I continue providing a response to the anti-Calvinistic interpretation of Jesus’ promises to His people in John provided by Paul Owen, a man who claims to be a Calvinist but whose writings and agenda is opposed, clearly, to the proclamation of God’s free and sovereign grace. We continue with Owen’s words:
God actually makes promises to people, and gives benefits to people, who fail to receive the benefit in a true and lasting manner due to apostasy. This is why Matthew 13:41 says that some reprobates will be gathered “out of” Christ’s kingdom in the final judgment. To be gathered “out of” a kingdom, you of course have to have first entered “into” the kingdom. So some reprobates do enter the kingdom of heaven for a season.
This “non-elect Christian” concept (seen, in a fashion, in the debate with Douglas Wilson last year, in fact), is not only eisegetical in nature (once again, reading this kind of theology into Jesus’ words in John 6 or John 10 results in an utter nightmare of contradiction) but it leads to the complete overthrow of the purposes of God’s promises. Surely hypocrites and reprobates enter the church: but that does not mean they are united with Christ, are “of” us, are adopted, drawn by the Father, etc. Owen’s over-riding theological system leads to a complete “leveling” of the promises of God so that what is outwardly offered to the reprobate in the general commandments of God becomes equal to the personal promises of adoption and salvation that are the possession of the elect alone.
This is also why Paul says in Romans 9:4 that adoption as sons, the covenants and the promises (sealed in covenant signs) still belong to the Jewish people (cf. 11:28), though only the elect within Israel receive the benefits of those promises (9:6f.). The rest of the Jews, who reject Christ, are viewed by Paul as apostates, who have been broken off from the benefits of the covenant of grace (11:20). And what is more, it is clear that Paul continues to maintain this same framework in the Church of the New Covenant, for he warns those who have now been grafted into the covenant: “if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off” (Rom. 11:21-22).
These comments take us directly into the long-standing debates at the heart of credo vs. paedobaptism, though it is odd once again to point out that evidently Owen, without coming right out and saying it, thinks Calvin somehow “missed” this reading. And is it not just slightly odd that the results of this reading are diametrically opposed to the central aspect of Calvin’s theology, the self-glorification of God in the salvation of the elect? Odd indeed.
Be that as it may, I would like to call upon Fred Malone to address this usage of Romans 11:
Romans 1:11-24 specifically deals with the issue of the unbelieving Jews being broken off from the root because of their unbelief about Christ and Gentiles being grafted in because of their faith (Acts 13:47-48). The warning to Gentiles is that if they do not continue in faith, and have a better [sic? bitter] attitude toward Jews, then God may once again turn generally from them and engraft Jews into the root by their faith.
The issue in Romans 11 is not that of an individual being a New Covenant member who has been broken off as a covenant breaker. Rather, Paul speaks of faith, not ethnic origin, as the prerequisite of being engrafted into the root of the New Covenant era, whether Jew or Gentile. According to Robertson’s [O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, 2000] discussion of Romans 11:26:
“All Israel,” then, consists of the entire body of God’s elect from among both Jews and Gentiles. This is the group whom Paul calls “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16, where he insists that Christians must walk according to the rule that no distinction is to be made between circumcised and uncircumcised people (v. 15). Here Paul clearly uses the term Israel to refer to the elect Jews and elect Gentiles as constituting the true Israel of God.
This text, therefore, does not deal at all with whether an individual can be placed in the New Covenant and then removed as a covenant breaker. Rather, it is a promise that God’s election of grace does not fail and includes both Jew and Gentile according to His sovereign choice. No group should be haughty toward another, simply because God is the One who sovereignly chooses whom He will save in the flow of redemptive history. (Fred Malone, The Baptism of Disciples Alone, 104-105)
Later, Malone rightly notes,
Using the metaphors of John 15 and Romans 11 to redefine clearer New Covenant prophecies and definitions and thereby to create a New Covenant that has curses and real members who do not possess all the realized blessings of the New Covenant is erroneous hermeneutics and poor exegesis. As Dan McCartney has said, “Literal passages are more determinative than symbolic ones.” It is this overlooking of clearer didactic passages, which clearly define the New Covenant, by giving preference to symbolic ones or passages dealing with false profession and haughty spirits that is the hermeneutical error of some paedobaptists. (106)
Those verses are enough to induce cardiac arrest in a “Reformed” Baptist, because “Reformed” Baptists do not believe what God’s word tells us about the nature of the covenant. Those who have received God’s kindness are those who have been grafted into the promises and benefits of the New Covenant; but this has a condition–you must “continue in his kindness” or you too will be cut off.
