Making Sense of the Warning Passages Part 1 of 2: Understanding the Covenantal Structure of Scripture
Oh, I’ve been writing….most of my time has been eaten up at a message board.Â I wrote some pretty long posts there.Â This is one of them. – KJG
Some of the frequent difficulties that people run across in the discussions on reformed theology versus just about everything else (specifically dispensational theology) involves who are the rightful members of the church and what to ‘do’ with children of believers (how do we treat them ?), what do we do with the various commands to persevere and the various warning passages in places like Hebrews 6, as well as passages like 2 Peter 2, all of which seem to suggest (at a quick glance) that a genuine believer can ‘lose’ their salvation ?
One person on a message board I’m on asked this series of questions recently:
If you are of the non-elect, why do you need to worry about the warning passages? Is that not like telling someone who isn’t born-again to not sin, because they will receive judgment from God? Furthermore, if you are totally depraved, why would you even consider that you need to take heed?
Why would it be a warning passage for the elect, if the elect aren’t able to fall away in the first place? To draw another analogy, that would be like telling someone who can’t be burned to not touch the hot stove?
The root of his problems began, however with a misunderstanding of certain terms used in scripture, particularly in his understanding of the word sanctificy. I responded back to him on the issue:
Sanctify is used differently in scriptures to mean different things. It does not ALWAYS mean ‘saved person becoming more holy by being set apart from sin’. The problem you’re having in understanding here is that you are using the word in the sense of ‘saved person set apart from sin’.
Change your definition (which will wreak havoc on other aspects of what you believe, probably). Define it as ‘set apart’. Period.
God choosing Israel out of all of the nations of the world to be His visible people was God sanctifying or setting Israel apart for Himself. It does NOT mean that all of Israel that He set apart was saved.
Most people usually assume that ‘sanctify’ is to be equated with ‘saved’ in all cases.Â This comes from approaching scripture with an individualistic view rather than a covenantal view.Â Â What do we mean by that ?Â That’s where we get into the meat of this article. In order for one to understand how someone could be ‘set apart’ and not saved, one must understand that sanctify doesn’t always mean ‘saved’, but simply means ‘set apart’ (whether saved or not).Â Â Examples of this abound in scripture, starting with the nation of Israel.
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but Through Isaac shall your offspring be named. 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. (Romans 9:6-8)
And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Gal. 3:29)
Remember Romans 9:25-29:
As indeed he says in Hosea,
Those who were not my people I will call my people,
and her who was not beloved I will call beloved.
26 And in the very place where it was said to them, You are not my people, there they will be called sons of the living God.
27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, 28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay. 29 And as Isaiah predicted,
, If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring,
we would have been like Sodom
and become like Gomorrah.
Two concepts come into play here.
One is that of covenant community. Today, some would just say ‘visible church’. This is a mixed bunch of people, composed of both believers and non-believers. The other is ‘remnant’. This is the group of people we’d call (in todays’ vernacular) ‘the invisible church’. These are those who are truly saved (the elect, known intimately by God and chosen according to His will before the foundation of the earth and before time began Eph. 1:3-14, 2 Tim. 1:8-10).
When God speaks to the church in scripture (any of the beginnings of any letters in the NT as well as the letters to the 7 churches in Revelation), THIS is the group (the covenant community) that he’s talking to (again, this only provides a problem for folks who hold to believers’ baptism, because although some of them will acknowledge this, they will treat all of the texts as though they are only speaking to true believers, or the ‘invisible church’).
In the covenant community (again), there are both believers and non-believers.
Those ‘set apart’ into the covenant community, just like OT Israel, have both responsibilities and curses that follow if folks break those responsibilities.
God pours out His Spirit covenantally. That is, He pours out His Spirit and the gifts of His Spirit for the entire covenant community. Remember the Hebrews 6 passage ?
For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. (Heb. 6:7-8)
Rain causes both thorns and thistles to grow.
As a miniature example, remember Judas was part of the seventy that were sent out in Luke 10. I think its’ safe to assume that he did miracles right alongside the rest of disciples (remember: no one suspected him as being a traitor till AFTER he betrayed Christ).
Now to be sure, Judas was never marked off for salvation. Why ? Because He is called the son of perdition. (One who goes off into destruction). Remember Jesus’ words about Judas:
While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. (John 17:12)
The son of destruction is lost out of the bunch that Jesus keeps in order that scripture would be fulfilled. So Judas was never marked off for salvation. Never. Judas is a case of a ‘never’ being saved in the first place.
