Parents And The Apostasy Of Covenant Children

There is nothing more amazing than the grace of salvation conferred to those who are afar off. And although conversion of covenant children is no less a matter of grace, pious parents ought not to doubt the election and subsequent conversion of their children.

Because covenant children are not among those who are afar off but are holy in Christ and members of his church, they are rightful recipients of the sign and seal of engrafting into Christ. Indeed, discipleship begins at the font.

Believers who are mindful of their vows and careful to do the commandments, statutes, and rules that God commands may have confidence God will visit their seed with the grace of salvation. (Exodus 20:5-6; Deuteronomy 7:9,11; Nehemiah 1:5) These same covenant blessings may not be anticipated by believers who are not diligent to pursue Christ and his precepts. Whenever God saves out of obscurity it’s always amazing; yet when God grafts out covenant children, it’s not nearly as surprising.

Grace begets more grace:

Believers have broken all God’s commandments. On a scale of the faithful – from the least at one end to faithful-Christ at the other – believers are compressed toward the least of the faithful relative to Christ. In that respect, all believers are indistinguishable when compared to Christ. Notwithstanding, because God causes one to differ from another, we may not deny that one indeed does differ from another! In other words, obedience wrought in faith is a peculiar grace that we may expect to culminate in everlasting reward in Christ. (Mark 10:37,40; 1 Corinthians 4:7)

Sowing and reaping and spiritual adultery:

God is not mocked and is often pleased to operate according to a sowing and reaping principle with respect to spiritual blessings. Accordingly, when God saves the children of believers, he is often pleased to grant positive spiritual influences (usually parental) resulting in the training up of covenant children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Sadly, these formative influences sometimes come by way of examples of church members denying the faith. As tragic as that is, the grafting out of the seed of believers can be the pedagogical means by which God gets our attention and teaches parents to protect their own from the harmful influences of this present age. The manifestation of Scripture’s warnings culminating in the apostasy of covenant children works for the good of those who love God, those who are called according to his purpose.

Examples and warnings of a perishing seed are replete in Israel’s history up to this present day. Yet such examples of apostasy are often needful for faithful Christian parents, for without which they can lose motivation to persevere and not be as intentional about avoiding covenant curses for their own households.

All believers will be tested for steadfastness and perseverance; yet those who seek but do not receive are valued by God as having wrong motives. Moreover, believers are regarded as spiritually adulterous when their pursuits entail friendship with the world and behavior that is becoming of the enemies of God. (James 1:3-4; 4:3-4)

God’s decree and our responsibility:

We must be careful as we reconcile God’s predestinating grace with parental responses to God’s covenant promises. God’s covenant of grace cannot fail for it is established with Christ and the elect in him. (Genesis 17; Romans 9; Galatians 3; WLC 31)

The faithful who run in the ways of the Lord can expect their children to be fed with the heritage of Jacob as they grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful parents can expect their children are indeed elect, will come to faith in Christ, and persevere until the end. Whereas those who as a manner of life seek their children’s interests more than God’s can claim no greater than God’s abandonment of their offspring.

God’s covenant blessings are often released by the means of parental faith and obedience, though they are not ultimately based upon faith and obedience. When God sets his sights on visiting the future generations of believers with salvation, he is often pleased to grant the commensurate parental responses to receive the promises and blessings that the covenant of grace contemplates. Although not a quid pro quo, wisdom is nonetheless vindicated in her children.

Calvinism, not fatalism:

Because God’s decree cannot be thwarted, only those chosen in Christ will be saved. From that premise, Calvinists often wrongly assume that the non-elect could not have been saved had other gospel influences come to bear. That’s fatalism, not Calvinism. It is to miss that God’s ends do not fall out apart from their appointed means. God, according to his own purposes and most wise and inscrutable counsel, has withheld the election of some covenant children accompanied by the ordaining of unfaithful parents (and spiritual overseers) whom God will hold accountable along with those who have fallen away.

We must not confuse God’s decree with God’s assessment of human culpability.

  • The apostle Paul was innocent of the blood of all because he faithfully declared the whole counsel of God. (Acts 20:26-27)
  • Jesus warns that we can cause others to stumble into sin. And although sin will come to pass as God has determined, woes are preached to those by whom it comes. (Matthew 18:3-7; Romans 14:21; 1 Corinthians 8:9-13)
  • Lastly, Jesus would have gathered the children of Israel as a hen gathers her brood under her wings if not for the sins of their parents. (Matthew 23:37)

All that to say, election and the predestining of one’s sanctification presuppose how the chosen are led to Christ and further influenced.

The principle of not growing weary in well doing pertains all the more to parents who have been charged (even vowed) to lead their children to Christ.

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. And then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

Galatians 6:8-10

Although one cannot lose his salvation, the branch of future generations is often cut off and thrown into the fire because of spiritual neglect, over confidence, and even willful disobedience. (John 15:5-6; Romans 11:19-22)

Because being careful to keep God’s commandments is the way of grace, parents play a prominent role in leading their children to close with Christ. That God is pleased to save the children of Godly parents should induce parents unto Godliness, not complacency. Conversely, it is God’s prerogative to graft out those born of believing parents whom God has not seen fit to ordain unto the grace of parental diligence and fidelity.

Practice to reflect reality:

Scripture and life-experiences teach that God delights in saving the children of faithful parents who strive to live out the reality of their children’s positional holiness in Christ. Because covenant children are set-apart in Christ and members of the visible church, faithful parents seek to nurture a home-life that’s commensurate to the spiritual reality that covenant children are born into.

Because Christian parents are to protect the deposit of faith, parents who believe their children are set-apart can have that gospel conviction vindicated by providing a well guarded home suitable for spiritual flourishing. Parents who recognize that a child’s heart is soil for the word of God will treat it ever so tenderly and do all within their earthly power to make it fertile. This includes vigilant prayer and helping to keep one’s child unspotted from the world with all appropriateness.

