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Prodigals VIII: Prodigals and the Covenant

The Bible teaches both that God doesn’t lose any of His sheep, and that real covenant members do become prodigals and fall away from the faith. No one can snatch you out of God’s hand, but branches do get cut out of the vine. A right understanding of the doctrines of covenant and election as different but not contradictory perspectives on the reality of salvation will help us see how the Bible can give us both blessed assurance and stern warnings.

Prodigals: We began this series with this definition: a prodigal is a covenant member who falls away from the faith. Hebrews 10 lists some of the covenant blessings that prodigals reject: they have “received the knowledge of the truth”; they “set aside the law of Moses”; they are “trampling underfoot the Son of God” and “outraging the Spirit of grace.” Because they really were part of the covenant, when they choose to walk away, they are “profaning the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified.” Prodigals fall away from a real relationship with Christ and His Church.

Election: Election means that God has made a choice about who gets saved. So when someone becomes a prodigal, do they lose their election? Does God change His decree? The Biblical answer is no, may it never be! This eternal, unchangeable decree isn’t based on our actions, but solely on God’s free choice. Not one of God’s elect can ever be lost, because God’s election is His choice to save them. They might wander for a time, but if they are one of the elect, God will turn their hearts back and save them.

Covenant: God’s decree is the foundation for our relationship with God in eternity, but in time, God relates to us through the covenant, which is where He unfolds and carries out His decree. Election isn’t something we keep or break. It’s God’s eternal decision. But in time and throughout history, the covenant can be kept or broken. At the end of history, the list of covenant members and the list of those whom God has elected to life will match perfectly, but not until then. When a prodigal leaves the faith, the covenant list is the one that changes, not the election list. But because the covenant is where election is revealed over time, it gives us the only information we have about eternal election, which plays a huge role in our assurance of salvation.

Perseverance of the Saints: The Westminster Confession says: “They whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally, nor finally, fall away from the state of grace: but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.” (WCF XVII:1) But this looks like a problem: Hebrews 10 just talked about the terrible punishment that awaits the one who “profanes the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified.” Is this a contradiction?

No, it’s not. The Confession is looking through an election lens – those who are sanctified persevere, because they are elect. Hebrews 10, on the other hand, is looking through a covenant lens – covenant members can profane the blood that sanctifies them. This is the way Scripture speaks: not all who are Israel are Israel. Not all who are sanctified are sanctified in the same sense. But because covenant and election are two complementary but different perspectives on salvation, there is no contradiction.

Assurance of salvation: As long as we’re going through history, we can’t infallibly identify the elect, so we’re called to operate in covenant terms, which we need to do in order to be the Church. But that’s a bit scary – if some covenant members can turn out to be prodigals, how can I be sure that I’m one of the ones who will persevere and be eternally saved? We know that election is real and true, we just can’t see it yet.

Here’s the good news: assurance walks by faith, not by sight. Your assurance of salvation shouldn’t be based on a future you can’t see; it must be based on faith in the One who can see the future. As long as you believe in Jesus, then you can be absolutely sure that you will persevere to the end. Remember, your faith isn’t of works; it comes to you as a covenant gift from Jesus, bought with His own blood, and preserved by His power and prayers.

Warning: If you stop believing, that’s when you become a prodigal. If you know the truth, if you’ve been united to the Son of God, if you share in the blood of the covenant and receive grace from the Spirit, and in spite of all that, you fall away, then all that’s left for you is a fearful expectation of judgment, and the fury of God’s fire.

When you hear this warning, you shouldn’t say, “I’m a baptized, churchgoing Christian, so this doesn’t apply to me.” A prodigal is a covenant member who stops believing, and so falls away from a real connection to Christ. But here’s what the elect of God do when they hear His warnings: they believe Him. They take His warnings seriously and run to Jesus, clinging tightly to His promises. Don’t use the doctrine of election as a shield to protect you from God’s warnings! Instead, respond to God’s warnings in faith in order to make your calling and election sure.

Hope: Just a few verses later, Hebrews 10:39 says: “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” How do we know that? Because we’ve come in faith to worship Jesus. Jesus is here, renewing His covenant with us through His Word and at His table, nourishing and strengthening our faith, and preserving our souls.

And for those who have forsaken the covenant, our hope rests in the fact that the Lord knows those whom He has chosen for salvation. No matter how far they are from Him right now, Jesus will not lose one of those whom the Father has given Him. God’s purpose according to election will stand, and so we call prodigals back to the covenant so that we can watch His grace unfold in their lives.

Posted on Wednesday, November 08, 2017 by CJ Bowen