Ron DiGiacomo

A Response to a Popular (Yet Inadequate) “Reformed” Antidote to Federal Vision’s Use of the Warning Passages

That which keeps the believer in the grace of God includes the intercession of Christ and the believer drawing near to God through the one Mediator, Christ Jesus. So, although believers could fall away apart from the means of divine intercession, believers won’t fall away due to God’s gracious decree that secures the conditional-means of perseverance. 

Like a robust Christian worldview, a Reformed system of doctrine should be consistent, coherent and explanatory. What this means is: (a) the components of a sound theology may have mystery but not contradiction; (b) although theological constituent parts should be assessed discretely, they must be evaluated in light of the whole so that each ingredient does not undermine other elements of the one system they comprise; (c) such a unit of theology should provide a grid through which other texts of Scripture can be interpreted, reconciled, and practically applied. If there is paradox, it is in this. The Scriptures, from which our theology is derived, are to be interpreted through a theology we derive from the very same. That is to say, we inch our way to a reliable theological system while applying it as we go, even as we refine and improve upon it. Lastly, the Reformed tradition has uniquely produced reliable interpretative grids in her confessions and catechisms, if not also in the Systematic Theologies that complement them. In God’s kind providence, we needn’t re-invent the wheel!
A robust theology will include an ecclesiology and a soteriology (and much more). Whereas a Reformed doctrine of the church includes a visible-invisible distinction, a Reformed doctrine of salvation affirms a doctrine of perseverance of the saints. Muddled thinking about the former will result in grave misunderstanding of the latter. Apropos, Federal Vision (FV) theology typifies such confusion and equivocation with its lack of (a) covenant consistency, (b) intra-doctrinal coherence and (c) useful elucidation. Yet sadly, when it comes to theological antidotes to FV, the cures can be less than satisfying.
Because FV has been thoroughly debunked by the church (see PCA report), my interests lie elsewhere. Yet in order to grasp the inadequate responses to FV with respect to how warning passages comport with (even complement) the Reformed doctrine of perseverance, it would be helpful to grasp that the authors of Scripture were constrained to treat those within the visible church as if they were all united to Christ, (while appreciating some do not share in the salvific benefits of the Savior). Accordingly, the hermeneutical principle being advocated is the letters are principally intended for believers because they are written to believers. This common sense view avoids exegetical gymnastics by allowing the letters to be directed to their stated audience called: saints, beloved, chosen, predestined, household of God, etc.
Things begin to fall into place once we recognize that the letters are written to those in the church who are actually in Christ, and that false professions within the church’s pale cannot change that overarching principle. Given the reality of false professions in the church, the message to the saints was not diluted. It is crucial to grasp from the outset that the authors of Scripture were not responsible to accommodate unregenerate hypocrites in the church according to their unbelief but instead the authors treated them according to their ecclesiastical standing in the visible assembly. In other words, any member of the visible church is to be treated according to his or her baptism (then, when of age, profession), and not according to the indiscernible state of their soul. If unbelievers choose to deceive themselves and others about their Christianity, that’s on them. It cannot change Scripture’s intended target audience!
Mr. Postman, look and see…if there’s a letter in your bag for me:
The visible church is where the body of true believers assemble. Consequently, believers share the same physical mailing address as unbelievers in the church. Yet if Scripture’s principal audience are believers for whom Christ died, then from a Reformed perspective all members of the visible church cannot but be outwardly regarded as irreversibly redeemed and heaven-bound. This approach alleviates private judgments while making the indicatives and promises of Scripture acutely relevant to true believers. However, when apostasy occurs, the Scriptures do not teach that salvation is lost, or that the promise of salvation has somehow failed. Instead, when apostasy occurs another apostolic teaching takes precedence. When apostasy occurs, existential union with Christ is not severed but rather, latent unbelief finally comes to light.

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.  (1 John 2:19)

The theological paradigm of treating all members within the church as irrevocably heaven-bound is readily established not only by the labels for church members such as “chosen” and “predestined” but, also, by the apostolic message of the surety of perseverance. The expressed confidence of the certainty of perseverance is to be communicated to all the church’s members without distinction, even upon the heels of the most severe warning passages in Scripture.

But, beloved, we are persuaded of better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak. (Hebrews 6:9)

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. (Hebrews 10:39)

The “beloved” whom the author was persuaded would not “shrink back” and be “destroyed” are none other than the “holy brothers” who were said elsewhere to have shared in the “heavenly calling”.

Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession… (Hebrews 3:1)

In other words, the author of Hebrews addressed all struggling members as true believers (as opposed to potential unbelievers). We can be assured of this because the warnings of apostasy are accompanied with an expressed confidence of perseverance. But again, if and when apostasy was consummated, those deemed faithless would have been identified and declared according to what had always been the case, that they were never truly of us. (1 John 2:19) As we might expect, Scripture covers all the bases! Just because there are hypocrites in the church does not mean the apostolate would have shirked its responsibilities by diluting the message intended to warn true believers to make their calling and election sure. (2 Peter 1:10) Additionally, on the surety of God’s word we can know that although only true believers will overcome without fail, the promise of pardon and perseverance is to be outwardly extended and ministerially confirmed to all who are numbered in the church.

And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. (Acts 2:47)

Why unbelievers are not in view:
In apostasy, at least one of two things occur. One either (a) overtly denies or will not affirm saving doctrine or else (b) the church member’s manner of life openly manifests the unbelieving heart that was once imperceptible. In contradistinction to apostasy, persevering faith entails staying the existing course and not turning back.
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Jesus And The Woman Caught In Adultery

Given the circumstances of no witness-accuser who possessed a desire for righteous judgment – the only one who could have put the woman to death and satisfied the intention of the law both in letter and spirit would have been God himself. Accordingly, one without sin may have thrown the first stone! By handling the difficult providence as he did, Jesus upheld the law pertaining to a proper accuser’s spirit, yet without compromising the law’s demand for justice.

To confuse absolution with civil justice is a menace to society and the church. Both must be maintained in their proper place, for the law is the backdrop for grace.* (Joshua 7:20,25; Galatians 2:1)
Antinomians and Roman Catholics can be quick to point to the woman caught in adultery (recorded for us in John 8) as “proof” that the general equity of Old Testament (OT) civil law for adultery (if not by extension the essential entailments of all OT civil laws) is no longer applicable today. In this context, my position is a modest one. If the equity of the laws’ demands have been abolished, we may not point to Jesus’ handling of the matter to prove the point. We must find abrogation elsewhere.**
Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 require that both guilty parties are to receive the same civil sanction for adultery. Although that is the requirement of the law, for some reason the mob was uninterested in following God’s prescription even on that essential point. Rather, the Jews substituted God’s law with their own standard by not bringing to Jesus the man who sinned. More than an unjust concealment of truth, John 8 explicitly states that the mob’s intention was to test Jesus in order to accuse him. Consequently, not only was the report false by the standard of the ninth commandant, it was malicious toward Jesus having not been accompanied by a sincere desire for justice. Therefore, had Jesus partaken of their misuse of the law, he would have violated God’s law:
You shall not bear a false report nor join your hand with a wicked man to be a malicious witness, nor follow the masses in doing evil nor pervert justice.
Exodus 23:1-2
In passing we might also observe that since the woman was caught in the act, it is probable that her habits were well known, making her an easy prey for entrapment. Such would only lend credence to the malicious intent of the scheme while also implicating the mob for not being lovingly concerned with the woman’s licentious behavior until such time that it could be used for evil rather than good. Yes, just penalties are intrinsically good but the design for good is eclipsed when not carried out by lawful and lowly servants.
Submission to God’s Providential Infliction of Unruly Government
Romans 13 teaches that we are not to take the law into our own hands but submit to God’s providentially ordained government, even when that government is pluralistic. This principle of lawful-order was to be followed during Jesus’ earthly ministry and the Jews knew it all too well: 
So Pilate said to them, ‘Take Him yourselves, and judge Him according to your law.’ The Jews said to him, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death’” 
John 18:31
Yet the Jews were not interested in obeying the precept of submitting to God ordained Roman rule when it did not suit them:
Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not? Shall we pay or shall we not pay?’ But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, ‘Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.’ They brought one. And He said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ And they said to Him, ‘Caesar’s.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were amazed at Him.” 
Mark 12: 15-17
With respect to John 8, it was unlawful under those particular circumstances for the law of Moses to be implemented by the Jews; yet that would not seem to be the only impetus behind Jesus’ behavior not to call for immediate justice.
Applying Principles to the State of Affairs
The intention of the mob was the entrapment of Jesus and whether a life was callously taken in the process was of no consequence to these conspirators. Accordingly, had Jesus acquiesced to their plea by condemning the woman to death on their terms, he would have partaken in their scheming and wickedness according to Exodus 23:1-4.
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Carl Trueman on Trump vs Biden

My confidence is not so much that most evangelicals will make the correct choice (though I believe they will), but that they will be fully persuaded over who they believe to be the correct choice. Again, when have we been offered two more polarizing candidates with glaringly antithetical agendas? And why have so little confidence in the ability of the brethren to develop individual and strong convictions by November?

