The Protestant Reformed Deny the Need for Conversion
David Engelsma, in The STandardBearer (1/15/1991) writes:
“To the brash, presumptous question sometimes put to me by those of a revivalist, rather than covenantal, mentality, When were you converted?, I have answered in all seriousness, When was I not converted?”
“As a Reformed minister and parent, I have no interest whatever in conversion as the basis for viewing baptised children as God’s dear children, loved of him from eternity, redeemed by Jesus, and promised the Holy Spirit, the author of faith. None!”
By the way of preface, I want to say that I am not reformed. I believe that Jesus Christ was imputed with all the sins of all the elect in Christ, and that Christ died for all their sins, so that all these elect a. will not pay for their sins and b. will be converted from unbelief to belief in the true gospel. Because of Christ’s work, all the elect are entitled not only to the forgiveness of sins but also to receiving conversion (faith in the gospel)
But please don’t call me “Reformed” for believing this gospel. Many, even most, “Reformed” people believe that Jesus Christ also died for the non-elect in some way so as to make their “free offer” sufficient to further condemn the non-elect.
Even some of those “Reformed” (like Englesma) who know that God loves nobody apart from election in Christ go on to deny the need for conversion to have assurance. Let not the Protestant Reformed congratulate himself on not being conditional like his Reformed colleagues.
We must not follow the Protestant Reformed in their thinking about water baptism, even if it is a reaction to any idea of law-covenant. One, the Mosaic covenant was a conditional covenant. Two, even though God is one, God has more than one covenant and not all the covenants can be collapsed into one covenant.
Every time some who believe the gospel indicate that the elect were justified eternally, or that the elect were justified at the cross, they are adding to the confusion which denies the need for conversion. The cross-work (the righteousness) of Christ not only entitles the elect to justification (even before they are justified) but also entitles the elect to conversion (even before they are converted).
Even before they believe the gospel, the elect are entitled (because of Christ’s work) to the converting work of the Holy Spirit. What what does the application of Christ’s work mean? First, it means that God imputes that work (not only the reward, but the righteousness) to the elect. Before the cross, God imputed the work to some of the elect. After the cross, God continues to impute the work to some of the elect.
So there is a difference (not only in time) between the work and the imputation of the work. For example, Romans 6 describes being placed into the death of Christ. There is a difference between the union of all the elect in Christ before the beginning of the world and the legal union of the elect with Christ when they are justified.
Second, the application (purchased by Christ for the elect, and thus now their inheritance) includes the conversion which immediately follows the imputation. We could go to every text in the New Testament about the effectual calling into fellowship, but let us think now of only two. Galatians 3:13-14: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham would come…so that we would receive the promised Spirit through faith.”
And here’s a second text which teaches us that regeneration and conversion immediately follow the imputation. Romans 8:10–“but if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” Because the work (righteousness) is imputed, the next result will not only be forensic life but also the life the Holy Spirit gives by means of the gospel, so that the elect understand and believe, and are converted.
As II Peter 1:1 starts, “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Christ did not die to forgive any elect person of the final sin of unbelief of the gospel. Christ died to give every elect person faith in the gospel and conversion.
Christians do disbelieve even in their faith, and Christ died for all the sins of all Christians including all sins after they are converted. But no elect person dies unconverted, because Christ died to give them the new birth and the conversion which follows. Christ did not need to die for final disbelief by the elect because Christ died instead that the elect will not finally disbelieve.
Romans 5: 17 speaks of “those who receive the free gift of righteousness” and how they reign in life through the one man Christ Jesus. This receiving is not the sinner believing. It is not an “exercise of faith” (if you check the commentaries, Murray is right here about the passive and Moo is wrong). It certainly is not “appropriating” (an ugly ambigous Arminian word which ought never to be used in any context). The elect “receive” the righteousness by God’s imputation.
The elect do not impute their sins to Christ. Nor do the elect impute Christ’s righteousness to themselves. God is the imputer. But the receiving of the righteousness is not the same as the righteousness. The imputation is not at the same time as Christ earned the righteousness. God declaring the elect to be joint-heirs with Christ in that righteousness is not the same as the righteousness. There is a difference between imputation and righteousness.
Certainly the act of faith is not the righteousness. But neither is the imputation, nor the new birth which follows, the righteousness. This is not the four-pointer double-talk about a difference between redemption and atonement. Rather, it is a recognition of the biblical difference between the atonement and justification. The difference is not that the elect do something to get justified. The difference is that, in justification, God imputes the atonement to the elect. But the elect are not justified until God imputes the righteousness to them.
I do not now want to get into all the harmful consequences of watering infants. I want to challenge the notion that the best way to counter salvation conditioned on the sinner is to teach eternal justification, so that conversion becomes only knowing that you were converted. In other words, the idea that since I was always elect, I was always “saved”, I was never not converted.
The safest and best place to be is not the most extreme away from what the Arminians say. The safest and best place to be is what the texts of the Bible says.
I have no big problem with saying that the elect were “in some sense” always saved, but only if this “sense” is that they are elect. In other words, from God’s perspective, the elect are never in danger of perishing. The gospel does not tell anyone: you are elect. The gospel tells everyone: God loves the elect and Christ’s death will save the elect. Where the Arminian wants to tell everyone that God loves them, some of “Reformed” want to tell some of the unconverted that God loves them. But the Bible does not encourage this idea.
I Thessalonians 1:4 “For we know, brothers, loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to not only in word but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”
To insist on the necessity of conversion is not to be a “revivalist”. I don’t want to see what goes by the name of revival. I do want to see conversions, in which sinners come to understand and believe the gospel, and repent of the false gospels.