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The Biblical Perspective of the Westminster Standards


Copyright © 2004
Why do we need sacraments?

According to the Westminster Confession, sacraments were instituted by Christ “to confirm our interest in him” (27.1), “to strengthen and increase” the “faith” of those within the Covenant of Grace and “to distinguish them from those that are without” that covenant (Westminster Larger Catechism, #162). While the prooftexts for the Confession are not treated as part of the standards, they are still quite revealing of what at least some of the Westminster Divines believed they were saying:

Romans 6.3-4
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.Colossians 2.12
…having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

First Corinthians 10.16; 11.25-26
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?…

In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, as my memorial.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (amended from ESV).

Galatians 3.27
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

Notice that these are all statements regarding what must be true as a result of participitation in the sacraments. Those who have been baptized have been united to Christ and therefore buried with him in death and raised with him in the resurrection. Those who have been baptized have put on Christ.

Pastor Preston Graham of Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New Haven, Connecticut writes: “Consider then the following passages of Scripture that, by a plain reading, will clearly depict baptism effecting salvation rather than merely signifying salvation—although it certainly does this as well—and ask yourself, Why impose a meaning that is not most natural and obvious from the language itself?” He then goes on to quote Matthew 28.19; Titus 3.5; First Peter 3.21; Galatians 3.27; First Corinthians 12.13; Mark 16.16; Acts 2.38; Acts 28.16; Romans 6.3-4; and Luke 7.20. After this list of quotations Graham writes: “If you read these passages as if you have never even thought about the issue before, try telling yourself that each passage does not seem on the surface at least to treat baptism as somehow effecting something—namely salvation from sin in its various dynamics” (A Baptism That Saves [New Haven: Christ Presbyterian Church, n.d.]).

The case of the Lord’s Supper is basically the same. Those who have partaken of the Lord’s Supper are participating in the blood and body of Christ. One’s faith is confirmed precisely because God has promised to act upon us through the sacraments. As the Gallican Confession affirms (as approved by John Calvin),

We confess that the Lord’s Supper, which is the second sacrament, is a witness of the union which we have with Christ, inasmuch as he not only died and rose again for us once, but also feeds and nourishes us truly with his flesh and blood, so that we may be one in him, and that our life may be in common…We believe, as has been said, that in the Lord’s Supper, as well in baptism, God gives us really and in fact that which he there sets forth to us; and that consequently with these signs is given the true possession and enjoyment of that which they present to us. And thus all who bring a pure faith, like a vessel, to the sacred table of Christ, receive truly that of which it is a sign; for the body and the blood of Jesus Christ give food and drink to the soul, no less than bread and wine nourish the body (chapters 36, 37; emphasis added).

Thus, there is “a promise of benefit to worthy receivers” in the sacraments (Westminster Confession 27.3) so that “by the right use of” baptism “the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost” (chapter 28, paragraph 6). Furthermore, in the case of the Lord’s Supper, “worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death” (chapter 29, paragraph 7). These things really happen to believers because they are accomplished by God and received by faith.

The Shorter Catechism thus teaches the student to look for God’s action in the sacraments:

91: How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.92: What is a sacrament?
A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers (emphasis added).

These words, meant to be taught to and memorized by children, teach them to look for Christ to apply himself to them in the sacraments so that they are effectual means of salvation.

How could the Catechism teach otherwise? To teach children not to expect and trust God for the application of Christ and the benefits of the new covenant would lead them to not receive those benefits. For they are only received by faith. The sacraments would come to be viewed as mere pictures of what might happen to some people, but not as seals to the individual being baptized and/or partaking of the Lord’s supper. In that case they could no longer function “to strengthen and increase their faith” (Larger Catechism #162). No one would have his “interest” in Christ “confirmed.” If no one was taught to believe that God works effectively through the sacraments then no one could believe that God was saying or doing anything to them in their participation in the sacraments.

