Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Objectivity of the Covenant in Real Life

One of the great things about viewing people through the lens of Scripture is that we don’t have to try to look into people’s hearts to see if they are truly saved or not. The Bible doesn’t do that, it simply accepts people’s profession of faith and their baptism and assumes they are members of the community in which salvation is found. From there it encourages people to draw near to God, to rest in Christ, to walk with God, and to strive to be like him.

On the other hand there are warnings everywhere against falling away from God, from grace, and from fellowship and these are in contexts where you wouldn’t expect them to be otherwise. For example, the letter to the Romans is written to “the beloved of God, called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7). The text goes on to say that the Roman Christians’ faith is proclaimed throughout the whole world. So this letter was written to Christians. We know that there are problems in the church right off the bat when Paul criticizes the Jewish contingent in the second chapter for their attitude in judging Gentiles when they are doing the same things (Rom. 2:1). Then the Apostle proceeds to present the Gospel to the Roman Christians in a way that makes it clear that they had elements in their church who needed to know how it all worked together. There were folks who thought that since Grace covered a multitude of sins they should sin all the more (Rom. 6:1-2). But the letter culminates in chapter 11 (at least with regard to this point) when Paul tells the Roman Christians that if the Jews of the old Covenant could be cut off from the Tree of life, that is Christ, so could the saints of the New Covenant (cf. Rom. 11:21-22).

We find the same sort of thing in 1 Corinthians. The letter was written to “the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2). Then in 6:11 Paul told the Corinthian church, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” These people were Christians in every sense of the word and according to everyone’s definition. Then in chapter 10 Paul throws a clinker into our understanding of what a Christian is. He said, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:11-12). Now it is important to read the context. In the first 10 verses Paul recounts the events following the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites were called the people of God and yet after they crossed the Red Sea and followed the cloud in the desert and drank water from the rock they created a golden calf and worshiped it. God said that because of their unbelief they would die in the desert. 3,000 died that day and eventually, except for 2 s and the small children the whole nation eventually died without ever seeing the promised land because of their unbelief.

The book of Hebrews has many warnings against falling away. It also has several passages, when comparing the Old Covenant with the New that let us know that just as there were blessings and cursings in the Old Covenant, so there are also blessings and cursings in the New Covenant. Even the New Covenant Christian needs to beware least he drift away or crucify again the son of glory because it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the holy God we serve.
But how does this work out practically? Let’s take a look at a few particularly “sticky” issues in 1 Corinthians 7. Suppose you have a professing and baptized Christian man married to a professing and baptized Christian woman, both members of your church. Based on the understanding of what makes a Christian a Christian in this situation we have 2 Christians married to one another. Let’s add another element to the mix, suppose both Christians are Roman Catholic Christians who have just come to your church. How are they to live together? The pastor should call them to live up to the faith to which their baptism claims they belong. If they want to live like non-Christians, they need to be confronted with all the warning texts (like the ones discussed above) and diligently brought back to living according to the faith they profess.

If they won’t return, they are to be sought according to Matthew 18 and if they won’t repent, they are to be put out of the church and proclaimed to be a non-believer, or non-Christian. Does this mean they’ve lost their salvation? NO! It is a proclamation that while they were members of the Church of Christ, they were never of Christ and thus never had salvation in the first place.

God saves us because of Christ and it shows up by our believing and living faithful lives.

Do you have to make judgments regarding a person’s salvation in this? No. If a person professes faith in Christ and is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit you assume that they are saved. You do this until they die or until they sin in such a grievous way that they must be cast out of the church.

Covenant membership is objective when you view it the way the Bible does. If a person professes Christ and is baptized, they are a covenant members and thus should be treated that way. If they live in such a way that they negate what their baptism signifies, they should be treated in accord with the Scriptures and if necessary should be removed from the Covenant. Until a person is removed from the Covenant their salvation is not questioned. When they are excommunicated their lack of salvation is proclaimed and then it isn’t questioned either. It was assumed they had it before and now they definitely and definitively do not have it.

It can be said of Christians in other churches who are living in sin that based on how they are living their lives we have no reason to believe they are saved. We can go further and say that if they lived that way in our church they would be confronted gently and an attempt would be made to bring them back into fellowship and failing that they would be excommunicated. Otherwise the most we can say is they are unfaithful Christians who appear to be in danger of losing their soul in Hell.

If a Christian comes along who is living in sin but not a member of our church, our constitution allows us to excommunicate them from Christ’s Church based on the authority of the Church in general. We haven’t done this yet, but there might be a situation where we may need to do something like this. We would probably do it in a case where the Christian husband is beating his Christian wife but won’t repent. We would excommunicate the husband and then tell the wife to divorce him.

Now back to 1 Corinthians 7. Suppose the husband in the Christian couple begins thinking he can have a friend and a wife at the same time. He should be approached as a Christian who is living in an unfaithful way, both to his wife and to his God. He should be gently restored to fellowship and failing that (through the steps of Matthew 18) should be excommunicated.

The wife was free to divorce him at any time after the ery was found out whether or not the husband is excommunicated. ery breaks the bonds of marriage and the wife is free to divorce him or to forgive him and live with him that way. For more on this subject you can read Jay Adams’ book Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage in the Bible.

An important point to make here is that ual immorality doesn’t automatically put the person in the non-Christian category. The unfaithful husband is being unfaithful to his wife which breaks the marriage covenant, but he can repent of his sin and still be divorced by his wife. The two are not automatically connected.

Suppose, however, that the sin is something like gambling. Now you have a Christian wife living with a non-Christian man. The man has been excommunicated for not loving his wife by spending all their money on gambling. In this case the wife cannot automatically divorce her non-Christian husband. She must apply a whole bunch of other passages while living with a non-Christian who is content to live with her (1 Cor. 7:13-15; cf. 1 Peter 3).

The other instance of divorce for Christians is when a Christian married to a non-Christian and the non-Christian doesn’t want to live with the Christian anymore. This one can get sticky and require a lot of wisdom. Suppose the non-Christian is just grumpy and the Christian isn’t having a good time living with the non-Christian. I would say that this isn’t grounds for divorce. There are plenty of passages in Scripture that tell us how to live in difficult situations. The Christian in a hard place needs to draw near to Christ and win their unbelieving spouse to the Lord by their godly attitude and behavior.

If the non-Christian wife is beating her Christian husband, this might be warrant for divorce. Being willing to live with the Christian may mean that she isn’t causing bodily harm to her Christian husband. But this is a wisdom call, not automatic. Suppose the wife is getting up in the middle of the night and hitting her husband with a pan, but when she wakes up because of his yelling, she realizes that she’s been sleep whacking. She probably needs some other kind of help than being divorced.

The objectivity of Covenant membership makes how you think of people much easier. You don’t have to pretend to be God and try to see into people’s hearts. You only have to see if Christians are living godly lives or not. If they are you encourage them to more faithfulness. If they aren’t you call them back to living lives faithful to their baptisms. It really takes a lot of stress off. God gets to make the big decisions and it isn’t up to us anymore.

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