Faithful Christian parents have a sanctified vision for their children and strive by grace to raise them according to their biblical convictions. The pious parent loves his children by loving God more than them. He is single-minded, and sometimes the object of extended family and Christian ridicule. (Such a parent’s reward is great!)

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Matthew 6:33

The prophet Malachi proclaimed that God had cursed the offspring of the priests for not honoring his name. Judah profaned God’s covenant, yet wonders in tears and groaning as to why they have fallen out of favor with God. They had fallen out of favor with God because parents did not pursue the one thing God was seeking, a Godly offspring. (Malachi 2)

Eli honored his sons above God, which resulted in his household being cut off. His failure as a father was that he esteemed his sons more than God. This resulted in Eli’s sons being counted as worthless men for they did not know the Lord. (1 Samuel 2)

Jesus taught that anyone who loves their child more than him is not worthy of him and his inheritance. (Matthew 10:37)

Among what these principles teach is that when a parent loves his family first and foremost, he neither loves God nor his family aright. One loves his children above God by pursuing their happiness rather than their Godliness, their respectability rather than their need for righteousness in Christ. Even to seek equally both happiness and Godliness is to deny God. It is to deny the primacy of a biblical pursuit of God, and that all blessings beyond knowing Christ are incidental to seeking first the kingdom of God. It’s to pursue God’s favor apart from thirsting after Christ. What can be more subtly idolatrous for the Christian than pursuing the gifts more than him, the giver?

That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.

Philippians 3:10

A parent’s vision is sometimes a big pill to swallow:

Children are neither here to make their parents proud nor to pursue their personal pleasures. Children are here for God’s service and none other. To find that burdensome is to disbelieve that Jesus’ yoke is easy and burden is light. It’s to miss out on the abundant life that Christ offers! (Matthew 11:28-30; John 10:10)

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my discipleSo therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

Luke 14:26,33

Children are on loan to their parents from God. Because parents are the stewards of God’s heritage, they must instruct their children to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, (and that the additional abundant-blessings of life, which God promises to bestow, are to be received with thanksgiving as a kindness from the Lord).

Only by glorifying God will children enjoy him now and forever. Pursuing the good gifts of God apart from enjoying God himself will result neither in enjoying his good gifts nor enjoying God. Both the gifts and the giver will become empty idols that will ultimately disappoint and eventually get discarded.

A parent will always weigh decisions for their children’s future against either future Godliness or temporal bliss. Yet a parent who self-consciously desires the blessings of God to a thousand generations hammers the stake out on the horizon and measures life’s decisions against it. Consequently, earnest desires for our children’s future must result in corresponding parental decisions for them now. In essence, for the faithful parent all else pales insignificant to Christ being formed in their children. (Galatians 4:19) Accordingly, the prize of a Godly seed will dictate the types of decisions a parent makes on behalf of his household.

Faith that pleases God is a faith that works. It always results in action:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?

James 2:21-23

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Hebrews 11:6

When God grants heart felt conviction over biblical truth, the believer does not merely assent to God’s precepts but instead obediently lives out what he knows is true. He can do no other than live by his convictions! Biblical conviction sacrifices sight for faith and the world for Christ.

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Galatians 6:14

Theology put into practice produces disciples by grace. With that in mind, below are a smattering of verses accompanied by some diagnostic questions.

The Bible has hard hitting words for believers who do not make it a priority to love the Lord and despise evil by growing in the grace and knowledge of God:

Jesus commands his disciples to love God with the totality of their being, including their minds. We are to offer ourselves a living sacrifices to God by diligently renewing our minds so that we might present ourselves approved to God. (Matthew 5:22:37; Romans 12:1; 2 Timothy 2:15)

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.

Hosea 4:6

Needless to say, to pit a tenacious pursuit of theology against Christian living, even against the salvation of our children, is to put asunder faith and practice.

What is it to separate knowledge of God from sanctification? How is it not to trade the spirit for the flesh?

I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still in the flesh.

1 Corinthians 3:2-3a

We are masters of many things. The modern day knowledge of sports, science, finance, technology, politics, culture, music – you name it – is astounding. But are the people of God nearly as diligent in the study of God and his ways? If not, then how does that not presume upon grace for ourselves and our children, if not even put God to the test?

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Hebrews 5:11-14

How is it possible not to become ensnared in our faith and family life if we aren’t weaned off spiritual milk and growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord? If a parent who lives on milk is a spiritual child, then how aren’t spiritual children raising their children?

There are some things in [Paul’s writings] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 3:16b-18

If parents cannot defend the faith against the attacks of this world, how will they not be duped by the world or be able to help their children to discern the light of God from Satan’s deceptive light?

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.

Colossians 2:8

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.

1 Peter 3:15

Does the ability to leave for dead the philosophies and ideologies of this world count for anything? Does it have anything to do with our obedience to Christ and the spiritual safety of our families?

For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.

2 Corinthians 10:4-6

Can we say with the apostle with the same exuberance:

For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?

1 Corinthians 1:19-20

Sunday discipline and our choice of church:

Do we come to God with our non-negotiable will-worship already in place and expect (even require!) God’s approval? Or do we humbly seek God’s will for our worship and Sunday practice, and then submit our wills to God’s commands, believing he loves us and wants the best for us?

In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.

Genesis 4:3-5

If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Isaiah 58:13-14

How can parents expect God’s covenant blessings upon their households if they won’t strive to turn from their own pleasures on the Lord’s Day? What better day to withdrawal from the world, entertainment and the internet, and bask in God’s love along with the joy of one’s family, which is the fruit of a parent’s labor in the Lord!

Our children and their place in the world:

Is our number one priority for our children their discipline in the Lord, or do we exasperate them by prematurely exposing them to the world while expecting them to live as children of light?

Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.

1 Corinthians 15:33-34

Parents must make it a priority that their children honor them for their children’s sake and God’s glory. How is that charge not made even more difficult, resulting in provoking children to anger, if parents enable early worldly indoctrination from outside the home?

“Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise). Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Ephesians 6:2,41

Parents hate their children by not training them to see the sin of dishonoring their parents. It is to drive their children from the kingdom of God by withholding correction and the gospel of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation for all sins and particularly the first commandment with a promise.

In a word, parenting is gospel ministry to our children. It can seem laborious at times but it’s the way of life. The reward is Christ and life everlasting. It’s what it is to love our children!

Back to basics:

For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light; and reproofs of instruction are the way of life.

Proverbs 6:23

How will children ever move toward the light of spiritual maturity if they’re not also protected from the darkness of the present evil age?

Parents who do not believe that children from non-Christian households and unbelieving school teachers are the devil’s mignons have been deceived. Without a healthy fear of the world, how can parents avoid exasperating their children when they tacitly invite antithetical influences upon their children prior to them having developed a more mature Christian worldview? And how might children develop such a worldview by which they can learn to “hate every false way” if their parents haven’t first studied to present themselves approved for Christ’s sake? (Psalm 119:104; 2 Timothy 2:15)

Because God is not interested in converts but in making disciples, the conversion of covenant children apart from God ordaining the parental means by which they’ll become true followers of Christ ought not to be seen as normative. Parents who aren’t diligent in nurturing and protecting their children from the world may expect their children to be devoured.

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

1 Peter 5:8

Child rearing entails much more than learning “the elementary doctrine of Christ.” We are to “go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.” Christians are to mature in the faith, which is a divine charge to strive for completeness, even perfection. (Matthew 5:48; Hebrews 6:1) This goes beyond merely being trained to regurgitate the shorter catechism. We are to grow in understanding spiritual things for which we would otherwise have no appetite in the flesh – points of doctrine we haven’t yet imagined because of weakness, ignorance and our own deliberate fault. “And this we will do if God permits.” (Hebrews 6:3)

Just imagine:

What might child nurturing look like when the results are little ones who grieve over displeasing God and their parents, and desire nothing more than parental closeness and peace with the Lord? Add to that parents who are broken over being severe with their children. Such other-worldly tenderness can only be the result of biblical, Spirit-filled means. It is attainable but only by the grace of God, and must be pursued God’s way. The narrow way that leads to life is not hidden but there are many alluring paths that cross it, which lead only to death.

In closing:

These thoughts will undoubtedly be received by some and not by others. On that front, I’ll say just a few things.

If all the members of one’s household are walking with the Lord, the parents have been blessed either in spite of, or to some degree in accordance with, their faithfulness, which is all of grace. Be encouraged and give all glory to God.

If one has lost a child to the world yet claims surprise, then seek God’s face on how tenderly and protectively you shepherded your child’s heart and receive God’s forgiveness. Also, consider seeking your grown child’s forgiveness.

To those of us who understand to some degree our parental failures or have even lost a child to the world, I offer these words from our Lord:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Matthew 5:4

To those with young children, or hoping to one day raise up a Godly seed, I offer these words from our Lord:

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Matthew 6:33

Dining Out on The Lord’s Day

My father grew up in the borough of Brooklyn, in a neighborhood just north of “Bed-Stuy” called Williamsburg. Those familiar with the district know that in the early 1900s with the completion of the bridge that bears the neighborhood’s name, Hasidic Jews from the “Lower east Side” began populating the community along with other immigrants like my Italian grandparents and great grandmother. Eventually, Williamsburg became the most populated neighborhood in the United States.

As a boy, my father could earn a penny on Saturdays from any number of Hasidic Jews for turning on a light in an apartment or hallway. (To put things in perspective, when my father was eight years old the Williamsburg Houses initially tenanted for just under two dollars per week for a single room. A busy Saturday of flipping switches could earn a day’s rent!)

Without getting into possible Jewish rationale for such a seemingly pedantic Shabbat restriction – whether it be tied to kindling a flame, creating something new, or just mere tradition – it’s not hard to discern a legalistic and hypocritical Jewish mindset. 

First, let’s dispel a common sentiment. Legalism is not tied to obedience, lest Jesus was legalistic. No, legalism pertains to trying to earn that which can only be received by grace. Legalism also pertains to finding loopholes in order to “obey” or not “disobey” by way of technicality. It is the second kind of legalism that I have in mind.

The Williamsburg Jews got the electricity turned on without themselves flipping the switch. And how did they do that? Well, they paid someone else to break their law for them. So, technically speaking, they didn’t break the letter of the law; they got someone else to break their law for them, hence the legalism.

Their hypocrisy is due to believing they were more obedient than my father because they would never do what he had done for money. Their money!

The point is not that certain Hasidic Jews believed wrongly they may not turn on electricity on the last day of the week. In other words, whether their law was according to God’s word misses the point. The point is these Jews were all too willing to violate their own personal moral convictions by paying someone else to do what they believed was forbidden by God. I trust that’s obvious,

Now let’s play with some analogies:

I may not pray to false gods, but I may pay someone else to pray to false gods for me. As long as I don’t commit idolatry, I have not broken the moral law.

I may not murder, but I may pay someone else to murder for me. As long as I don’t pull the trigger, I have not broken the moral law.

I may not steal, but I may pay someone else to steal for me. As long as my accountant falsifies the tax forms, I have not broken the moral law.

I may not lie or deceive, but I may pay someone else to lie and deceive for me. As long as I don’t intentionally speak false words, I have not broken the moral law.

The legalistic hypocrisy is glaring. Obviously, we see the absurdity.