The centrality of sacramental efficacy to sacramental assurance can be seen by comparing the Shorter Catechism to the Larger in the question, “What is a sacrament?” (SC #92, LC #162). The Larger Catechism alone mentions strengthening faith and identifying members of the covenant of grace in distinction from the world. The Shorter Catechism simply stresses efficacy. Christ with his benefits are “represented, sealed, and applied.” While assurance is a benefit of the sacraments, that benefit depends on the more essential feature which is taught in the shorter version by itself. If one looks believingly to God’s action in the sacraments, for “the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit,” then one will also be assured. But without confidence in sacramental efficacy, it seems, there could be no assurance.

To understand how sacraments can only assure people of their salvation if they can be expected to effect it, we need to consider faith in both its general and more principal acts as the Westminster Larger Catechism formulates such justifying faith in this way:

72: What is justifying faith?
Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.

Notice the movement here from the general (“not only assenteth to the truth…”) to the specific and personal (“but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness…”). We see the same pattern in the Confession of Faith in section 2 of chapter 14, “Of Saving Faith” which moves from some general acts “by faith” to “the principal acts of saving faith” which are “accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.”

Sacraments in the context of the ministry of the Gospel are the ordinary means by which believers get across the line, so to speak, between the general and the personal. They confirm faith because they are seals of the covenant of grace. To believe the Gospel in a saving way, one must not only believe that Christ died for sinners, but that you belong to Christ so that you have him with all his benefits. The sacraments take the general truths and make them specific.

The words included in these rites are themselves the Gospel for us to believe—to believe as God’s promise to the one undergoing the rite in particular. “I baptize you” says the minister, naming the one being baptized. “This is my body given for you,” quotes the minster of the Word as Christ’s representative when he administer’s the Lord’s Supper. Thus, for participants in the Lord’s Supper the meal is “a bond and pledge of their communion with him” which they must believe rather than disbelieve.

In the case of the Lord’s Supper the Larger Catechism is quite explicit that the sacrament is to bring assurance to those whose faith is weak:

One who doubteth of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation to the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, may have true interest in Christ, though he be not yet assured thereof; and in God’s account hath it, if he be duly affected with the apprehension of the want of it, and unfeignedly desires to be found in Christ, and to depart from iniquity: in which case (because promises are made, and this sacrament is appointed, for the relief even of weak and doubting Christians) he is to bewail his unbelief, and labor to have his doubts resolved; and, so doing, he may and ought to come to the Lord’s supper, that he may be further strengthened (question 172).

There can be no conflict, then, between faith, as the instrument that receives God’s gracious verdict in Christ, and the sacraments as means by which God declares that verdict to us. Thus the Reformed Scholastic Francis Turretin wrote: “Although the sacraments are external means and instruments applying (on the part of God) the promise of grace and justification, this does not hinder faith from being called the internal instrument and means on the part of man for receiving this benefit offered in the word and sealed by the sacraments” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 16.7.20). And again, in explaining the great doctrine of justification by faith alone, he writes:

The question is not whether faith alone justifies to the exclusion either of the grace of God or the righteousness of Christ or the word and sacraments (by which the blessing of justification is presented and sealed to us on the part of God), which we maintain are necessarily required here… For all these as they are mutually subordinated in a different class of cause, consist with each other in the highest degree (16.8.5; emphasis added).

Faith is required for the sacraments to be effective because those who treat God’s promises as worthless and disbelieve his declarations will be condemned. But faith could never be effectual for justification and salvation unless God’s action in the sacraments were really objective and effective. If a man is imprisoned and the king declares him pardoned by throwing open his cell door, then he has objectively released the man from his penalty. If the prisoner insists that the king is untrustworthy, and that the open door is merely a trap to ambush him, so that he refuses to leave his cell, then nothing but further condemnation will result from his rejection of the king’s amnesty.

