Thursday, June 19, 2008

Passive or Obedient Faith, Justification, Gospel Propositions and Baptism

It is quite popular in Reformed circles today to take a position on whether justifying faith is obedience or not. What I find possibly most amusing in this intramural debate is that so many who would affirm that infants can be justified through the seed of faith are quick to call faith obedience. Whereas those who do not allow for infants to have justifying faith often want to call faith passive!

Closely related to this discussion is the discussion over the logical order of sanctification and justification. One might think that among Reformed Christians it would be obvious that definitive sanctification precedes justification if for no other reason than regeneration precedes faith. After all, are there any who are regenerate who are not definitively sanctified by virtue of regeneration? Or is it man who generates justifying faith from an unsanctified / unregenerate posture? Moreover, those who think that faith must be exercised by embracing gospel propositions in order for there to be justifying faith (leaving infants no way to be justified by faith) should have little problem appreciating that the process of sanctification must precede justification. After all, given such a theology that does not allow infants to be justified through the seed of faith, not only would sanctification precede justification logically speaking, it would also precede justification in a temporal sense (since regenerate infants would have to wait until they comprehended the gospel) making the order of sanctification preceding justification even more pronounced.

With respect to justifying faith being an obedient response to the gospel call - it should first be observed that a sinner who tries to obey the command to flee the wrath to come does so either with a regenerate heart or out of enlightened self-interest. When the latter occurs, obviously no justifying faith is present, obedient or otherwise. When the former occurs, the one obeying is already justified by grace through faith, hence the action to obey with a believing heart with respect to the warning of death and promise of life. When one truly turns, it is because his heart is subdued and we must maintain that there is no temporal order in the application of redemption with respect to effectual call, regeneration, definitive sanctification, repentance and faith, and justification. Without a temporal order to these salvific gifts, we maintain that whoever is alive in Christ is justified through faith, even the seed of faith (see below). Accordingly, the fruit of obedience to the commands and / or warnings of Christ indeed must follow only in a temporal sense from the gift of life, which is always simultaneously accompanied by justifying faith. In a word, although it may appear as if men are obedient in their response to the call upon their lives, a faith that is imparted effectually by God does not obey at the logical moment it is granted anymore than Lazarus obeyed the Lord when coming forth from the grave.

Another strand of the discussion has to do with whether those who are incapable of comprehending gospel propositions can be justified at all let alone by faith. I’ve come to believe that justification has simply become a word in a theological puzzle as opposed to retaining its actual meaning. After all, when we keep the meaning of justification in the forefront of our minds, it is hard to imagine anyone thinking that one can be baptized into the finished work of Christ apart from receiving full pardon of sins. What is it, after all, to be united to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ? Does the Holy Spirit unite to the Savior in baptism anyone who does not also receive full remission of sins and Christ’s righteousness? Aren’t those who are baptized into Christ united to his very work on behalf of sinners? Doesn’t all that Christ have become the sinner’s own upon existential union?

We do well to remember that the grace promised in baptism is not merely offered and exhibited in the sacrament but also conferred by the Holy Ghost (to those whether of age or infants) according to the counsel of God’s own will, at his appointed time. Consequently, infants (and those incapable of ever coming to a literal understanding of the gospel) can receive what baptism signifies, even in infancy, should God so will. Accordingly, this would mean that such a one who has received the reality of being engrafted into Christ (one of the benefits of effectual baptism) would also receive the remission of sins. No place in Scripture or the Westminster Confession of Faith will one find a justification to put asunder all that is entailed in the reality of Spirit baptism. Regeneration is never separated out from remission of sins with respect to baptism into Christ; yet many Reformed Christians plainly deny this. As a defense, they often quote verses that when taken alone might imply that justifying faith always entails belief in propositions; yet this doesn’t relieve the tension. At best all it can do is introduce another one! The tension these Reformed brothers introduce is relieved by noting that in the case of those who can believe gospel propositions, faith is part-and-parcel with belief. Faith and the exercise of faith are inexorably tied to together in the case of those capable of embracing Christ as he is offered in the gospel. Accordingly, the call to repentance and faith, which is only given to those who can understand, should and must be couched in such a way as to elicit a response even though faith is first effectually granted, accomplishing justification, so that a response can be made.

Many rightly acknowledge that regenerate wrought faith can be present within those incapable of comprehending the gospel. Unfortunately, too many who correctly affirm the seed of faith can be present in infants deny that such can be justified through that seed of faith because they posit that faith must be exercised in gospel propositions for it to be the instrumental cause of justification. They forget that justification is by faith so that it might be by grace. Unwittingly, they make justification out to be not by faith alone but by exercised faith alone.

Now for those who would affirm that infants baptized into Christ are indeed justified but apart from the unexercised seed of faith or any faith seed at all, then what occurs upon the exercise of faith or the first time implantation of faith? Does one become re-justified? Or are only infants who die in infancy pardoned for their sins prior to exercising faith or apart from any faith at all, and all other regenerate infants are simply sanctified in Christ but not yet justified?
Does one have faith before it is exercised? Does one have faith when he is sleeping, after all? Must faith be in a perpetual state of work for one to remain in a state of "justified"? Must a baby exercise faith by believing gospel propositions in order for him to be justified by that faith?

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