Sunday, April 11, 2010

Covenant isn't Co-extensive with Election

Two factors have helped me come to, what I believe is a simple, yet thorough resolution to the troubling issue of apostasy in the book of Hebrews. They are (1) a consideration of the fuller context, more specifically, the occasional context of the book and (2) the doctrine of the Covenant.

A simple point to get is that the whole context of the book of Hebrews deals with the superiority of Christ over the Old Testament economy. The book was written, as its title suggests, to Hebrews – Jews, who might be tempted to return to the worship system of the Old Testament. I think all scholars are in agreement about this. This is the “occasional context,” as I called it; that is, the problem or occasion that prompted the writing of the Epistle. Hence the author goes to great lengths to constantly remind us that, despite all the glory of the Old Testament period and its ordinances, Christ is greater. Secondarily, we are informed of the abrogation of the Old Testament’s sacrificial system by Christ’s sacrifice.

Therefore if a person were wont to turn away from Christ to return to the sacrificial system of Old Testament worship, he would be going to something that had been completely evacuated of any meaning or efficacy. If one rejects the sacrifice of Christ, “there remains no other sacrifice for sin.” Not only so, but he would be denying the value of Christ’s sacrificial death. First of all, the Old Testament sacrifices were all forward-looking to the ultimate sacrifice Christ made for sin. Secondly, continuing in the practice of those sacrifices implies that atonement for sin has not yet been paid – hence it is a denial of Christ as our Surety.

As I said earlier, the doctrine of the Covenant provides a framework or paradigm which completely obliterates all difficulty in handling this passage. The key to understanding it is this: God’s covenant people are not co-extensive with the elect.

Let me elucidate that a bit. All of Israel was God’s covenant people. However, not every single Israelite was among the number of God’s elect to salvation. Every Israelite did experience certain blessings as a part of the larger community of God’s people, but not every Israelite experienced the spiritual blessing of God’s regenerating work in his heart. Paul says, “For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel.” (Romans 9:6b) Every Jew was circumcised and offered the sacrifices prescribed by the Law. Every Jew experienced the blessing of God’s protection of the nation from invading armies, etc. But not every Jew was a child of Abraham by faith in the Promised Seed.

When we come to the New Testament, things are no different. We all willingly acknowledge that church membership is not co-extensive with salvation. Just because a person is a member of God’s covenant people (the Church), this does not automatically mean that he is a member of the elect. Therefore, like the unregenerate Jew, he may partake of many things which are blessings to his life. But these are not necessarily the spiritual blessing of new birth.

Applied to the “apostasy passages” of Hebrews, the difficulty is removed by noting that the writer is telling us that (1) the Old Testament sacrifices are forever done away with by Christ’s all-sufficient death. Hence a return to them would be foolish, because there no longer is any efficacy in them – not that there ever was efficacy in the actual sacrifice of a bull or lamb. The efficacy was in the forward-looking faith towards the Lamb of God sacrificed before the foundation of the world. If you don’t acknowledge Christ’s sacrifice for sin, that’s tough luck for you because there is no other sacrifice out there. The Old Testament ones have been abrogated. (2) Membership in the Christian Church is not co-extensive with membership in God’s elect. Therefore a person can attend at Christian worship and receive many blessings thereby and still perish, not because he lost his salvation, but because he was never among the elect in the first place.

This is why after the warnings given in chapter 6, the writer concludes by saying, “But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.” (v 9). Understood any other way, this passage is impenetrable, I think, because we would seem to lest with a scenario wherein the writer warns about the possible of losing one’s salvation by apostatizing from the faith, then concludes his warnings by saying that salvation cannot be lost. Hence I feel confident that the doctrine of the Covenant is the only way to navigate this passage.

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