Now for a blind spot to something no less obvious:

Most elders in the Reformed tradition take exception to the Reformed view of Christian Sabbath recreation as taught in the Westminster standards. As unfortunate as that is, many among that number go even further by supporting going to restaurants and ordering out food on Sundays, which pertains not merely to the question of rest vs. recreation but to unlawful work on the Lord’s Day. Ironically, most elders would say they affirm the Confession’s Christian Sabbath position with respect to work; yet their views on transacting business with restaurants on the Lord’s Day end up contradicting their own theology and professed scruples.

One more absurd analogy to drive the point home:

It’s neither necessary nor merciful for you to wait on me this Lord’s Day, but as long as you’re willing to do so, I’m happy to be the direct occasion for your sin, just as long as I am well fed. Although you should not wait on me (and be assured I’d never serve tables on a Sunday), let me contribute to your temptation by tipping you. That’s on you, Server. I’m not sinning, though you really should have been at church this morning rather than getting ready for work in order to serve me lunch.
Now please tell the chef to hurry up with my Veal Cacciatore. I’ve got to get a nap in before heading back for evening service. And, hey, where’s my Chianti!

Do we see that absurdity as clearly as all the others? Or is it a tenable biblical position that on Sundays, other than performing works of necessity and mercy, I may not work but may instead pay someone else to serve me? In other words, as long as I am not the line chef, the server, the bartender or the delivery person who works Sundays, I have not broken the moral law. Now, how’s that not legalistic-hypocrisy?

Bobbin’ N Weavin’:

This is usually where people begin to raise objections like, what’s the difference between cooking for yourself or family, and a restaurant doing it for you? There are simple answers that relate to binary considerations pertaining to commerce and what entails “work” but such principles will fail to persuade Pharisaical types that strain to find loopholes to justify old habits, acts of convenience and mere preference. A staunch pre-commitment to seeking one’s own pleasures on Sundays is not easily overcome, though with God all things are possible.

Some things just need to be said sometimes:

  • Is it not incongruous, while praying over a meal at a restaurant, to give thanks to God for those who break His commandment so that we might be fed? That would give fresh meaning to, please bless the loving hands who prepared this meal.
  • To cloak or defend sin by claiming liberty of conscience is not Christian but antinomian.
  • There’s a vast difference between exercising liberty of conscience and operating according to an uninformed or seared conscience.
  • To be faithful in upholding the Confession that reflects biblical precepts is not legalism; nor is it to try to steal another Christian’s joy.
  • It is not to have scruples against working on Sundays (other than out of necessity and mercy), if we are willing to allow others to work for us on the Lord’s Day.
  • Going to restaurants and ordering out food on Sundays is not analogous to hiring someone who might end up choosing to use honest pay for improper use. Rather, it’s a matter of directly paying someone to do something forbidden in God’s word so that we might receive some perceived benefit or immediate gratification.
  • Regarding the claim that on Sundays unbelievers may work for Christians because they are not obligated to keep the Christian sabbath, which is a creation ordinance, then do consider:
    • WLC #99: That which is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places, to endeavor that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places.
    • Exodus XX.10: but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.
  • Regarding the claim that the principle of Isaiah 58:13-14 pertains only to resisting commerce, should we thereby presume that the blessing to our offspring might be received if we would only turn in faith from the pleasures of commerce toward the pleasures of recreation instead? In other words, does God’s moral law protect us from work on the Sabbath in order that we might indulge ourselves in recreation and entertainment after Sunday worship? Is that what it means to call the Sabbath a delight? (Isaiah 58:13-14)

Surely it’s a good and necessary inference from Scripture that believers are not to be the proximate cause or direct occasion for someone to violate a creation ordinance in this way. Accordingly, exploiting restaurant workers is not a matter of subjective sabbath application that’s up for grabs but a matter of objective obedience that must be grasped.

But aside from biblical and confessional arguments, another plea is in order. A plea for integrity:

Dear NAPARC Elders,

Don’t keep the Sabbath if you think you needn’t; just don’t flaunt it, let alone teach contrary to the standards that your fellow elders have sworn before God to uphold. For isn’t it divisive to undermine even a portion of the system of doctrine contained in the standards, let alone defend it with an appeal to liberty of conscience? Stated differences and exceptions, even of a majority, may not bind the consciences, nor silence the voices, of those who subscribe to the doctrine of their church and denomination. Accordingly, is it not to sow discord and disrupt the peace and unity of the church to lead others contrary to the church’s confession and in opposition to what others have vowed to uphold?

Therefore, as a fellow elder, I plead with you to repent, not from stated differences or exceptions, but from teaching, flaunting or leading contrary to the standards of your church and denomination; for in promoting strange doctrine you hinder those charged before God to teach peaceably what you deny in faith and practice. If you feel bound by conscience to teach contrary to your own confession of faith, then please seek to get the standards changed through the courts of the church, or else leave your NAPARC church rather than cause division in her ranks.

Links to rejoinders and a word about seeds of apostasy:

For those who have been misled by shepherds who have falsely promulgated that unbelievers may work on Sundays while correctly maintaining that believers may not, I offer this critique of Lee Irons’ denial of the Westminster Confession of Faith’s position on the Christian Sabbath.

For those who have been misled by fallacious appeals to historical church figures and engage in revisionism on this issue, I offer this critique of RC. Sproul’s denial of the Westminster Confession of Faith’s position on the Christian Sabbath.

For those who think there are various Reformed views on the sabbath, I offer this.

For those who think that Reformed doctrine can be defined by particular Reformed theologians, I offer this.

Regarding seeds of apostasy and congregant responsibility, I offer this exhortation.

Here is a Sunday school class on Regulative Principal of Worship and Sabbath Day.

Again, a staunch pre-commitment to seeking one’s own pleasures on Sundays is not easily overcome, though with God all things are possible.

Lee Irons’ View of Unbelievers and the Christian Sabbath, a basic logic lesson.

