God willing this will be the first of several posts in which I try to interact with present ecclesiastical understandings and discuss what I believe to be a better way, the Biblical understanding of the Church on Earth and how it is to work.
Though the idea of Means is not very popular today, this is critical to understanding the tensions between many of the Biblical passages which seem to stand in contradiction.
Paul tells us in Romans 9 that they are not all Israel who are of Israel. This profound passage can be used as something of a starting point for the discussion.
Israel was the Covenanted Nation, the Form or Means by which God administered salvation to the world in the days before the Messiah.
If you wanted to be saved, if you wanted to become one of God's people, you needed to become an Israelite. There are exceptions but the normal or normative way of entering into fellowship with God, was to become a participant in the framework of Redemption He had established….the Covenant people Israel.
What was it to be an Israelite? You needed to enter into Covenant with God. If male, you needed to be circumcised, and then you were under obligation to obey the Law of Moses, the laws pertaining to the tabernacle/temple, the dietary laws, and all the rest.
In addition you kept holidays like Passover and the Day of Atonement, and when the Jews failed to observe these things, these forms, they were soundly condemned and needed to repent. And indeed they often did fail to keep up with circumcision and Passover. We see this beginning even during their time in the wilderness and it recurs throughout their history leading up to the Babylonian Captivity.
Now we know that there were some who were saved outside of Israel. These are exceptions that are revealed to us in Special Revelation…specific instances where we are told regarding an individual. The Exception is not a general category that anyone was to think in terms of. It tells us that the Form is not the end, but it in no way negates the importance of the form.
Normally speaking…salvation was of the Jews. Jesus says as much when speaking to the Samaritan woman in John 4. He's telling her the Samaritans did not know what they worshipped. Their form was wrong…they were not God's people. They had established a counterfeit system. He says this even though at that time many of them were, or would be believers….when they responded to the Gospel (New Covenant) message.
So, many of these Samaritans were ultimately elect and when they were regenerated they abandoned the Samaritan Form and since the New Covenant was coming into being at that time with the ministry of Christ, they became Christians. What I'm saying is….previous to the gospel of Christ, they were completely wrong and had they been converted before Christ's ministry they would have needed to become Jews.
God can save anyone He wants in or outside of the Covenants He has established. Aside from these few individuals who indeed teach us something…we don't know the Secret Mind of God. We cannot probe into the Decree of the Almighty. We're left with the visible Forms or Means He has provided.
In the Old Covenant, to be one of God's people was to become a Jew and live under that Covenant.
When we come to the New Testament we find John the Baptist telling the Jews that being children of Abraham, being in Covenant was ultimately what?
Without a saving faith which always brings forth repentance, their Covenant status was worthless.
And yet Jesus could tell the Samaritan woman that without the form…there was no salvation.
Both are true. The Form or the Means is everything….and nothing.
We have to worship rightly employing the Means God has provided and commanded, and yet we must understand the Means are not magic, they're not guarantees, and we must not treat them with superstition.
Rightly understood they are signs and seals demonstrating to us someones status…initial and continuing. Without those signs we're left fumbling looking to emotions and experiences as if they were somehow more valid or verifiable.
We live here in space and time. We live by God's Revealed Will, not his Decretive (Decree) Will. In the New Covenant the Means or Form God has provided is the Church.
The dominant heretical and Judaizing theology has turned this word into referencing a building or temple. The word Ecclesia means…the Called Out Ones. These people whom God has called out are in Covenant with Him. It has nothing to do with an edifice and great harm is done to the concept when we reckon it that way.
Now wait….does that mean that everyone who is outwardly a Christian (part of the Church) is saved? Of course not.
First we have to come up with a Biblical definition of what a Christian is….which will quickly exclude most who employ the name. So cancel them out…they're Samaritans or like the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom who mixed the worship of Yahweh with Baal and other religions. They enter the broader discussion when we talk about the state of the Church but for the purposes of this discussion let's restrict the concept to those who hold to the Biblical Gospel in some sense.
Once we establish what a Christian is….then we can say….here's the Form….the Church.
But even then there will be hypocrites, false converts, those who do not persevere.
We all know this and so what happens is most thinkers, teachers, and theologians now turn and try and focus on the True Number, those who REALLY TRULY are regenerate.
But how do you know? You can't. We can't see into people's hearts and tell if they're REALLY TRULY regenerate. We can't tell who is part of God's Decretal people…or as theologians have called it, The Invisible Church, the Elect.
The Invisible Church has nothing to do with smoke and mirrors. This is simply a theological term, maybe not a good one to explain the True Church, the 'of Israel' as Paul says in Romans 9 that it is impossible for us to see.
But it tells us….the form (the Visible Church) is not it…it's not an END, but a Means.
The Jews in Christ's day looked to the Form and trusted in it. Roman Catholics do the same thing in our day. They trust in the forms…remember the Church is the New Covenant Form.
But it would be equally erroneous to IGNORE the forms and say, they don't matter.
First, who are you to say they don't matter?
Imagine in Old Testament times…you're a Jew and you run into a guy walking down the road who calls you, "Brother."