Whether portraying spiritual closeness with Roman Catholic clergymen, or painting a picture of our need for a fresh polemic to refute them(!), Carl Trueman’s brush is often broad and his hues blurred.
Trueman’s latest masterpiece contrasts what he calls “Trumpite ‘evangelicalism’” with “Biden’s brand of ‘devout’ Catholicism.” He asks his readers to consider, “Which is more threatening” to the Christian? Trueman predicts “it will be a truly difficult {question} to answer with any great conviction when entering the voting booth.” I can’t but wonder, with whom does Trueman believe he shares his predictive undecidedness?
Assuming Trump and Biden are still on the ballot in seven months, I find no reason to doubt the voting convictions of my liberal and conservative friends, or that in November Christians will vote one way or another without much hesitation. After all, when have we been offered two more polarizing candidates with glaringly antithetical agendas?
A party whose leader confuses the biblical canon with the writings of Jefferson or a party that is legislating the very abolition of man and gloats about that in its election campaign?Trueman
Let’s run with that. Trueman is outraged by Trump promoting a Bible containing reprints of several of America’s documents, believing that Trump does not distinguish the canon from Thomas Jefferson’s writings. Whereas Biden “spits” on the sacred.
For what do we have? A candidate for the presidency who treats Christians as nothing more than promising marks for his hucksterism and an incumbent who spits on all they hold sacred.Trueman
By Trueman’s calculations, one party’s candidate is a huckster who hides behind a false religiosity, while another overtly desecrates all that Christians hold sacred. In passing we might note that an attack on the sacred is something that can be assessed objectively, whereas one’s private-intention to deceive to the level of huckster* is not so easily discerned.
Since we cannot discern motive, why not make it easier on ourselves and judge what can (and may) be judged? Rather than trying to discern which candidate has the blackest heart, what if we just assume that the light of nature has grown equally dim among the leading two candidates? As a clarifying exercise, let’s assume one candidate overtly seeks to destroy Christian and American values from a purely secular perspective, and the other candidate is toying covertly with Christians to advance his own MAGA agenda. With those sorts of cancelling-out variables off the table, is there anything left to evaluate that might keep us from flipping a coin on November 5?
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The Institutional Church, Spirituality and Christian Nationalism

The institutional church is comprised of individuals who gather on the Lord’s Day and then scatter into the world to live out their respective callings before God. Consequently, the institutional church’s primary ministry on Sunday is not to reform the institutions of this world, or even reach the world for Christ, but to build up the saints in their worship of God. To that end, it is primarily on Sunday that the church’s members become equipped to fulfill their respective callings in the world, which includes (a) the mission work of the institutional church as well as (b) bringing biblical precepts to bear upon the ideologies of political, economic, and social institutions.

This interview conducted by Crossway caught my attention. It has to do with the institutional church, its spirituality, and Christian nationalism. My interest is limited to how the institutional church, which is made up of many members, is to relate to temporal yet lawful institutions in the world.
I find two quotes from the interview to be a bit puzzling.
“No other institution is called to go into all the world and preach the gospel. The family? No. The state? No. The university? No. The publisher isn’t called to go into all the world and preach the gospel. That call is given to the church. And if the church becomes chiefly a political, economic, or social institution, it becomes an institution that is just one more form of kind of shouted political slogans in the cacophony and all the noise of our very polarized politicized age. If the church just becomes that, it loses that voice. It loses its proper agency. It loses its grip and its grasp on the gospel. And if the church loses the gospel, who has it? Where is the gospel? The church is called to preach the gospel to the world.”
It is one thing for the institutional church to become a political mouthpiece from the pulpit, and quite another thing for the institutional church to posses a proper political zeal in the world. It seems somewhat obvious that one size doesn’t fit all.
A Christian congressman who spends fifty hours a week embroiled in the political battle for the life of the unborn, or defending the rights of the oppressed, can be running God’s errand. Yet it’s hard to apply the same balance of work and life to the institutional church’s pulpit ministry. Consequently, phrases like “the church becomes chiefly a political…”, and “the church is called to preach the gospel” should connote different meaning, with vastly different contextual demands, depending upon the respective callings of the many members of the one institutional church.
Back to Basics:
The institutional church is comprised of individuals who gather on the Lord’s Day and then scatter into the world to live out their respective callings before God. Consequently, the institutional church’s primary ministry on Sunday is not to reform the institutions of this world, or even reach the world for Christ, but to build up the saints in their worship of God. To that end, it is primarily on Sunday that the church’s members become equipped to fulfill their respective callings in the world, which includes (a) the mission work of the institutional church as well as (b) bringing biblical precepts to bear upon the ideologies of political, economic, and social institutions.
Institutional church members hardly can avoid interacting with, if not even being members of, other institutions such as family, civil government, and education. Accordingly, the institutional church’s members must be equipped to pull down the philosophical strongholds of the age lest they become (a) fideistic (b) impotently silent in her witness and / or (c) taken captive by the elementary principles of the world. To that end, there is a Christian duty to be able and willing to disarm the enemies of God, not just with kindness but a winsome word in season that has the power to tumble the institutional gods, if not at least silence their idolatrous worshippers.
Leaving aside how a minister of the gospel might train its congregation to think biblically in all areas of life (yet without hindering the church’s spirituality), as a general rule we might hope that the minister’s Sunday sermon would be heavier and more exhaustively focused on exegesis and indicatives, and perhaps lighter and more generally focused when it comes to personal application and imperatives regarding influencing the institutions of this world. That should be a given.
Admittedly, men like Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy likely lapsed into seasons of spiritual amnesia regarding their gospel-calling by turning their focus toward civil and political interests. Notwithstanding, such spiritual infidelity does not so neatly apply to the church’s members who on Monday morning scatter into the world in the service of the church militant. Indeed, when all is well, we can expect the church’s message on Sundays to look vastly different from its members’ message(s) the other six days of the week. Need it be even said that the minister who is preaching to his congregation the riches of the first fourteen verses of Ephesians has a different set of providential constraints and freedoms than the Christian plumber who is changing out a hot water tank, or the Christian businessman who accepts an invitation for a beer after work with his politically minded and irreligious colleagues?
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John MacArthur’s Lordship Salvation