Lee Irons maintains that the Sabbath is binding upon Christians but not upon unbelievers. If Irons is correct, then Christians may allow unbelievers to labor for them on Sunday, for instance as servers at restaurants and coffee shops. If Irons is incorrect, then Christians who dine out on Sunday are paying servers to break God’s law, which entails sin for such believers.

Irons makes the following claims:

(10) Promise establishes obligation (Heb. 4:1). Thus, the Sabbath sign is to be observed only by the holy covenant community, for to it alone does the promise of eschatological consummation apply (Heb. 4:9-10; Luke 13:16).

(11) Conversely, since unbelievers have no promise of eschatological consummation, they have no obligation to observe the sign thereof.

(12) It is not biblically permissible for the covenant community to attempt to enforce Sabbath observance on those outside of the covenant community (e.g., blue laws), nor should believers refrain from certain activities solely on the ground that such activity may cause unbelievers to profane the Sabbath.

In arguing this way, Lee Irons upholds an esoteric position that has no confessional status or biblical precedent. Again, Lee Irons argues that the Christian Sabbath is obligatory for the covenant community but not for unbelievers. Of course, if Irons’ conclusion were correct but fallaciously derived, it would not be reliable.

The point of this post is not to establish that Christian Sabbath is obligatory for all, but simply to show that Lee Irons has reasoned badly. Therefore, even if his conclusion were true, it cannot be established upon his argument.

I’ll make four points and some sub-points:

* I’ll formally formulate Irons’ informal argument and interact with it to show its formal fallacy, upon which his argument rests.

* I’ll rid the argument of its formal fallacy to show that a cogently argued conclusion utilizing his premises is no threat to the position Irons opposes.

* I’ll use Irons’ unsuccessfully argued conclusion to show that even though fallaciously derived, if it were indeed true would lead to further theological and moral problems, including an implicit denial of the need for the gospel.

* Lastly, I’ll show Irons’ disregard for the Westminster Larger Catechism and the law.

Anne Hutchinson

1. Irons asserts that promise without qualification establishes obligation. I’m going to grant the premise, not because it was demonstrated by Irons but because I believe it’s demonstrable in relation to divine promise (though not without a little work).

Irons reasons that sabbath observance with its promissory nature, which points forward to eschatological consummation, does not apply to unbelievers because the promise of consummation does not apply to them. In other words, because unbelievers are not promised final rest, they are not obligated to rest on the Sabbath.

Irons three point argument is contained in his point 10. The order of his informally stated argument is: Major Premise, Conclusion, Minor Premise. Of course, that order is fine for informal discourse. If we clean up the argument a bit, we may infer the following deduction:

p1. Promise establishes obligation

p2. The promise applies only to the covenant community

Therefore, the obligation is only for the covenant community


P = Promise

O = Obligation

C = Covenant Community

If P, then O

P is only for C

Therefore, O is only for C

On the surface it’s not hard for some to discern that something doesn’t seem quite right about Irons’ argument. It just doesn’t pass the sniff test. Understandably, it might take a bit more skill to identify precisely Irons’ misstep.

Irons commits an illicit transfer fallacy by concluding:

“Thus, the Sabbath sign is to be observed only by the holy covenant community.”

Irons’ fallacy wouldn’t be so bad if his entire argument didn’t rest on it. Accordingly, it’s not as though I’m going to refute Irons’ position on a technicality. Rather, I’ll demonstrate that Irons’ argument is misleading and erroneous at its core.

The restrictive import of “only” may not logically be transferred from premise 2 to the conclusion in this way. The restriction that the word “only” contemplates pertains to whom the promise is made (C). Whereas the scope of “only” in the conclusion is illicitly indexed to an obligation that the major premise contemplates. Therefore, it’s invalid to transfer the restrictive “only” this way because the conclusion ends up exceeding the scope of the premises.

To put it in logical terms, <if P is sufficient for O, and is only given to C> does not imply that some ~C aren’t O (or under O). Accordingly, even if Irons’ premises were true, they do not guarantee the conclusion. Therefore, the argument is invalid and any position that rests upon an invalid argument is unjustified.

Transfer type fallacies among theologians are not uncommon. They are easy to unearth by applying a bit of philosophical theology.

An example of a transfer fallacy that is identified by more sophisticated Arminians is called the transfer of necessity fallacy, which too many Calvinists unwittingly commit from time to time.

It goes like this:

p1. Necessarily, if God foreknows x, then x will happen

p2. God foreknows x

Therefore, x will necessarily happen

That’s just food for thought but back to Irons.

Irons’ thesis is glaringly indistinguishable from his defense. Irons has begged the question by resting his conclusion upon a series of assertions that lacks valid formulation. (That’s not subjective conjecture but an objective matter pertaining to valid syllogistic reasoning.)

But let’s toy with this a bit further in order to try to refute the best that possibly can be argued with Irons’ premises:

2. If we rid Irons’ argument of the transfer-only fallacy, then the “argument” no longer concludes anything about the unbelievers’ relationship to the Sabbath:

If P, then O

P is only for C

Therefore, O is for C


p1. Promise establishes obligation

p2. The promise applies only to the covenant community

Therefore, the obligation is for the covenant community

The conclusion of the reformulated non-fallacious argument does not establish that obligation is only for C and not, therefore, also for at least some unbelievers. Accordingly, Irons can only make his case with his premises by improperly expanding the scope of only, which is formally invalid.

From a purely logical standpoint, Irons’ assertion, argument and conclusion are one and the same.

3. In a spirit of generosity let’s allow for the essence of Irons’ conclusion, even though he has assumed it without valid proof.

The essence is that if there is a promise that only applies to C, then the associated command must only apply to C.

We can approach this bald claim several ways:

A. Irons premise is that the promise of eschatological rest pertains only to C. Let’s now scrutinize the premise and apply it.