"Oh, you're a Jew?"
"Oh, yes," he replies.
"You are circumcised?" you ask him.
"No, but I am in my heart," he replies.
Now, maybe this guy really does have a saving faith…but is he a Jew? Well, if he's regenerate which you have no way to tell…he is indeed 'of Israel,' but as far as you can tell…he's no Jew at all and certainly would not be welcome to offer sacrifice and share in the Passover. He has no claim to say that he's one of God's people. He may be, but he's resting in his status as a member (so to speak) of the Invisible Church. From my standpoint as a Jew I would have no basis to call or consider him a brother.
We can deceive ourselves and we're weak… so God has provided a means by which His people can fellowship, learn and hold each other accountable. In the New Covenant, this is the Church.
The New Covenant is much simpler than the Old…we really only have two rites by which the Church functions. Thankfully the entire Old Covenant has been taken away and we're not under obligation, bondage as it's called to keep those laws. Everything has been fulfilled (Already) but in time everything has not been finished. (Not Yet)
So we still have an order, a framework, a Means to govern and delineate God's people. It's been corrupted and is a mess, just like in Old Testament times, but that doesn't free us from the obligation of seeking out God's Word to understand the right way to think and go about it.
It's very frustrating because in our day terms like Christian, Church, Born Again, Baptism, and Communion have all become trite and often meaningless. Again this is where our great battle is, this is where Satan attacks us and because the Church continues to focus on building world empires and the conquest of culture…this battle has been largely lost.
We have Baptism which exhibits many things….death and resurrection, the new birth/regeneration, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and Union with Christ.
This does not mean that those who are Baptized have a 100% guarantee that they are participants in these wondrous things…that would be trusting in the form.
But someone who is NOT Baptized…do they have a claim to say they are participants in these things?
Most would say…yes.
But they have no basis to say this.
They're saying either the forms don't matter….(God seems to think they matter!)
Or they're looking to exceptions like the thief on the cross…but God doesn't administer His Covenants through exceptions.
Again the exceptions tell us the forms aren't everything…don't trust in the forms.
But the other scriptures tell us the forms do matter.
Even Paul who says that some who are Israel are not 'of Israel'….is still saying the first group in some sense is Israel. This seems to be forgotten by many. They say, "See, all that matters is the invisible Church, the visible doesn't matter."
It does very much matter, because we can't tell who's in the Invisible.
Even though they're not genuine believers they're still in the Covenant….in one sense. They are still Israel.
God administers salvation through forms and means but they are not an end in and of themselves. But just because we know that the heart is what really matters, we have no basis to downplay the forms.
Esau was circumcised, he was brought into the Covenant…in fact he was the heir. At that time God's people, the Form was basically a single tribe, that of Abraham's offspring.
Esau despised the Covenant Form and treated it as a trivial thing. Now he did so because he was an unbeliever…but there are many today who treat Baptism and other forms in a similar manner.
If Esau were a believer, couldn't he have just said…hey, I'm regenerate these forms don't matter…I'm going to do what's convenient…in that case he was hungry and wanted to eat.
But his sin was grave, because he despised God's Covenant and blessing of being the heir, and ultimately showed himself to not be a part of Israel at all. Though he was in Covenant in one sense, he was not in Covenant in another sense. The same is true of Ishmael.
We are told in Galatians of the specifics in the case of Isaac that the True Covenant, the True Promise was made with Him.
There are many lessons that can be gleaned from what was happening there, but in terms of this discussion we don't have that kind of INDIVIDUAL data for anyone today. We only have a GENERAL administrative form.
So we need to understand that Baptism is the means by which people are brought into Union with Christ…it's the means by which they enter the New Covenant…and if I can push a bit….it's the means by which people are visibly-speaking brought into a state of Salvation.
It's everything….and nothing. Without it you have no basis to claim your participation in the Redemptive Order of the New Testament, and yet it (like circumcision) is no guarantee that you're actually saved.
For those who are believers, the sign, the symbol is very meaningful, an accurate depiction of the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. For those who are lost and yet take the signs to themselves…it increases their condemnation. Like Esau or Ishmael they participated (in some sense) in the Covenant…not the ACTUAL Covenant if you want to get technical, but who are we to try and unlock that mystery?....they participated and thus since they Visibly-speaking apostatized their condemnation is all the more severe.
It will be worse on the Day of Judgment for those who presumed to take the name of Christ by entering into Covenant and yet either walked away or proved to be a wolf in sheep's clothing and thus did harm among the flock.
If I'm talking with an Evangelical who shrugs their shoulders at Baptism….I'm going to say, "Hey, you're despising God's commands. You're fooling yourself if you think you can run around calling yourself a Christian and yet won't submit to the bare forms God has commanded."
But if I'm talking with a Roman Catholic I'm going to say, "Hey, you think that water saves you? You think getting wet forgives your sins and takes you to heaven? You're trusting in the sign, the form. It's not about that, it's about the heart."
God provides the forms, but we're also told about the heart that needs to go behind it, and we're told of the 'exceptions' so that we can understand that God is not bound to the forms….but we certainly are. We have no right to neglect them.