MacArthur redefines fiducia by turning the volitional component of justifying faith into something other than child like receiving and resting in Christ for salvation. For MacArthur fiducia is not the disposition of trust in Christ (or to believe into Christ) but rather the work of bringing our righteous to Christ in deeds of forsaking, commitment and surrender.

In this post I addressed the aberrant view that justifying faith is assent alone apart from trusting in Christ. Therein I made a passing reference to another extreme view of faith – the “Lordship Salvation” gospel whose advocates not only define justifying faith without reference to the Reformed view of trust, but also add forsaking oneself, commitment of life and surrender to justifying faith, which in turn eclipses the gospel by confusing how one might appropriate Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel.
It is notable that John MacArthur, the most significant proponent of this view, does not subscribe to historical Reformed theology. In that respect, MacArthur is unchecked with respect to confessional theology in the Reformed tradition. Aside from having a baptistic ecclesiology and a dispensational view of the covenants, MacArthur has gotten the doctrines of justification and justifying faith wrong. I address those errors here.
Saving Faith According to John MacArthur:
Forsaking oneself for Christ’s sake is not an optional step of discipleship subsequent to conversion; it is the sine qua non of saving faith. (The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 142)
By “saving faith” MacArthur means justifying faith. We may infer this because he is speaking of the faith that is tied to conversion. Accordingly, sanctifying or persevering faith is not in view. What is also noteworthy is MacArthur cites “forsaking oneself” as an essential element of justifying faith, which is radically different than how the Reformed tradition defines justifying faith:
Justifying faith is a saving grace wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation. Westminster Larger Catechism, #72 What is justifying faith?
The most significant Confession in the history of the Protestant tradition defines the faith that justifies differently than MacArthur. At the heart of justifying faith is receiving and resting upon Christ, which is absent in MacArthur’s ordo salutis. Worse more, to add forsaking one’s life to the simplicity of faith is another gospel because it adds works to justifying faith. But not only does MacArthur add forsaking one’s life to faith, he also asserts that personal commitment is essential to justifying faith.
Commitment is the disputed element of faith around which the lordship controversy swirls. No-lordship theology denies that believing in Christ involves any element of personal commitment to Him. (Faith Works, The Gospel According To The Apostles, p. 43-44)
MacArthur contends that justifying faith, the faith that appropriates the benefits of Christ, entails “forsaking oneself” and “commitment.” It is not MacArthur but the Westminster Shorter Catechism that has it right when it states:
Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, he is offered in the gospel.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, #86 What is faith in Jesus Christ?)
It escapes MacArthur that personal commitment and forsaking one’s life are works of righteousness, which if done in faith are fruits of sanctification and not elements (or principal acts) of justifying faith. MacArthur seems to miss that justifying faith is merely an instrument by which the unrighteous lay hold of Christ’s righteousness. (Westminster Shorter Catechism #73)
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GRACE Report and Tenth Presbyterian Church

If GRACE operated according to biblical precepts, they would not be as quick and confident to meddle with the peace and administrative functions of the church, or make inquiries that can become the occasion for the vulnerable an unlearned to violate the Ninth Commandment.