This is not to say there are not other ways, in certain situations, wherein one could find an object for one’s faith that not only does God save people in Christ but that he is saving a particular person. One common way this is done is by prayer. One knows that all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved so one calls upon His name. Obviously this calling is not a “work” that is expected to earn God’s favor. Rather, it is an act of faith that personalizes the Gospel. After all, what would it be like to share the Gospel with a nonchristian who then claimed that he believed what you said and therefore had no need to pray any words to God to make any request or express any belief or repentance? Would that person have faith in any discernable way? If true faith “not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness,” then it is difficult to see how the “convert” could claim to be able to tell if he had faith or not.

However, while this act of faith can be sufficient, it is not ordinarily left by itself. The New Testament record clearly shows that those who repented and called on God’s name began their discipleship by submitting to baptism and becoming regular participants at the Lord’s Table. Paul commonly identifies the people of God as being who they are by virtue of their baptism and their participation in the Lord’s Supper (First Corinthians 10.16, 17; Galatians 3.27, etc). Baptism would be especially important to Christian children who would be brought up praying to God and not remember any special prayer of conversion. They could be told that they were brought into God’s kingdom in their infancy by baptism.

To look at this another way, we are not justified by guided imagery or by fantasizing that Jesus is smiling at us. We are supposed to look to God’s own actions and communication rather than to our own creations for our salvation. Telling people they will be saved if they “rest on” Christ for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, apart from a framework of effective sacraments leaves them in an unclear condition. Yes, I can be a confident husband sometimes if I imagine that my wife loves me, but it is better for me to sometimes hear from her that she does so. In baptism and the Lord’s Supper we have God’s promises and declarations that we belong to him. Yes, it is conceivable (on a desert island, say) that a man and woman could be married by an informal agreement without a public ceremony. But husbands and wives are more assured (though less in a society of easy divorce) if their marriage relationship begins with an understood ceremony tht objectively united them together.

For those who trust God to be faithful to his promises the sacraments serve as an anchor for a personal faith in Christ.

One way that the function of the sacraments to assure believers can be undermined is to raise doubts as to whether they are effectual to the individual participant. One could argue that, if the sacraments involve benefit only for the elect, then one must first know if one is elect before one can be assured by the sacraments. But, in that case, one would never need the sacraments in the first place!

What needs to be remembered here, is that while election is unconditional, salvation is not. As R. C. Sproul points out in his Chosen By God (p. 155),

The term unconditional election can be misleading and grossly abused. I once met a man who never darkened the door of a church and who showed no evidence of being a Christian. He made no profession of faith and was engaged in no Christian activity. He told me that he believed in unconditional election. He was confident that he was elect…We must be careful to distinguish between conditions that are necessary to salvation and conditions that are necessary for election. We often speak of election and salvation as if they were synonymous, but they are not exactly the same thing. Election is unto salvation. Salvation in its fullest sense is the complete work of redemption that God accomplishes in us.

There are all sorts of conditions that must be met for someone to be saved. Chief among them is that we must have faith in Christ (p. 155).

Normally, salvation requires means. While Sproul’s concern is to deter antinominianism, this fact is also important to give grace-based assurance. To be elect to eternal life means to be predestined to be brought into the Gospel Covenant (as Turretin calls it), ordinarily by means of Word and Sacrament. Thus, the function of Word and Sacrament is to tell the participants that they are elect. To make knowledge of election derive from an independent source defeats undermines their purpose “to confirm our interest in” Christ (WCF 27.1).

It is true that unbelievers cannot be saved and that the sacraments will not benefit them. It is true that not all who participate in the sacraments do so in faith. Baptized babies grow up into apostate adults sometimes. People eat and drink judgment on themselves at the Lord’s Table. Nevertheless, the fundamental problem with such people is that they refuse to believe and therefore receive the “grace and salvation” ordinarily “conferred” in the sacraments.