C doesn’t contain only believers. It also contains both elect and non-elect unbelievers. With respect to the non-elect within C, the promise is conditioned upon a faith they’ll never possess. Accordingly, the promise pertains no more to them than to the non-elect outside C, making the premise with respect to the promise logically unworkable for Irons.

B. Yet if we remove the conditional nature of the promise, then we’re left with a promise that pertains only to the elect within C. However, given that there are elect outside C, it’s hard to see how Irons can make sense of his axiom that the promise only applies to C. No matter how the promise might be structured, without a conditional aspect it’ll apply equally to all elect regardless of their standing in C, which is not just agreeable but most happily complies with WLC Q31 as it relates to the promise of the one CoG.

C. If the promise applies only to elect who currently believe, then Irons’ has to reconcile such a modification with genuine believers who aren’t part of the visible C. Yet his claim is the promise only pertains to C.

D. A command to repent entails an obligation to repent. An obligation to repent entails a promise of eschatological proportion for the truly penitent. Yet it’s Irons’ position that a commandment with promise does not apply to unbelievers outside C. Yet God commands repentance that leads to sabbath rest, even to those outside C who’ll never repent! (Consider the free offer of the gospel!)

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17)

E. The fifth commandment is given to the covenant community and comes with a spiritual promise. Given Irons’ thesis, non-covenant children would not be under obligation to obey their parents given the commandment’s promissory nature. Moreover, given Irons’ point #11, even unconverted covenant children, being yet unbelievers, needn’t obey God’s commandment!

Irons is down to eight commandments and the rest are eliminated below.

F. Jesus taught C of his day that those within, who keep God’s commandments, will be loved by God and Christ, and that Christ will manifest himself to such that obey. The Lord goes on to say in the same passage that he and his Father will make their abode with those who keep Christ’s words. Again, contra-Irons we see a promise that pertains to the totality of the law that establishes obligation. Are unbelievers not obliged to keep God’s words due to the entailment of promise?

Irons’ promise-thesis, if followed to its logical conclusion, would eliminate all law with promise of blessing for unbelievers, nullifying the need of the gospel! (Antinomianism is part-and-parcel to Irons’ Radical 2 Kingdom paradigm.)

G. Is a man merely culpable for getting locked up for civil transgression, and not culpable for not providing for his family because he has been incarcerated?

Even the light of nature tells us that future culpability is not reduced by disobeying initial commands. People are guilty not just for not doing x (when they ought to do x), but also for the future effects of y and z if they are a result of not doing x – hence the grounding of unrealized yet future damages in jurisprudence. Accordingly, by rejecting Christ on day one does not alleviate one from not following Christ’s laws on day n. If one rejects Christ, isn’t he also culpable for not raising his children in the Lord and observing the Lord’s Day? Doesn’t the parable of the talents teach us that we are culpable not just for transgression but for neglect that prevented increase that otherwise would’ve obtained in the absence of neglect?! Doesn’t even the light of nature tell us that a student who cuts school is responsible for what he missed in class that day?

To reject Christ entails the rejection of God’s laws, which includes the blessings and obedience entailed by Christian worship and Christian sabbath observance.

4. Irons claims that “it is not biblically permissible for the covenant community to attempt to enforce Sabbath observance on those outside of the covenant community (e.g., blue laws)…”

“Enforce” is vague. If Iron’s means impose, administer or carry out, then of course the covenant community may not enforce this or any other moral law that way.

If Irons wants to be relevant at all, his use of “enforce” must be less modest and fall short of such coercion. In that case, Irons is biblically and confessionally wrong that individuals in the covenant community are not to endeavor within their place of influence to keep unbelievers from profaning the Sabbath. Accordingly, Irons either is addressing an irrelevant straw-man or denying the Catechism and Exodus XX.10:

WLC #99 That what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places, to endeavor that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places. (Exodus XX.10 teaches that servants and strangers are not to work on the Sabbath.)

Irons asserts “nor should believers refrain from certain activities solely on the ground that such activity may cause unbelievers to profane the Sabbath.” In direct opposition to Exodus XX.10, Irons maintains that a Christian may enjoy rest that comes through the labors of servants and strangers.

So, Christians who frequent restaurants on Sundays or take in live sporting events are directly encouraging people to break the 4th Commandment. It’s a clear violation of the Decalogue and the Westminster Confession of Faith. (For a glaring reductio, I offer this.)

Irons is well known for his antinomian tendencies and not much more needs to be said.

R.C. Sproul vs The Westminster Divines on the Christian Sabbath

R,C. Sproul cites three so-called “controversies” in church history surrounding the Christian Sabbath. Is the Sabbath obligatory for the New Testament Church? If it is, should the Sabbath continue to be the seventh day of the week, the first day of the week, or is the day of the week up for grabs. Thirdly, Sproul raises a difference of opinion within the church regarding Sabbath recreation and acts of mercy. So, Sproul cites two defeated views, then fastens his wagon to a third. I’ll address them one-by-one.

Obligatory nature of the Sabbath

Augustine, for example, believed that nine of the Ten Commandments (the so-called “moral law” of the Old Testament) were still intact and imposed obligations upon the Christian church… Augustine was persuaded that the Old Testament Sabbath law had been abrogated. Others have argued that because the Sabbath was instituted originally not in the Mosaic economy but in creation, it maintains its status of moral law as long as the creation is intact.

There’s no doubt, Augustine was the theological giant of his day. However, he lived 1600 years ago, and anyone holding to his theology today could not be ordained in a Reformed Presbyterian church. That speaks to how far God has brought his church.

Many giants have stood on Augustine’s shoulders. Yet today’s Reformed church, with its elevated line to truth on the horizon, repudiates several of Augustine’s theological positions such as paedocommunion, the classification of non-elect regenerate persons, the abrogation of the Sabbath principle, and more.