I found the GRACE report to be an abomination. It drudged up many past hurts and sins that were in the end dealt with biblically and in accordance with the gospel, even with censures issued by session and presbytery when appropriate.
Perhaps the most egregious part of the GRACE report is how GRACE suggests that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper may be withheld from the penitent as a form of ongoing consequences for past sins. That is most telling of this sham ministry. Indeed, there can be severe consequences for sins after repentance and reconciliation, but those consequences are to come in the form of things like restitution, incarceration, and withholding restoration to specific service-privileges and responsibilities that may have been enjoyed prior to falling into sin. Notwithstanding, the sacraments are never to be used as a tool for dishing out further consequences to those the elders believe have repented. Of course, GRACE would understand this basic gospel tenet if they weren’t a Christian organization in name only. Furthermore, GRACE suggests that restoration to the Supper should not be too soon lest others who share in the communion meal aren’t given adequate time to heal. That’s a fencing of the table foreign to Scripture. Yet even allowing for it – it would seem that GRACE would not have wanted a particular repented sinner-saint they cited in the report, at the time he was restored to table fellowship, to have received Christ in the sacrament at any church of which he would have been a stranger. (It’s noteworthy that from a biblical perspective one is to be denied the Supper for his own spiritual protection, not the perceived emotional good of others.)
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Strict Merit vs. Pactum Merit and Union with Christ

It is not merely according to covenantal promise, forgiveness and imputed righteousness that we receive our inheritance in Christ but as justified sinners who by grace have been adopted in union with the Son. Believers are fitted for heaven because of all the entailments of union with the last and faithful Adam who as Son is very God of very God. Accordingly, it is in Christ we are justified and sons of the Most High.

Let’s consider afresh the relationship of pactum merit with respect to Adam in the covenant of works and how that relates to strict merit in redemption. With respect to Adam the reward of living forever would have been disproportionate to the finite work performed.
In other words, the justice of life-eternal would not have been according to strict justice but rather according to a sovereignly imposed covenantal compact to over reward Adam for obedience; a pact of sorts was at play. That is to say, the value of Adam’s obedience would not have been of intrinsic worth as it relates to the meritorious reward of unending life.
I do find, however, that in the economy of redemption our reward, though received by grace alone, is according to principles of strict justice. Where we might locate the appropriateness (or congruity) of the forever-reward is the question.
Framing the issue:
Let me try frame the dilemma and then try to offer a solution by drawing from the ordo salutis. In so doing, I’ll try to address the easier part first, having to do with strict justice as it relates to Christ’s passive obedience and our demerit.
The one time sacrifice of Christ was sufficient to satisfy God’s strict justice, render God propitious, and reconcile God to the elect in Christ. Although Christ is the kinsman redeemer, Christ’s divine nature was necessary for redemption accomplished and for there to be intrinsic worth as it relates to Christ’s mediatory work. Our demerit needed the incarnate Son of God to pay for our sins, for one thing to keep the human nature from sinking under the wrath of God. Christ could render God propitious and provide full satisfaction for the sins of many because Christ is both God and man. That’s the more obvious part. No issues there I trust.
The passive obedience part of redemption, which for our purposes narrowly deals with sinners’ demerit and payment for sins, is more obvious perhaps. Yet when it comes to what positively fits redeemed sinners for heaven, I find that to narrowly focus on Christ’s active obedience as a human being is to overlook the broader ground upon which the reward of everlasting life and inheritance can be found.
The dilemma:
The eternal Son eternally assumed the terms of the covenant of works that offered disproportionate reward of life for work done as a human being. So, regarding the active obedience part, pactum merit cannot be avoided and strict justice obtained if what fits us for glory is predicated solely on Christ fulfilling the original terms of the covenant and we grant that those original terms were according to pactum merit. That would appear to be the implication of a position that limits our standing before God to that which we receive only by the active and passive obedience of Christ. If the Son took on the terms of the original covenant of works and if those terms offered disproportionate reward via pactum, then it stands to reason that what fits us for glory is not according to what is strictly congruous but only according to pactum unless something beyond the merit gained through the last Adam’s obedience is included.
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Subtle Yet Significant Differences between Molinism and Theological Determinism. Does It Really Matter to the Reformed Tradition?

The subtle yet significant difference between Molinism and Theological Determinism lies chiefly in how God knows what would freely occur under all possible circumstances. The objects of such knowledge either influence the decree (middle knowledge) or are part of the decree (free knowledge).  

After writing this article, a number of questions came my way from committed Calvinists. This brief installment is a result of some of those correspondences.
Molinism affords a strong view of divine providence along with a principle of free will such that if Luis freely chooses the chili dog at the carnival, then it is possible that he not choose the chili dog at the carnival. In other words, what would freely occur might not occur. And although Luis is free in a libertarian sense, God no less foreordains Luis’ free choice.
Because for the Molinist God knows what Luis would freely choose under all sets of circumstances, by sovereign decree God can weakly actualize Luis’ free choice of the chili dog by strongly actualizing conducive circumstances over which God has control. So, without causing Luis to choose the chili dog at the carnival, God can guarantee Luis’ free choice by ensuring sufficient circumstances obtain. Luis would end up freely choosing the outcome that God foreordains.
For the Molinist God’s decree takes into account his prior knowledge of what Luis would freely choose if at the carnival and presented a chili dog. Given the decree, God now knows what Luis will freely choose because God already knew what Luis would freely choose in all possible circumstances that God could orchestrate. Therefore, God knows what Luis will freely choose because God knows which possible world he has decreed and all the features therein. Those features include each would-counterfactual that God decreed to bring to pass by strongly actualizing the conditions that would result in the weak actualization of the free choice counterfactuals.
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Of God’s Eternal Decree in Light of Four Commentaries on WCF 3.2. Have We Drifted?