The Bible deals with the problem of unbelief in the Church by warning people against falling away from the Gospel. The book of Hebrews is full of such warnings. Paul also warns the Romans that they as a wild branch will be cut off unless they continue in God’s kindness by faith rather than becoming arrogant. He warns the Corinthians that their idol worship might provoke the Lord to jealousy—and specifically points out that baptism and the Lord’s Supper will not protect them from that jealous wrath. Nevertheless, Paul affirms over and over again that the Corinthians have become one body with each other with Christ as their head through their baptism and participation in the Lord’s Supper (12.23; 10.17). They are each “individually” members of Christ’s body (10.27).

The Apostle Paul, in short, encourages faith by giving objective promises of the Gospel and discourages unbelief by pointing out that the promises are conditional on continuing in the faith. The qualifications on the efficacy of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not designed to make us think they are worthless, but to point out that we have a basis for confidence so that we will not be tempted to throw it away (Hebrews 3.6; 4.16; 10.19, 35).

Thus, we can see a picture of how the Sacraments function in the ministry of the Word in the Church. In this case, the relevant ministry of the Word is the Westminster Shorter Catechism which is designed to teach students from the Bible. One learns from the catechism first that some are eternally elected by God for salvation through a redeemer who is God himself, as well as a man, in one person.

20: Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?
God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.21: Who is the Redeemer of God’s elect?
The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, for ever.

So there are people who are elect and they will be brought into resurrection glory (“everlasting life”) by God the redeemer, Jesus Christ. This is obviously an important truth, but it is only a general one. These and other answers teach the student “the truth of the promise of the gospel” (WLC #72), but the Catechism does more than that. As an instance of the ministry of the Word it also applies the Gospel directly to the student:

44: What doth the preface to the Ten Commandments teach us?
The preface to the Ten Commandments teacheth us, That because God is The Lord, and our God, and Redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all His commandments (emphasis added).

The student is taught to identify himself as God’s elect. The Lord God is his redeemer. Thus, the Scriptures are expounded to him not only as abstract truths about the elect and the reprobate, but as truths that apply savingly to him.

It happens, of course, that Christian children grow up to be manifest unbelievers. But that means they have refused to believe in what God taught them. The fact that there are unbelievers among God’s covenant people does not justify encouraging unbelief by making no particular promises to the members of the Church, whether young or old. By refusing to convey God’s promises we are encouraging unbelief rather than faith.

Nor does this ministry of the Word in question 44 encourage presumption on the part of the student. The answer that encourages confidence at the beginning of the series of questions regarding the Ten Commandments is matched at the end of the series by the setting down of conditions which must be met for the student to inherit eternal life at the resurrection:

85: What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?
To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.

The next question and answer tells the student that the “outward means” include but are not limited to the Word, sacraments, and prayer. Continuing in these is the means by which the elect demonstrate the true saving faith that leads them to resurrection glory. This is not a means of earning glory, or producing it in themselves. Rather, it is how they concretely live by faith and thus inherit what God has graciously promised them only for the sake of Jesus Christ to whom they are united only by that God-given faith. If they refuse the way that God requires they will not escape the wrath and curse of God due to them by reason of their transgression of the Law. Thus Charles Hodge comments on First Corinthians 10.12:

…There is perpetual danger of falling. No degree of progress we may have already made, no amount of privileges which we may have enjoyed, can justify the want of caution. Let him that thinketh he standeth, that is, let him who thinks himself secure. This may refer either to security of salvation, or against the power of temptation. The two are very different, and rest generally on different grounds. False security of salvation commonly rests on the ground of our belonging to a privileged body (the church), or to a privileged class (the elect). Both are equally fallacious. Neither the members of the church nor the elect can be saved unless they persevere in holiness; and they cannot persevere in holiness without continual watchfulness and effort. False security as to our power to resist temptation rests on an overweening self-confidence in our own strength. None are so liable to fall as they who, thinking themselves strong, heedlessly run into temptation (Banner of Truth, p. 181).