As is the case in Hebrews, addressing an entire group with a warning is not the same as saying “the promises of God are dependent upon your fulfillment of conditions.” The errant assumption Owen (and many others) makes here is that warnings addressed to broad groups demand that every member of that group must therefore be liable to, or subject to, the sin or action warned against. I.e., if I say to a group of young people at church, “Do not engage in taking drugs,” I must be assuming that every single person in that group is equally liable to, or subject to, the temptation to drug abuse. Obviously, that is not the case, but when you speak to groups as a whole, as in addressing “Gentiles” as a whole, or the Christian congregation as a whole (Hebrews), you will give warnings that you know are dependent upon knowledge you cannot have: i.e., who has a heart of stone and who has a heart of flesh. The warnings are general in nature, but they do not indicate that you think every person in the group has the same necessity to hear the warning. Some you well know will hold firm to proper behavior, but, you then use your warning for them as an encouragement and guide. Any teacher knows that when addressing a class, some students who need to hear your warnings you know will not; others you know don’t need to hear them, but will, and will be the better for it.
When we come to the issue of apostasy in the New Testament, we are clearly told that Christ never fails to save one of His own. We are told it is the Father’s will for Him that He lose none who are given to Him. We are told that those the Father gives to the Son He draws to Him and the Son raises them up. We are told no one can snatch them from the Father’s hand, and that the Father and Son are united in their salvific intent, etc. These are direct didactic teachings. So upon what grounds do we then take general warnings and overthrow these clear teachings on the basis of ignoring the fact that general warnings have multiple audiences and purposes? Doesn’t God’s law thunder warnings as well, and yet the reaction to those warnings differs based completely upon the nature of the one hearing? The heart of stone chafes and reacts angrily to God’s law: the heart of flesh obeys and understands and sees God’s wisdom.
It is quite humorous to watch would-be-Reformed interpreters try to keep a straight face while they explain to you that “continuing in” God’s kindness does not presuppose that one has actually yet entered “into” that kindness.
I have a pretty hard time keeping a straight face when Paul Owen adopts a view opposite of that of Calvin, turns the key passages teaching God’s sovereign grace on their heads, and then calls himself a Calvinist and expects to be taken seriously. But thankfully, what we find humorous does not make a lot of difference.
The point of Romans 11 is belief and unbelief: those who are cut off are cut off for what reason, consistently? Their failure to “continue in” God’s kindness? Or their unbelief? Oh if these words had only been heeded in the middle ages! Think of how much of the anti-Semitism that became enshrined in Rome’s teachings and actions (and then came through into Luther, for example, and so many others) would have been utterly destroyed by a consideration of this warning. Yes, unbelieving Jews had been cut out, and a hardening had taken place, but since all stand by grace through faith, there is absolutely positively no grounds for arrogance or boasting especially boasting based upon ethnic orientation (Gentile vs. Jew).
Is Owen suggesting, while professing to be a Calvinist, that the faith that gains one entrance into union with Christ and the covenant in His blood is liable to failure? It seems so. Surely, this leads directly to the conclusions that have resulted in such rightfully strong reactions on the part of conservative Reformed theologians to the “Federal Vision” movement: “covenant faithfulness” as the means of “remaining in” the covenant; justification as an eschatological concept first and foremost rather than a present reality; the promises of Christ being general and dependent for fulfillment upon the action of man, etc.
If you do not continue in God’s kindness, you never were “in” to start with.
Or, being in group A addressed with warnings does not mean that every person in group A is, therefore, within the salvific decree of God. The fact remains that in this text, “cutting off” is always related to what? Unbelief. So, if one is arrogant toward the Jews in opposition to Paul’s teaching so as to violate this command, so as to presume upon the kindness of God, is this person an A) believer or B) unbeliever? Are believers “wise in their conceits” (v. 25) so as to become unbelievers? Is Owen trying to call himself a Calvinist while saying you can go from having true faith and truly being “in Christ” so as to lose that position? He is surely free to argue that position if he wants to do so: what he is not free to do is call it Calvinism. There is a reason why Calvin kept referring to “reprobates” when exegeting John 6 and 10. I don’t see Owen using that term very often at all, and I think there is a pretty good reason for it.
So somehow, people are being warned that they will be judged for failing to continue in a state they never got into in the first place? How can a person who has never entered a given state fail to continue in a state they never even entered? This is the sort of balderdash that is created by people who like to cite the Bible but who fail to think in biblical categories.
The “balderdash” is the hack-job Owen foists upon biblical texts like John 6 and 10 so as to maintain his theological system.