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Reformed theology is its doctrine Of God’s Eternal Decree. Whereas Rome and Protestant denominations can find substantive agreement on the Person of Christ, Theology Proper, and with varying degree formal agreement on the sacraments – when it come to the Reformed doctrine Of God’s Eternal Decree Trinitarian communions are on a collision course. Indeed, one’s understanding of the divine decree will inform one’s understanding of free will, moral accountability, the fall of man, providence, faith and repentance, and more. This doctrine, also, has profound pastoral implications in a world of sin and suffering. We can’t afford to get this doctrine wrong.

It has been my contention for many years that the doctrine of God’s eternal decree is widely misunderstood, even unwittingly denied, within the Reformed tradition. Having served on a pastoral search committee in the OPC and candidates and credentials team in the PCA at the presbyterial level, I’ve seen a fair share of candidates for licensure, ordination and pastoral calls not be able to distinguish themselves from Molinists when it comes to the decree of God. My experiences that inform my conclusion go beyond serving in those capacities. That is to say, I believe my concerns are considerably informed on this matter. In an effort to get others to perhaps share my concern, so that maybe a small sphere of influence might gain heightened awareness, I have surveyed the theology of four commentaries spanning 150 years on an essential portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), specifically WCF 3.2 (hereon referred to as 3.2). Below I offer observations by way of comparison. I believe the one contemporary commentary on 3.2 distinguishes itself from the other three commentaries and is, I believe, representative of the general understanding of the doctrine of the divine decree in the Reformed church today.The first two commentaries were written and published in the mid 1800s. The third was first published in 1964, so it’s relatively new (though nearly sixty years old). The final commentary is from this century, published in 2014. I find striking similarities between the first three regarding their respective interpretations of 3.2 as well with their emphases. Whereas the contemporary commentary is, I believe, more than a bit troubling with respect to theological and philosophical concepts, and the subsequent doctrine put forth. The doctrine put forth not only overlooks the distinctly Reformed points of the other three, it actually opposes them.
Before we get to the commentaries, it might be a useful exercise to just ask yourself what would it take for someone to convince you that he embraced a Reformed view of the divine decree? What diagnostic questions might you ask to tease out what one believes on this matter? Or more simply considered, how would you distinguish a Reformed theology of the decree from a non-Reformed Christian theology of the decree? Because it might come as a surprise, Molinists (which for our purposes are very sophisticated Arminians) believe God is sovereign and that by decreeing whatsoever comes to pass has foreordained all of history. Perhaps surprising to most, non-Reformed theology makes room for statements such as:
God has a purpose for all that occurs. In fact, God hasn’t just allowed evil in the world, God has sovereignly decreed a world with evil, but God will use it for his own glory. Indeed, God could have brought into existence (or actualized) any number of possible worlds, as his choices were truly infinite, but God was pleased to sovereignly decree this one. In accordance with God’s decree some were chosen in Christ and predestined according to the purpose of God’s will.
As you might gather, other traditions can on the surface offer very attractive forms of God’s sovereignty and human freedom. With that observation comes a significant takeaway. It’s inadequate to consider such a generic confession of the divine decree as sufficiently Reformed. The question is, what is meant by certain words and phrases, and what key features, if any, are absent? Words and phrases like predestined, elect, chosen, and predeterminate counsel, are plainly put forth in Scripture. So much so, Calvinists and non-Calvinists cannot avoid incorporating them into their discourse. Consequently, it’s not very informative for one to say she believes God is sovereign, or that “God has a purpose in all of this”. Even the phrase “It was God’s will that this happened” does not disclose what one believes about God’s will. Much of what is written and spoken today by confessing Calvinists about God’s decree, providence and electing grace is insufficient to convict or acquit one on the charge of Calvinism.
There is a vast difference between (a) God having allowed something to occur that he could have prevented and (b) God having determined that something occur. Both ideas entail God’s sovereign will, but only the second explicitly puts forth a Reformed picture of the divine decree. The Reformed and non-Reformed can agree on the first expression of God’s will and sovereignty, but not on the second one.
Our key passage in the Westminster standards:
Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.
Regarding 3.2, Robert Letham notes:
Both Helm and Fesko correctly identify Molinism as the target of the final clause. Following Luis de Molina (1535-1600), this was the proposition that God’s decrees were based on his knowledge of all possible future actions.*
The Westminster Assembly: Reading its Theology in Historical Context (pages 184-185)
If the target of the final clause is Molina’s Molinism, then the “knowledge of all future actions” refers to scientia media (middle knowledge). Consequently, the Confession opposes any view of the decree that includes God receiving knowledge about any contingency, including the free choices of men.
Comments on four commentaries:
The commentators will simply be referred to as C 1, 2, 3 and 4. Their works are widely known in Reformed circles and I see no purpose in drawing attention to the authors. My particular hope is to heighten awareness and foster further interest in a doctrine that should invoke our highest praise as it reflects God’s matchless glory. To that end, I believe due attention should be given to how far we have drifted from our theological predecessors, assuming C4 is an adequate reflection of contemporary thinking among those who profess to be Reformed.
