

https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2014/10/23/clinging-to-externals-weak-faith-and-the-power-of-the-sacraments/

Philip Cary—“For Augustine and the whole Christian tradition prior to Calvin, it is perfectly possible to have a genuine faith and then lose it. Apostasy from the true faith. For Calvin, on the contrary, there is a kind of faith I can have now which I am sure not to lose, because it comes with the gift of perseverance. What is more, I can know that I have such faith rather than the temporary kind.”

Cary–“if Augustine is right about predestination, it is logically impossible to know you are saved for eternity without knowing that you are predestined for such salvation. That is precisely why Augustine denies you can know you are predestined for salvation….To require faith that you are predestined for salvation before admission to the sacrament is… to make faith into a work

Mark Mcculley–To me it looks like Cary (Anglican,but with a Lutheran theology) is saying that faith must have as its object present faith but not future faith AND not penal satisfaction . The idea of sins having already been paid for by Christ’s death has no place in his thinking. Cary is caught in a discussion about the nature of faith, in which he says that other people’s faith is a work, because he thinks the object of other peoples’ faith is not true.

Philip Cary—”Catholics don’t worry about whether they have saving faith but whether they are in a state of mortal sin—so they go to confession. Reformed Protestants don’t worry about mortal sin but about whether they have true saving faith—so they seek conversion. Luther points here to the words “for you,” and insists that they include me. When faith takes hold of the Gospel of Christ, it especially takes hold of these words, “for you,” and rejoices that Christ did indeed died for me.”

Philip Cary—To require faith that you are predestined for salvation before admission to the sacrament is… to make faith into a work

mcmark—I am reminded of Socinians, who argued that if the object of faith was penal satisfaction, then the object of faith could not be forgiveness. Cary is saying that faith must have as its object present faith but not future faith AND not penal satisfaction . The idea of sins having already been paid for by Christ’s death has no place in his discussion. Cary also is caught in a discussion about the nature of faith, in which he says that other people’s faith is a work, because he thinks the object of other peoples’ faith is not true.

Philip Cary—Catholics don’t worry about whether they have saving faith but whether they are in a state of mortal sin—so they go to confession. Reformed Protestants don’t worry about mortal sin but about whether they have true saving faith—so they seek conversion.

Luther points here to the words “for you,” and insists that they include me. When faith takes hold of the Gospel of Christ, it especially takes hold of these words, “for you,” and rejoices that Christ did indeed died for me

In this way the Gospel and its sacraments effectively give us the gift of faith. I do not have to ask whether I truly believe; I need merely ask whether it is true, just as the Word says, that Christ’s body is given for me. And if the answer is yes, then my faith is strengthened—without “making a decision of faith,” without the necessity of a conversion experience, and without even the effort to obey a command to believe.

For what the sacramental word tells me is not: “You must believe” (a command we must choose to obey) but “Christ died for you” (good news that causes us to believe).

It is sufficient to know that Christ’s body is given for me. If I cling to that in faith, all will go well with me. And whenever the devil suggests otherwise, I keep returning to that sacramental Word, and to the “for us” in the creed, where the “us” includes me. Thus precisely the kind of faith that is insufficient to get me admitted to the Puritan sacraments—which is to say, mere belief in the truth of the creed and trust in my baptism—is all the faith I have. If Luther is right, it is all the faith I can ever have, and all the faith I need.

The Reformed tradition generates pastoral problems that cannot be helped by the sacrament, because neither word nor sacrament can assure me that I have true saving faith. The logic of the matter, it seems to me, makes it impossible to split the difference between these two positions and get the best of both

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

I’m not sure what you’re driving at, Mark. It sounds like you’re shoving a wedge between the promise of the gospel (Jesus died for you; you will be saved), and its command (repent and believe).

If so, I’d simply observe that this is the opposite of how the apostles preached it. They front-loaded the gospel with the requirement to submit and commit to God’s king. Salvation was a benefit of that.

Your talk about the possible objects of faith also strikes me as confused. The apostles only ever present one objective of faith when they preach the gospel: God, through Jesus. To have faith in faith is a viciously recursive absurdity.