Of course, there are always theological “controversies” in the church, but controversy alone does not give credence to a defeated view held by an otherwise notable theologian of his day. That Augustine reduced the Ten Commandants to nine merely corroborates the Reformed understanding of the progressive doctrinal illumination of the church. We should expect that doctrine has been refined from Augustine’s day, through the time of the Protestant Reformation, to this very day within the Reformed tradition.

Accordingly, any reference to Augustine in an attempt to give credence to a non-confessional Sabbath view gives equal historical credence to paedocommunion and losing one’s salvation, which resurfaced without warm ecclesiastical welcome in the fleeting phase of Federal Vision.

Saturday, Sunday or any day?

The second major controversy is the question about the day of the week on which the Sabbath is to be observed. Some insist that… since the Old Testament Israelites celebrated the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, which would be Saturday, we should follow that pattern.

Sproul gives no details of who was embroiled in the controversy, so it’s hard to comment. As for today it’s safe to say that the Millerite movement that culminated in the Seventh-day Adventist sect and the teachings of its former prophetess, Ellen White, have no seat at the Reformed table. Nor do Saturday Sabbath cults like those that embrace Armstrongism and House of Yahwey heresies, or views held within the Hebrews Roots movement.

But back to basics. What is the relevance of citing the defeated side of a settled “controversy” by an appeal to a particular theologian? Would we lend credence to slavery because an otherwise notable statesman owned slaves? That a particular theologian (past or present) disagrees with the church might be interesting but it is neither surprising nor seemingly relevant.

Indeed, if it is one’s intention to lend credence to doctrines that lost the debate by citing notable theologians who were on the wrong side of the church, then how far might we take this approach? Should we revisit the credibility of the “Transubstantiation of the Mass” because Thomas Aquinas was sound on other doctrine? Where is Sproul hoping to lead us? Controversial debate might create doubt in the minds of the less theologically grounded, but can it lend credence to either side of an issue, especially to the losing side in a progressively illuminated church?

John Calvin argued that it would be legitimate to have the Sabbath day on any day if all of the churches would agree, because the principle in view was the regular assembling of the saints for corporate worship and for the observation of rest.

Well, Calvin didn’t have the benefit of the Westminster Divines as it relates to their mature thought on the Regulative Principle of Worship, Christian Liberty of Conscience and Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day, which through synthetic application overturns the view that the church may determine which day in seven can be constituted as the Lord’s Day. The Divines with good reason rejected Articles XX and XXXIV of the church of England. Again, what’s the point of the history lesson?

How does historical controversy lend credence to settled error, and in this particular case on the church’s alleged right to dictate religious rites and holy days?

Recreation and Acts of Mercy

Within the Reformed tradition, the most significant controversy that has appeared through the ages is the question of how the Sabbath is to be observed. There are two major positions within the Reformed tradition on this question. To make matters simple, we will refer to them as the Continental view of the Sabbath and the Puritan view of the Sabbath.

Tagging with an impressive label a non-confessional view might give people a subjective sense of theological backing, but it cannot provide objective confessional or ecclesiastical backing. Moreover, as church historian and professor R. Scott Clark has demonstrated, this rejected view, commonly referred to as “the Continental view” of the Sabbath, simply entails spurious revisionism. There was no Continental view, or as Dr. Clark puts it:

There was no consciousness in the classical period of a distinctly “British” or “Continental” view of anything. There was simply an international Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

The Puritan view argues against the acceptability of recreation on the Sabbath day. The text most often cited to support this view is Isaiah 58:13-14…The crux of the matter in this passage is the prophetic critique of people doing their own pleasure on the Sabbath day. The assumption that many make with respect to this text is that doing one’s own pleasure must refer to recreation. If this is the case, the prophet Isaiah was adding new dimensions to the Old Testament law with respect to Sabbath-keeping.

On what basis does Sproul object to the word of God “adding new dimensions” to the Old Testament law, (allowing for a moment that the supposed new dimension wasn’t already implicit in the law)? It was Jesus who brought fresh dimensions to the Decalogue. Moreover, doesn’t the New Testament bring further development to the Doctrine of God, from Shema to Trinity?

How does Sproul make use of such a hermeneutical principle that would forbid new dimensions to former teachings, at least with any consistency, without undermining the heart of the Christian faith? Lest Sproul undermines the nature of God’s employment of progressive revelation, he may not dismiss an exegetical interpretation of newer revelation purely on its expansive import – unless, of course, it were to positively contradict what precedes it, which a prima facie Puritan interpretation of Isaiah 58:13-14 does not do!

Sproul overlooks that progressive revelation is an elaborative complement; it does not contradict merely by virtue of its expansive nature. Surely, a recreational import of Isaiah 58:-3-14 would not contradict the 4th Commandment any more than Jesus’ Decalogue application of anger and lust can undermine the 6th and 7th Commandments. So, at best, Sproul has merely begged the question of whether a Puritan view of Isaiah 58:13-14 undermines the law. Sproul has proven nothing.

There is another way to understand Isaiah 58:13-14 however, following the thinking of those who hold the Continental view of the Sabbath… Presumably, what is in view in the prophetic critique is God’s judgment against the Israelites for violating the Mosaic law with respect to the Sabbath day, particularly regarding involvement in commerce… According to this view, the text has nothing to say directly or indirectly about recreation on the Sabbath day.

We might observe in passing that Sproul’s interpretation of the passage seems a bit strained as it would seem to make ancient commerce out to be essentially pleasurable and not laborious. Moreover, if the verse is limited to commerce, then are other sorts of labor not forbidden on the Lord’s Day, or would that entail an abrogation of the Continental view Sproul seeks to defend!