Question 101 of the Westminster Larger Catechism contains an expanded version of the answer about the meaning and significance of the Preface of the Ten Commandments:

The preface to the ten commandments is contained in these words, “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” [Exodus 20.2]. Wherein God manifesteth his sovereignty, as being JEHOVAH, the eternal, immutable, and almighty God;[Isaiah 44.6] having his being in and of himself [Exodus 3.14] and giving being to all his words [Exodus 6.3] and works:[Acts 17.24, 28] and that he is a God in covenant, as with Israel of old, so with all his people [Genesis 17.7; Romans 3.29]; who, as he brought them out of their bondage in Egypt, so he delivers us from our spiritual thraldom [Luke 1.74-75]; and that therefore we are bound to take him for our God alone, and to keep all his commandments [First Peter 1.15-18; Leviticus 18.30, 19.37] (emphasis added).

The Catechism ties the assurance of election, the assurance that the God is their redeemer, with the covenantal status believers share with the Israelites at the Exodus. With that in mind we can compare how God instructs the Israelites to deal with their children in regard to the Lord’s Supper in particular (typified by Passover) and in regard to “all his ordinances” (typified by the Mosaic Law):

And it will come about when your children will say to you, “What is this service to you?” that you shall say, “It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD because He passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but delivered our homes (Exodus 12.26-27).When your son asks you in time to come, saying, “What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the LORD commanded you?” then you shall say to your son, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt; and the LORD brought us from Egypt with a mighty hand. Moreover, the LORD showed great and distressing signs and wonders before our eyes against Egypt, Pharaoh and all his household; and He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He had sworn to our fathers. So the LORD commanded us to observe these statutes, to fear the LORD our God for our good always and for our survival, as it is today (Deu 6.20-25).

Here we have two different questions which young children are expected to ask their parents: What does Passover mean? and What does this way of life mean? The answers which the parents are to give in response to these two questions are quite similar to one another: We do this because God saved us. Because he chose us. That God had delivered Israel from Egypt was an objective historical fact. It was the object of faith for the Israelites and the surety of the promises God had made for the future.

God’s deliverance of Israel was a token of His great love for Israel–his choice of Israel from all the nations of the world–which in turn was the basis for Israel’s obedience. Moses explains it quite clearly:

For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His special treasure out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments; but repays those who hate Him to their faces, to destroy them; He will not delay with him who hates Him, He will repay him to his face. Therefore, you shall keep the commandment and the statutes and the judgments which I am commanding you today, to do them (Deuteronomy 7.7-11).

Here again we see the faith of Israel: God loves us. God saved us. We must be loyal to Him; if we are ultimately unfaithful we will be cut off from His covenant. This motive is summarized in the beginning of the Ten Commandments: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt our of the house of slavery. You shall have no other Gods before Me” (Exodus 20.2-3). Again: God chose us. God saved us. We must be loyal to Him.

The Israelites were told to teach their children what God had done for them, and how they should respond in loving trust and grateful obedience. Every Israelite knew that God loved him because God loved Israel and he was a part of Israel. In the case of male children, they were made members of Israel by circumcision. Their identity as Israelites, and thus as God’s people, was reinforced by participation in their distinctive way of life and especially by their participation in Passover.

Nevertheless, they knew they would not inherit the promises if they did not persevere in faith. Not all Israel was true Israel. In order to inherit the promises they had to trust God to keep his gracious and utterly unmerited promises.

We see this same pattern in the teaching of Jesus, when He told the Eleven disciples:

I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does no bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love (John 15.1-9).

Jesus gives His disciples a similar motivation to that which He gave to Old Testament Israel through Moses: Jesus loves us. Jesus chose us. Jesus saved us. We must be loyal to Him. Jesus gave Himself for His Bride, the Church (Eph 5.25). Just like the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, Christ’s victory over Satan and Death through His crucifixion and resurrection is an objective historical fact. It is the object of faith for all Christians and the surety of the promises Christ has made for the future.