Jesus answered them, Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil. He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him. (John 6:70-71)
And as they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me. 19 They began to be sorrowful and to say to him one after another, Is it I? 20 He said to them, It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me. 21 For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born. (Mark 14:18-21)
I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me. (John 13:18)
and remember Peter’s words afterward in Acts 1:16-17:
Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17 For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.
So the testimony of scripture is that Judas was always marked off for damnation and to betray Jesus and was never considered as elect. He was counted as a disciple, but was never counted (in Christ’s eyes or scripture) as a true believer. Even before John 13:2, Judas was a theif (John 12:4-6). So we can’t say ‘well, it was at the supper when Satan entered his heart that he turned’. He was a ‘never’.
Thus, he was a part of a smaller covenantal body (the visible disciples), but not part of the true sheep of Jesus (the rest of disciples who were truly converted). He recieved all of the same blessings that the rest of disciples received (signs and wonders during the ministry of Jesus, healing, teaching, protection by Christ during His earthly ministry – Luke 22:35- and so on). But instead of bearing fruit, they bore thorns and thistles.
An interesting pattern happens at this point in Jesus’ ministry. Satan tests two people – Judas and Peter.
During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, (John 13:2)
â€œSimon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31-32)
In the former passage, Jesus simply tells Judas ‘what you do, do quickly’ and then Judas leaves. In the latter passage, He tells Peter “when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers”. Jesus acknowledged here that Peter was elect (because the elect don’t fully and finally fall away as Judas did).
In fact, this passage (the Luke passage) teaches us many more things. Jesus didn’t intercede in prayer on behalf of Judas. Peter on the other hand….Jesus prayed for him that his faith ‘fail not’ (literal greek). In fact, the words ‘that’ (THAT your faith may not fail) is actually already in the negative (hina me) before we even get to faith ‘fail not’. That’s a guarantee from Christ that Peter would NOT fully and finally fall away from the faith. And He didn’t.
But I’m off track a bit.
When God saves an individual in that group, He does not simply say ‘poof! you are saved! you don’t have to do anything now, you can sit still, never eat, never drink, never read your bible and i’ll just pour the sanctification and other stuff into you automatically….’.
Instead, He not only saves and preserves them through supernatural means (for example, justification, the work of the Spirit in the life of the individual believer), but He also causes them to persevere in faith through ordinary means.
If God has ordained that I would live to see 70 years old and have a family of five kids, why should I eat ? Why should I work ? Why should I have sex with my wife ?
Well, God providing work is His means of giving me a way to purchase food to sustain my life until that age.
Me being at my job in the right place at the right time, He provided that I meet my wife there, we date, spend time and get married (off of the money from the job He’s given me).
Who works the job ? Me. Who gives me the job to buy the food to work the job and live the life ? God. So the means He has given me are His means of keeping me alive to age 70 and going about getting a wife so we can have kids.
In the same way, the means He has given me and every other believer what we in reformed circles call them the ‘means of grace‘ – fellowship with the saints, reading, memorization, meditation and application on the Word of God, accountability with the saints, spiritual authority over us in the form of elders and such – as the means God uses to cause His saints to continue in faith.
Remember Ezekiel 36:27 ?
And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Same teaching in the NT:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13)
Without God working in the individual, there is no strength that the person can gather to persevere/continue in faith. So God does keep the individual – He provides every spiritual blessing including ALL that we need for godliness to the believer (this was purchased at the cross – Eph. 1:3, 2 Peter 1:3).
But that’s not all.
God providentially provides the means for our continued existence so that nothing in our lives falls outside of His control or catches Him by surprise. In fact, everything that happens to us in life is ordained by Him as the means by which Heconforms us to the image of Christ.
Romans 8:28-29 lays out both of these as an unbroken chain.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)
A lot of people are familiar with 8:28 and quote it frequently. But when you take into consideration that the text doesn’t say ‘God works things out’ but rather that all things work for GOOD, the text takes on a different meaning. Coupled with Eph. 1:3-14 (and it’s all one sentence in the greek), and you find (v. 11) that God works all things according to the counsel of His will.
This includes every bit of suffering that believers endure as well as all of the good times. God works (not ‘works in’) all of them to bring about a person’s eventual growth and being conformed to the image of His Son (glorification). All events and aspects in life – including providing the means of you persevering in faith.
Next: Warning Passages and the Word of God