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Volume 13, Issue 2: childer

Stumbling intp Apostasy

Douglas Wislon

American evangelicals have a hard time understanding the apostasy of covenant children because we have a deficient view of what the covenant means. Children who fall away are always a familial tragedy, but we must come to understand these tragedies against the backdrop of the greater tragedy, a tragedy which positively encourages this process—the error of blurring the doctrine of election with the doctrine of the covenant.

Again and again, we tend to usurp the prerogatives of Deity. We assume that we can see regeneration, and then, on the basis of this, we admit a child to those covenant privileges which the whole world can see. We have it exactly backwards. The Holy Spirit blows where He wills, and the internal work of God is invisible. The water of baptism is physically there. A man can splash it.
Membership in the covenant of God is objective. It can be photographed. Ultimate faithfulness to the covenant, in the final analysis, can be seen only by God. But we pretend to see what only God can see, and then, as a result, we are faithless to the terms of the covenant which we could see if we would only remove the blinders of our own man-made evangelical traditions.
Jesus teaches us that He is the vine, and that we are the branches (Jn. 15:1—7). He says explicitly that some of His branches can be cut off and burned. Paul warns the Roman church against the sin of covenantal hubris (Rom. 11:20). The Jews had previously become proud and had been cut out of the covenant. If the Roman Gentiles do not heed this warning, Paul says, the same thing will happen to them. The implication is plain—not every covenant member is regenerate. Not every covenant member is elect. Not every covenant member bears fruit. Paul also tells us that we cannot be presumptive in our baptism—the Jews were baptized in the cloud and in the sea. We cannot presumptively rest in the fact that we in the new covenant have the Lordís Supper. They also had spiritual food and drink, received from Christ Himself, and yet their bodies were scattered over the desert (1 Cor. 10:2—5). These things are our examples.
Consistently, at the very places where the New Testament draws parallels between the Christian church and the Jews in the wilderness, modern theologians try to draw contrasts.
All this means that a man can be genuinely attached to Christ and yet bear no fruit. He is as attached as the fruit-bearing branch is. They both partake of the root and fatness of the tree. Sap flows to both branches. The fruitless branch tastes the heavenly gift. He has been enlightened (Heb. 6:4). And, when the process of apostasy comes to completion, he tramples underfoot the blood of the covenant by which he was sancitified (Heb. 10:29).
All such apostasy passages have been much abused by Arminianism, which teaches that election is up for grabs. But these passages are equally abused by Calvinistic exegetes who wonít let the Scriptures issue any solemn warnings to the covenant people of God. Arminianism wants conditions without a covenant, and much of traditional Calvinism wants a covenant without conditions. In this latter system, such warnings are frequently taken as merely hypothetical—kind of like "stay away from the cliff" signs in the middle of Kansas.
But apostasy is a real sin, committed by real people. These people are covenant members who are not elect. But the fact they are not elect does not mean (as is commonly assumed) that they have no real connection to the vine or olive tree. The nonelect covenant member is, in this sense, a true covenant member. He is not a tumbleweed caught in the branches—he is connected to the trunk and receives some kind of nourishment from it.
Because we only use the term Christian with reference to the invisible things of God, the term has been the source of much confustion. But the term refers, in different ways, to both election and the covenant. St. Paul was a Jew, and so was Caiaphas. But the circumcision which matters at the last day is of the heart, by the Spirit (Rom. 2:29). Charles Spurgeon was a Christian, and so was Alexander VI. But a servant abides in the house temporarily (John 8:35). Because we have rejected the objectivity of the covenant, we assume that the term Christian has only one meaning, and is therefore some kind of automatic compliment.
So how are we to understand a child who grew up in a covenant home, has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and yet who is now living in high defiance of the gospel? Seeing that he is manifesting the works of the flesh, and not the fruit of the Spirit, can we say he is a Christian? The answer is that of course he is a Christian. But he is a Christian in the same sense that an adulterer is a husband.
When a covenant child rebels against his upbringing, and he rejects what his church and family has taught him, this means that he is (unless he repents) in greater trouble, not less trouble. Baptism is not a feel-good ceremony which gets an infant part of the way there. It is a covenant sign, which solemnizes his covenant obligations, and this covenant has sanctions—attendant blessings and curses.
Grieving parents must not minimize the danger a wayward child is in. But neither should they despair. As they pray for their child, and they look for a place to hold while they plead, they can be encouraged in this. The covenant has handles.

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