Unfortunately, I believe certain teachings must be addressed with critical precision. It’s in that spirit I proceed without pleasure, other than with the hope that this exercise might bear fruit.
Commentator 1:
Out of the blocks, C1 equated the divine decree with God’s determination of things that will occur. “By the decree of God is meant his purpose or determination with respect to future things.” In other words, C1 was a theological determinist. Which is to say, God does not merely permit the free choices of men. Rather, God determines their outcomes independently of the creature. “If God be an independent being, all creatures must have an entire dependence upon him…”
Secondly, C1 recognized that had God not determined all that would come to pass, God could not foreknow the future as certain. For C1, God’s exhaustive omniscience is predicated upon his sovereign and independent determination of would-counterfactuals including the actual future free acts of men. “God could not foreknow that things would be, unless he had decreed they should be…” For C1, if it were otherwise the case, there could be no surety of outcome. “…for if they had not been determined upon, they could not have been foreknown as certain.”
Thirdly, C1 believed man has free will when he “acts without any constraint, and according to his own free choice…” Consequently, and lastly, C1 was a compatibilist. C1 believed man’s free choices are compatible with God’s determination of them: “that the divine decree…while it secures the futurition of events, it leaves rational agents to act as freely as if there had been no decree.…” As a compatibilist, C1 rejected an indeterminist view of freedom, which entails a philosophy of freedom that grounds contingency in the creature as opposed to in God’s free determination. In other words, C1 rejected that a choice that would occur might not occur because of indeterminate creaturely freedom: “the execution of the decree of God is not suspended upon any condition which may or may not be performed.”
Commentator 2:
C2 took things to another level by expounding more deeply on the points he had in common with C1. Like C1, C2 mapped the certainty of future events to the sovereign determination of them: “while at the same time, [the decree] makes the entire system of events, and every element embraced in it, certainly future.”
Secondly, C2 understood that for God to know that an event would occur, God must causally determine the event to ensure its future outcome. “But the all-comprehensive purpose of God embraces and determines the cause and the conditions, as well as the event suspended upon them… Calvinists affirm that he foresees them to be certainly future because he has determined them to be so.”
Thirdly, C2 specifically argued that God determines the relationship of cause to effect. In other words, for C2, it is the decree of God that makes even contingent events contingent! “The decree, instead of altering, determines the nature of events, and their mutual relations. It makes free actions free in relation to their agents, and contingent events contingent in relation to their conditions.” (In contemporary philosophical parlance, there are no brute facts. God pre-interprets the particulars and wills their relationship of cause and effect.)
Lastly, because C2 understood that man acts freely, C2 believed freedom is compatible with the robust determinism he avowed. “Now, that a given free action is certainly future, is obviously not inconsistent with the perfect freedom of the agent in that act: Because all admit that God certainly foreknows the free actions of free agents, and if so, they must be certainly future, although free…”
These pastors and theologians based the certainty of God’s exhaustive omniscience upon the guarantees afforded to him by a deterministic decree. They did not yield an inch to the idea that God knows what men will do because of a supposed middle knowledge that is logically prior to his creative decree. When one reads these men, the most striking feature is their unwavering conviction that divine determinism is at the heart of the divine decree. Without it, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for them to have portrayed the Reformed view of the divine decree. Determines or predetermines is throughout each of the expositions of 3.2. One commentary included seventeen references to a form of the word determine in his exposition along with a couple of synonyms! Ironically, divine determinism is rarely mentioned anymore in Reformed circles today unless it’s being questioned or denied.Commentary 3:
In an economy of words, C3 taught “that God has predetermined all things that happen.” C3 understood that God’s sovereign determination of choices does not destroy genuine freedom. For C3, “The free actions of men are also predestined by God. Please note: these acts are both free and predestined…” And as his predecessors from the century before, C3 grounded God’s foreknowledge of future contingencies in the sovereign determination of God. “God knows that a thing is certain to happen before it happens, we may then ask, what makes it certain? There can be but one answer: God makes it certain. We are unable to escape the conclusion that God foresees with certainty only because he guarantees with certainty.”
Like those who preceded him in the tradition, C3 was a theological determinist and compatibilist, which is to say he affirmed free will while denying indeterminism and, consequently, the ability to choose otherwise (libertarian freedom).
All 3 commentators:
These pastors and theologians based the certainty of God’s exhaustive omniscience upon the guarantees afforded to him by a deterministic decree. They did not yield an inch to the idea that God knows what men will do because of a supposed middle knowledge that is logically prior to his creative decree. When one reads these men, the most striking feature is their unwavering conviction that divine determinism is at the heart of the divine decree. Without it, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for them to have portrayed the Reformed view of the divine decree. Determines or predetermines is throughout each of the expositions of 3.2. One commentary included seventeen references to a form of the word determine in his exposition along with a couple of synonyms! Ironically, divine determinism is rarely mentioned anymore in Reformed circles today unless it’s being questioned or denied.
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The PCA’s Principle on Non-communing Members – A Halfway Covenant?

