The Church as a Mixed Multitude


Bible Studies

More Reflections on Whether a True Christian Can Ever Be Lost

None of us ever approaches any biblical passage without a certain bias, a bias formed out of our own experience.  Ideally, that bias is substantially shaped by our having sat for some time under sound preaching; our daily, systematic, devotional study of Scripture; earnest prayer for grace and understanding, rooted in a sincere desire to know and do the will of God revealed in Scripture; and fellowship with older, godly saints, including fellowship that reaches back across the centuries, experienced through the writings of those who have now finished their course.  As such, especially since both John 15 and Romans 11 are richly metaphorical, I self-consciously approach them in light of my understanding of the rest of Scripture, an understanding shaped within the Reformed Tradition. 

I look at John 15 and Romans 11 in light of my study of other Scriptures, just as I look at other passages of Scripture in light of John 15 and Romans 11.  As such, I read the Bible critically:  What is this passage actually teaching?  Is this passage possibly inferring this idea, or is it explicitly teaching it?  If it is teaching this concept, how does that fit with what I have read elsewhere?  This critical approach to Scripture is commended to us in the Confession of Faith, I, ix.:  “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”

(Approaching the Bible like that doesn’t mean that I have to flatten it out into a mere systematic theology that I have to sort out, like somebody who dropped a package of files and who now has to take days putting the scattered pages in order, in their correct folders.  As with the Incarnate Word, God’s written Word is both fully human and fully divine, and just as the Lord Jesus, though tempted in all points, was without sin, so Scripture is true, without contradiction.  The fact that the Bible is God’s own Word and therefore infallible, inerrant and consistent with itself, does not rule out the fact that it is comprised of the writings of many different authors, whose styles and vocabularies differ widely.  For example, PISTIS, faith, for Saint Paul , apparently is merely intellectual acceptance of facts for James.  That is all part of God’s plan and part of why the study of Scripture is often quite difficult but also why it is so rich, enjoyable and fruitful.)

From that study of Scripture, I have come to embrace the particularism that is such an essential doctrine within the Reformed Tradition. (I will deal with the implications of that in a moment.)  As I look at both John 15 and Romans 11 in light of the rest of Scripture, what do I find?

Christ himself is present with his Church.  He is present in the preaching of the Word; he is present in the Sacraments.  As Christ is present, so is grace, not merely as an abstraction, but as Christ’s own presence by means of the Holy Spirit, who works through the means of grace.  For anyone, saved or lost,  to come into an assembly of worshipping saints is for him to experience not only the outward symbols, but Christ himself, for Christ himself is present, through the Holy Spirit, who brings the earthly assembly into the heavenly City.  As the writer of Hebrews states:  “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:22-24.)

That is why Saint Paul can warn the gathered people of God at Corinth “not to receive God’s grace in vain.” (2 Corinthians 6:1.)  Grace can be received in vain, and grace can be resisted, not only by the unsaved, but by the saved as well—we do it every time we quench the convicting work of the Holy Spirit.  When we affirm effectual calling as irresistible grace, we are not saying that every bestowal of grace is irresistible, simply that God will sovereignly have his way with his elect, sooner or later, and by his grace he will woo and win their hearts, so that they will all savingly come to Christ, having been made willing and enabled to come by his grace.  While grace is not only exhibited but given to all who sit under the means of grace, such a sovereign bestowal of grace that secures the salvation of God’s elect is not.

As the Confession states in X, iv.:  “Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved . . .”

And the Westminster Larger Catechism teaches us in 154:  “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation.”

As I approach John 15 and read in verses 2 and 6 that, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit, he takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, he prunes it so that it may bear more fruit . . .” and, “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,” I understand that everyone who names the name of Christ, whether in the waters of baptism or by public, verbal confession, is visibly in Christ. 

When I speak of their being visibly in Christ, I mean insofar as we can see.  And I would draw a contrast between what people can see, what is “visible,” and what God alone can see, which is ultimately “invisible” to us.

By affirming that all the gathered folk are visibly in Christ, I am not speaking in nominalistic* language.  As I stated above, Christ is present, and so all those who attend to the means of grace receive God’s grace in Christ, Christ himself.  That’s why the Supper is so serious, because the whole Christ is present in the meal.  As such, it is a meal that not only communicates Christ himself, so that we may feed upon him by faith, but it is a meal that can bring sickness and death to those who do not discern the Body of the Lord.  (“For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” 1 Corinthians 11:29, 30.)

However, by affirming that all the gathered folk are visibly in Christ, I am not affirming that they are savingly in Christ—the reality of which only God can see.  I look at these statements in John 15:2, 6 and Romans 11:17-24 in light of that distinction, a distinction that is demonstrated to be profoundly biblical, as is seen within the more immediate context of the Romans passage. (“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: ‘through Isaac your descendants will be named.’ That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.” Romans 9:6-8.)  Consider Hebrews 3:6—“And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” and Hebrews 3:14“We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.”

Hebrews 3:6 says in effect, if we do not hold on to our courage and hope in the Lord Jesus on into the future, we are not Christ’s house at the present time. This pushes me to ponder my present state in view of the future: if I turn away from following the Lord Jesus, then I never really was part of his house. I may have thought that I was, and others may have been persuaded of the genuineness of my faith. People may have even been converted to Christ under my preaching, but if I don’t continue seeking the Lord and finally turn away, I prove that I was never savingly united to him.

