May 18, 2007

The meaning of the word “grace” has been a central question in the Federal Vision discussions. On the anti-FV side, it’s often said that “grace” means not only “unmerited favor,” but “favor shown in the face of demerit.” Pro-FV types point out that the Bible uses “grace” and equivalents in a variety of ways.

The Biblical argument is not even open to question. It is simply not the case that “grace” always means favor in the face of demerit. To cite just one example: According to Psalm 136, God created out of His “lovingkindness”; He opens His hand to give food to all flesh out of His “lovingkindness.” Had Adam demerited anything before God, in His lovingkindness, created him? Does God “in his lovingkindness” open His hand to feed the wild animals in spite of their sin and rebellion?

But contrasting these two definitions of grace doesn’t really capture the full scope of the debate regarding grace.

Consider baptism. Does God claim the baptized person as His own in baptism? Does He, by pressing His Name on the baptized, say that they belong to Him? I suppose someone could question this, but even someone with a very low view of baptismal efficacy could affirm this. It’s a simple fact that the baptized are baptized in the name of the Trinity; and therefore that they “bear” that name.

Now: Is that favor? Of course it is. It’s a great privilege to bear God’s Name.

Is it unmerited favor? Yes. Out of all the billions of people who live and who have lived, God has chosen to lay His name on this particular baptized person. The baptized has done nothing to receive the favor of being baptized.

Is it unmerited favor in the face of demerit? Yes. For the baptized has not only done nothing to earn the privilege of bearing God’s name, but in his rebellion and sin has done a great deal to demerit that privilege.

Notice: None of this depends on a traditionally strong view of baptismal efficacy. None of it depends on saying that baptism has some spiritual energy attached to it; none of it depends on saying that the baptized is regenerated; the baptized may not ever have faith of any kind. We can say that baptism is nothing but the “sociological” fact that the baptized is publicly identified with Christ and His church, and the logic still holds: Even on these premises, baptism is, in itself, a gift of unmerited favor in the face of demerit, the favor of being claimed by God.

Now: Would those who oppose the FV want to say that baptism is, for the reasons and in the senses I suggested, invariably an act of grace? I would expect not. If they are willing to admit that, then a large part of the FV debate over grace and baptism has been a monumental misunderstanding. Because, speaking for myself, I have throughout this debate been operating with a view of baptismal efficacy that is much, much closer to the view I’ve just outlined than it is to any “magical” view of baptismal water. I fondly thought that if my views on baptismal efficacy were going to be controversial, it would be because they were too Zwinglian!

At base, baptism is a grace, a gift, beause it confers the name of the Triune God on the baptized, because it inducts the baptized into the church, because it invests the baptized with the great privilege of dressing himself as a priest in the presence of God. Whether the baptized lives a life of faith or not, these gifts are given in baptism.

If, as I suspect, the anti-FV forces would refuse to call baptism “grace” in the sense and for the reasons I’ve given, it shows that the issue in debate over grace is not only whether “grace” means “unmerited favor” or “unmerited favor in the face of demerit.” The anti-FV position seems to require that the favor must be a favor of a certain kind if it is going to receive the honorific title of “grace.” It cannot be the merely “external” favor of wearing the Name of God, being incorporated into His people, being delegated to a place in the worship of God. For grace to be grace, it has not only to be unmerited favor in the face of demerit, but has to be a “spiritual” favor, not the kind of “sociological” favor I’ve described.

This raises some important questions about the status of “common grace” in the anti-FV position. But more importantly, it points again to one of the real cruxes of the whole debate, namely, the nature/grace or nature/supernature dualism that runs along behind the whole anti-FV position. If it refuses to acknowledge baptism as grace in the sense I’ve described, then the anti-FV position is implicitly conceding a zone of autonomous nature; there is, on this view, such a thing as a “merely social” baptism, a “merely external” initiation ceremony into the church of Jesus Christ.

But that is only possible if there is a zone of “merely social” that is somehow outside God’s action and interest. A “merely social” baptism assumes some zone of autonomy in human life that the Reformed tradition, much less the Bible, does not concede.

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