Membership through baptism includes the privilege to warnings that are to precede ever being placed outside the church, which presupposes de facto member-status in the church. But what about unbaptized adult members of the church? How can one who has never been received into the church ever be placed outside the church for not “embracing Christ and thus possessing personally all benefits of the covenant”?

The PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) teaches that children of professing believers are members of the visible church and, therefore, are entitled to baptism. Indeed, per BCO 56-1 baptism should not be unnecessarily delayed!
However, what the BCO does not teach is that a refusal to baptize one’s covenant child is great sin that entails a cutting off from the assembly. But should it? Should the BCO teach that to deny baptism to a covenant child is to deny a covenant child non-communing membership in the visible church? Or, is the BCO correct that children can remain unbaptized yet members of the visible church? In other words, in the face of pastoral oversight and instruction, should a parent’s refusal of the covenant entitlement of Christian baptism be met with the denial of the child’s covenant-keeping status? That is the principle beginning with Abraham, then dramatically punctuated through Zipporah’s intervention unto the saving of Moses’ life. (Genesis 17:14; Exodus 4:24-26)
BCO, a halfway covenant?
Does the BCO offer a half-way covenant that divides non-communing members into two classes?
A baptized child is to be distinguished from the world and considered a member of Christ’s body unless covenant incongruity is manifested either in delinquency of doctrine or manner of life. In other words, baptized children are to be given the judgment of charity with respect to their covenant standing in the church. In a word, Christian baptism is in the name of the triune God, by which the Lord himself places his name upon a covenant child.
The BCO teaches that an unbaptized covenant child remains a member of the visible church even without an intention of a believing parent to have his or her child received into membership through the sign of covenant membership. Consequently, it’s hard to understand how the BCO does not divide child membership in the visible church between non-received members and received members.
By implication, has the visible church become something other than a manifestation of members united by one faith and one baptism?
The halves and the halves not:
It would seem that two classes of covenant children are established by BCO 57-1, whereby non-communing members include not only (a) unbaptized children born of a member, but (b) especially those presented for baptism. Yet per BCO 56-4(g) it is not by birthright but baptism that children are “received into the bosom of the visible church, distinguished from the world… and united with believers.” Therefore, not all members are actually received into the church as members of Christ’s body.
Trying to make sense of things:
PCA ecclesiology distinguishes unbaptized child-members of the visible church from first class child-members who by baptism are especially members of the church; been received into her bosom; been distinguished from the world; and united to believers.
Put negatively and perhaps more strikingly, by implication the BCO teaches there are true members of the visible church – even adult members – who are “federally holy” yet not especially members of the visible church because they have not been received into her bosom and been distinguished from the world by being united to other believers in baptism.
Questions, implications:
What is it to be a visible member of the church while outside her bosom? What covenantal standing is there for non-bosom members who aren’t “especially” members of Christ’s church (because they have not been distinguished from the world, having not been united to other members of the church in Christian baptism)?
Has the BCO blurred the spiritual meaning of church membership, possibly by downplaying the theological significance of the sacrament when it comes to Baptist theology? At the very least, to be united to other members of Christ’s body is to be united to Christ in baptism. (In passing let it be noted that consistent Baptists will not be offended by the exclusion of their children from church membership for they do not consider their own children members of the visible church, otherwise Baptists would dedicate their children in baptism.)
Further ramifications, a reductio of sorts:
The practice of trying to maintain a two tiered membership for children leads to further difficulties with respect to non-baptized members upon coming to an age of discretion.
BCO 6-1 teaches that “children of believers are, through the covenant and by right of birth, non-communing members of the church. Hence they are entitled to Baptism, and to the pastoral oversight, instruction and government of the church, with a view to their embracing Christ and thus possessing personally all benefits of the covenant.” (emphasis mine) The reference to instruction and in particular to government can suggest entitlement to the discipline of the church. Perhaps BCO 6-1 presupposes baptism has been administered (given that it’s an entitlement), especially in light of BCO 6-3.
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