And Hebrews 3:14 states that the proof of any person’s having become a true Christian is that he continues on in that profession firmly until the end. If he does not, then he never came to share in Christ.

It is at this point that the Reformed, particularistic standards are so helpful.  Particularism is a thread that runs throughout the Westminster Standards. It is a fundamental of the system of doctrine and is expressed in such Calvinistic distinctions as that drawn between the Invisible and Visible Church (Please see below at ** I.) (WCF XXV, i, ii.), effectual calling as distinct within the calling of the ministry of the Word (Please see below at ** II.) (WCF X, i, ii, iv.) and the sacramental distinction between the outward sign and the thing signified by it (Please see below at ** III.) (WCF XXVII, ii.), so clearly expressed in the Larger Catechism’s answer 163: “The parts of a sacrament are two; the one an outward and sensible sign, used according to Christ’s own appointment; the other an inward and spiritual grace thereby signified.”

If we do not bear that distinction in mind as we preach John 15 and Romans 11, we end up confusing people terribly.  A person may be a true Christian and teach that people can truly and savingly be in Christ and then cease truly and savingly to be in Christ, but a person cannot legitimately be a teacher in a Reformed church and teach that, because it is completely contrary to the particularism that is a fundamental of the system of doctrine taught there.

As an ordained teaching elder who was first licensed to preach in 1965, I am more concerned about the kind of carnal presumption that I have witnessed in the mainstream Presbyterian Church of my upbringing than I am of people being fearful of losing their salvation—not that I want to err in either direction.   As a preacher I never forget that I am preaching to three kinds of people when I stand before the gathered people of God:

1.     God’s elect who have come to have saving faith in Christ,

2.     God’s elect who have not yet come to have saving faith in Christ, and

3.     Reprobates, who, though they may be part of the Church as fallible humans see it and participate in the means of grace, yet never have and never will be truly and savingly united to the Lord Jesus Christ, the only redeemer of God’s elect.

In light of this diversity within our congregations, as we preach to the gathered people of God, we must press them to self- examination, avoiding the errors of extreme subjectivity and extreme objectivity. On the one hand, we must press people to come to a real assurance of salvation, “accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.” (WCF XIV, ii.)  Most of God’s elect, having been baptized and having made an authentic profession of faith, should have a settled assurance of their salvation, and it is destructive for ministers to preach in such a way that those who have cast themselves on God’s mercy in Christ are regularly robbed of this great comfort.

But there is the opposite danger, one that leads our hearers down to the fires of hell while imagining that all is well. There are undoubtedly many people in hell who had been baptized with water, intellectually believed the propositional truths of the gospel and lived moral lives, not only in their own estimation but also in the estimation of the leaders of the Church.  After all, Saint Paul , born within a covenant home and raised under the forms of the old dispensation, had such assurance and yet remained a lost man until he was born again on the road to Damascus . He even said, “touching the righteousness which is in the law,” he was “blameless.” (Philippians 3:6.) Yet, in spite of his having been circumcised and part of the covenant community prior to his having come to a true faith in Jesus Christ, he confessed that he and all the unconverted were “by nature the children of wrath, even as others . . .” (Ephesians 2:3.)

Can God regenerate an intellectually uncomprehending child through the waters of baptism? Both the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession answer, yes. Yet it is the preaching of the gospel, not baptism, that is the primary means whereby God’s elect are brought to conscious faith: “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.” (WCF XIV, i.)

Any teaching that never presses the members of ones congregation to self-examination or that encourages parents to presume that all their baptized children are regenerate can be as dangerous to souls as anything cooked up by modern, “decisionalistic” evangelism that gets people to agree to a simplistic syllogism and then presses them never to doubt that they are right with God and on their way to heaven no matter how they live, even if they never darken the doors of a church building.

For a minister not to embrace the Reformed distinction between the Visible and Invisible Church is a very serious departure from the Christian Faith as it has come down to us within the Reformed Tradition.  Anyone who holds to such views and who professes to subscribe to the Westminster Standards, even in the loosest view of subscription, is simply deceiving himself.

My expansion of the theme of particularism within the Westminster Standards follows.

Cordially in Christ,


* “The view which regards universals or abstract concepts as mere names without any corresponding reality.” (Oxford English Dictionary, in loc.)

** I.  The Distinction Between the Invisible and Visible Church

“The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.

“The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and 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 XXV, i, ii.

** II.  Effectual Calling as Distinct Within the Calling of the Ministry of the Word

“All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by his almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.

“This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.

“Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved: much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the laws of that religion they do profess. And, to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested.” WCF X, i, ii, iv.

** III.  The Sacramental Distinction Between the Outward Sign and the Thing Signified by it

“There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.” WCF XXVII, ii.

When the Confession speaks (XXVIII, vi.) of baptismal grace being “not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto,” following Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, (Acts 2:39.), it qualifies that statement under the canopy of unconditional election and effectual calling: “to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.”

Furthermore, the Confession explicitly states that what may be effected in the waters of baptism to God’s elect “is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered.” (XXVIII, vi.)