Now, we are told to teach our children what God had done for them, and how they should respond in loving trust and grateful obedience. Every Christian should know that God loves him because God loves His Bride the Church and he is a part of the Church. We have all been made members of the Church through baptism. Our identity as Christians, and thus as God’s people, is reinforced by participation in our distinctive way of life and especially by our participation in the Lord’s Supper. Nevertheless, we know we will not inherit the promises if we do not persevere in faith.

Thus, a Christian philosophy of child-raising, and a Christian pastoral theology in general, should be based on our objective standing in Christ’s Kingdom, conferred on us and our children through baptism. According to Deuteronomy 6.20-25, when our children ask us about why we do certain things or don’t do certain things we should tell them about what Jesus has done for us: How He died for us and rose again and sent His Spirit to give His Church union and communion with Himself. How He providentially arranged for us to be made members of His Church through baptism and how He weekly renews His covenant with us. How we must respond to His great love and wonderful promises by believing them with a trusting heart, and by responding in grateful obedience all our lives.

According to Exodus 12.26-27, when our children ask us about the Lord’s Supper (the fulfillment of Passover) we are to tell them about how Jesus gave His body and shed His blood for us so that we might have His life. Notice that the answer given about Passover is extremely simple and brief. It could easily be heard and understood by a very young child. As our children mature in the faith we can give them more detailed answers to their questions. But the main point is that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper because He gave Himself for us and nourishes us with Himself. We love Him because He first loved us. Our little children need to hear that message over and over again from their parents. Parents should hear it over and over again from the pulpit.

The only way we can expect any child to have a firm faith is by giving him a firm foundation on which that faith may rest. If we make our children think that God’s favor in Christ is something which they need to attain, then we will greatly confuse them. Likewise, if we berate professing believers to be “truly converted” we undermine any assurance of the Gospel. Instead, we must teach them that they have been engrafted into Christ (Rom 11.17) by His great mercy to them. We must raise them to respond to God’s love and mercy in Christ by a life of faith and obedience, so that they remain in Him and He in them (John 15.4).

What about those who fall away in unbelief? Were they not elect? The Bible teaches us an ambigous (and therefore, useful) definition of election. God’s works all things according to his will (Ephesians 1.11) so all those who are raised in glory only do so because he decreed mercy to them before the foundation of the world. However, God also chooses people to his fellowship and blessings in the present that he does not choose to give perseverance to eternal glory. Such people are in the institutional Church, which “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2), yet do not continue in faith. Such people are given their blessings, including a share in the communion of the saints (WCF 26; WLC #163), by “common operations of the Spirit” (WCF 10.4) and are called, yet not effectually (ibid). They do not persevere in what they have been given. They are those “who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6.4, 5; see the prooftexts for the “common operations of the Spirit” in WCF 10.4).

The Westminster Confession is following the lead of John Calvin’s Covenant theology by pointing that there is a general election to and by “common operations of the Spirit” (i.e. operations common both to those predestined to final salvation and those who are not). In his commentary on Acts 3.25, he writes:

God adopts the children together with the fathers; and so, consequently, the grace of salvation may be extended to those who are as yet unborn (Romans 9.7). I grant, indeed, that many who are the children of the faithful, according to the flesh, are counted bastards, and not legitimate, because they thrust themselves out of the holy progeny through their unbelief. But this in no way hinders the Lord from calling and admitting the seed of the godly into fellowship of grace. And so, although the common election is not effectual in all, yet may it set open a gate for the special elect (emphasis added; see http://new.hornes.org/theologia/content/john_calvin/special_and_common_election.htm).

Common election–which is God’s eternal choice to predestine some to be brought into membership in his covenant people, the Church–is not effectual in all because they are not given the gift of persevering faith. But Calvin’s “special elect” are chosen for immortal glory from eternity and brought to that glory through the gift of faith in God’s promises to the common elect. By being marked out as God’s people–both initially in baptism, and continually by preaching and the Lord’s Supper, as well as all the aspects of covenant life–they are assured that they are loved by God and are headed to resurrection.

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