Sproul raises a point. There are non-confessional ways of looking at many things. Obviously that demonstrates nothing, other than perhaps paper doesn’t resist ink. At the end of the day, all Sproul has done is arbitrarily inserted a narrow scope of what he deems as lawful pleasures into what Isaiah 58:13-14 forbids. In doing so, Sproul undermines God’s use of progressive revelation and the exegetical basis for a Christian conception of God (Trinity), and sins of the heart as revealed in the New Testament (Sermon On The Mount). In the final analysis, Sproul hasn’t successfully spoken on the Sabbath. He has merely engaged in the informal fallacy of special pleading, which if followed consistently would undermine creedal Christianity and the spirit of the law.

But let’s run with Sproul’s view of recreation and see where it leads. Are we to infer that God commanded us not to work on the Sabbath in order that we might enjoy 21st century entertainment on that day? Are all non-work lawful pleasures that are suitable for Saturdays somehow appropriate for Sunday? Did God command rest for one day in seven so that 21st century moms and dads would be free on Sundays to take their children to their soccer games? It should be apparent, the Divines did not base their view of Sabbath recreation solely on Isaiah 58:13-14. With the advent of the five day work week, is Isaiah 58:13-14 needed to demonstrate God’s disapproval of two consecutive Saturdays with a worship service inconveniently dropped into the second Saturday for religious discipline?

Sadly, modern day detractors seek their own pleasures and in doing so have rejected the covenantal promise that is tied to the Sabbath, which extends to their offspring. If not, then we should be quick to believe that the principle of the salvific promise of Isaiah 58:13-14 to our offspring is released to us if we’d only turn in faith from the pleasures of commerce toward the pleasures of recreation! Such a view is refuted simply by stating it.

Did God protect us from work on the Sabbath in order for us to indulge ourselves in recreation and to be entertained after Sunday worship? Is that how we are to appropriate the promised blessings of Isaiah 58:13-14?

One must wonder what is off limits for a so-called Continental sabbatarian. Take golf. Are starters at the club and servers at the pub exempt from the creation ordinance of Sabbath rest? Of course not. So, when it comes to the so-called Continental view, is it acceptable for one to be served at a restaurant, or entertained by athletes as they desecrate the Sabbath, just as long as we ourselves keep the Sabbath holy per “The Continental view”? (Who would be the pharisaical legalist in this picture?) Even working-animals and servants were to rest on the Sabbath. Some have gone so far as to defend their being waited on by asserting that the sabbath commandment doesn’t apply to unbelievers!

The point should be plain enough. Even if we allow for spurious historical claims about a Continental view in order to lend credence to non-confessional Sabbath keeping, the license taken by most who reject the Reformed view today is typically unsupportable and would be opposed even by most supposed seventeenth century detractors. Let’s be honest, what falls under “recreation” often entails others working on behalf of our personal pleasure (e.g. baristas as Starbucks) and a form of commerce to boot. Rarely does an allowance for recreational pleasure uphold the creation ordinance for all people not to work on the Christian sabbath. (Christians won’t even forgo a latte macchiato on Sundays so not to be an occasion for another person’s violation of the 4th Commandment.)

One other point of debate remains between the two sides on this issue. It has to do with works of mercy performed on the Sabbath… Some have drawn the conclusion that since Jesus performed works of mercy on the Sabbath, the Christian is obligated to do the same. However, the fact that Jesus did works of mercy on the Sabbath, though it clearly reveals that it is lawful to do so on the Sabbath, does not obligate us to do such works on the Sabbath.

I have no idea who Sproul is referring to with respect to the “some” who find it obligatory to do works of mercy on the Sabbath, but does his rightly rejecting an esoteric position on the Sabbath – one that is denied by the Westminster standards(!) – somehow add force to a non-confessional view of the Sabbath? No, though it might raise doubt in the minds of the less theologically grounded.

Closing remarks

R.C. Sproul was a popularizer in a favorable sense. I owe him much. He was the first living Calvinst I knew, and as a baby Calvinist I devoured his VHS and audio cassettes. I just couldn’t get enough. Sproul’s usefulness is vast and his gifts many. He brought generic Calvinism to the masses. Few, if any, were his equal in that respect. Notwithstanding, one must read Sproul with a discerning mind. Furthermore, when teachers deny God’s law and orthodox Christology, they must be called out, even if they are our favorites.

I’m a bit leery when one cites historical disagreement in the church while appealing to select theologians in the context of trying to justify the wrong side of the church’s confessional position. It bears mentioning that in this same vein Sproul’s view of the Impeccability of Christ implicitly denies Chalcedon and the Westminster Standards as it relates to the hypostatic union. That strikes me as reckless and cavalier. What’s most striking, however, is not just that Sproul’s position implicitly denies Chalcedon, but that his rhetorical claim that favored implicit heresy is identical in-kind to his Sabbath claim that invokes alleged division while citing backing of theologians for an aberrant view.

The best theologians, past and present, have been divided on the question of whether Jesus could have sinned.

I find something subtly misleading about such appeals when used to defend any position, let alone a position that would undermine orthodox Christology. (I also find it misleading to refer to historical disagreement as controversy as Sproul has.)

Leaving aside such a dubious claim about the best theologians, the point I’ll zero in on is that claiming select theologians who affirm doctrine that’s contrary to the church’s creeds and confessions is never difficult. However, what is difficult is developing persuasive arguments that refute the theology of the theologians that have stood with a confessional Reformed tradition for 400 years. (I address Sproul’s rejection of Christ’s inability to sin here, beginning @21 minutes and here on this blog.)

All of these issues continue to be examined and debated as the church seeks to understand how God is best honored on this day.

There will always be gainsayers within the fold of God, but we can be grateful for confessional Presbyterianism, which got the Sabbath right with no serious attempt or movement within the tradition to overturn this teaching of 400 years. All we have are non-subscribers and subscribers in the fold, but the confessional Reformed church has indeed spoken. Any complaints are with her and ultimately, I believe, with God Himself.