Friday, May 24, 2013

Reply to the Joint Federal Vision Profession: Part 4: The Common Operations of the Spirit

articles in this series: part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6part 7part 8

by Wes White
[Editor's note: This series was originally posted in 2011 at Johannes Weslianus, the former site of PCA Pastor Wes White. Reprinted with permission]

We are continuing to discuss the section in the Joint FV Profession on the decrees. We looked last time at how the decrees and the visible Church intersect. We consider now the common operations of the Spirit. Even though this would properly come up during the subject of calling, I deal with it here because the Federal Visionists did.

The Joint FV Profession, written by Doug Wilson and signed by PCA Pastor Jeff Meyers, teaches:

Those covenant members who are not elect in the decretal sense enjoy the common operations of the Spirit in varying degrees, but not in the same way that those who are elect do.

What are these common operations of the Spirit? It is perfectly obvious that the Federal Visionists believe that baptism confers forgiveness, new life, adoption, and union with Christ ex opere operato (as we shall see) upon all those who are baptized. Thus, according to the Federal Visionists, union with Christ, forgiveness, new life, and adoption are included in the common operations of which the Confession speaks.

Rich Lusk specifically tied these benefits to the common operations in his paper “Do I Believe in Baptismal Regeneration?”:

The first is the “common operations” of the Spirit mentioned in WCF 10.4. . . [T]he Confession is addressing blessings and benefits that both elect and non-elect covenant members receive within the communion of the church. A lot of passages address just this concern (Mt. 18:32; Heb. 6:4–8; 2 Pt. 1:9; 2:1; etc.). This forces us to distinguish the kind of temporary forgiveness, enlightenment, and knowledge of the truth that future reprobates can possess, from the irreversible, irrevocable way in which the elect possess these same blessings.

Notice that he states that the common operations include temporary forgiveness of sins. I have personally often heard such benefits referred to as “common operations of the Spirit.”

Now, what I want to deal with in this post is whether the Standards teach that forgiveness, new life, adoption, and union with Christ are or could be part of what it calls “common operations of the Spirit.”

There are two major reasons why we should think that the common operations do not and cannot refer to a temporary forgiveness, sanctification, and adoption. First, the Confession specifically confines those benefits to the elect. Second, the term “common operations of the Spirit” has a fixed meaning in the history of Reformed theology, and that meaning does not have anything to do with forgiveness of sins, adoption, or a new life.

First — The Confession Confines such Benefits to the Elect

This Confession very explicitly says that the only people who are justified, saved, effectually called, sanctified, and adopted are the elect:
They who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only (WCF 3.6).

This is taught throughout the Standards (WCF 10.1, 11.4–5, 17, WLC 65–69). It really could not be any more obvious that the Standards teach that the reprobate never receive any saving benefits.

What the Federal Visionists say in response is that the Standards are speaking of the justification, sanctification, and adoption that the elect receive. They believe that the Confession does not preclude a different, temporary justification, sanctification, and adoption from being given to the reprobate.

How are we to answer this? The Confession does not limit its own teaching this way. Instead, it describes these benefits and says that the thing that they are describing is not given to the reprobate. The Standards teach not merely that the reprobate do not receive salvation finally but that they do not receive it at all.

I would like to illustrate each point. When the Standards say that the reprobate do not receive justification, adoption, and sanctification, we must not simply insert whatever content we like into these ideas abstracted from the rest of the Standards. We must look at how the Standards describe each of these benefits and recognize that it teaches what it is describing as justification, adoption, and sanctification do not go to the reprobate. Let me make this explicit:
  1. Justification — The reprobate never have their sins pardoned, never have the righteousness of Christ imputed to them, never have the obedience and satisfaction of Christ imputed to them because they never receive and rest on Christ alone for salvation. They never do this because God never gives them saving faith.
  2. Adoption — The reprobate never receive the grace of adoption. They never enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God. He never puts His name on them. He never gives them the Spirit of adoption. They cannot have boldness to enter the throne of grace, etc.
  3. Sanctification — The reprobate never get a new heart and a new spirit within them. Consequently, they are not further sanctified and do not enjoy the blessings of Christ’s death and resurrection. They always remain under the dominion of sin. They never practice true holiness. They do not have the image of God restored them.
This is the obvious meaning of the phrase, “Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.”

The question is not really whether these words can be used in a different sense. The question is whether the Federal Visionists apply what the Confession means by justification, adoption, and sanctification to some of the reprobate. They clearly do this, but the Confession does not.

The Standards teach that the reprobate do not receive forgiveness of sins, new life, and adoption; but they do teach that the reprobate get some common operations of the Spirit; therefore, the Standards do not teach that forgiveness of sins, new life, and adoption can be part of the common operations of the Spirit.

Part 2 — The True Meaning of Common Operations of the Spirit
Actually, this phrase has been commonly used and defined throughout the history of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches, and there is agreement on its meaning. Remember that this phrase first appears in the chapter in the Westminster Confession on effectual calling. This statement is coupled with the external ministry of the Word of God in Chapter 10.4. The external ministry of the Word of God is received not only by the elect but also by reprobates. However, the Confession wants to say more. It says that sometimes this external word is also accompanied by the Holy Spirit actually impressing this upon their souls. That is why they can be said to “resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51). Some writers note that this work can even make the natural men act in a better way for a time.

We should also note that in other contexts this may also refer to non-saving gifts of service and ministry within the Church. People, like Saul, may have the Spirit of prophecy and still be false Christians, that is, not possessing salvation. This is what we learn from Mt. 7:21–23.

The important qualification in the Confession and those who have described the common operations is that the natural man remains a natural man. He remains a child of the devil, under the wrath of God, dead in his trespasses and sins, and unsaved. The purpose of describing the Spirit’s work in some of the reprobate as “common operations” is in fact to deny to them union with Christ, forgiveness of sins, adoption, and new life. To state otherwise is to ignore the immediate context and the historical context of the phrase. I offer here some quotations from various authors from various periods describing the common operations of the Spirit.

Johannes Vanderkemp, Sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism, 1:426:

[They have] only a common operation of his Spirit through which some submit themselves feignedly, and others resist the Spirit, like the Jews (Acts 7:51). And when this is rightly considered, we see how the calling is external and internal, resistible and irresistible; and so the opinion of the Remonstrants, that this calling can be resisted by freewill, and their objections against our doctrine fall to the ground.

Thomas Ridgely, A Body of Divinity, 3:18:

These are styled, in this answer, the common operations of the Spirit: they may be called operations, inasmuch as they contain in them something more than God’s sending ministers to address themselves to sinners, in a way of persuasion or, arguing; for, the Spirit of God deals with their consciences under the ministry of the word. It is true, this is no more than common grace; yet it may be styled the Spirit’s work: for though the call be no other than common, and the Spirit considered as an external agent, inasmuch as he never dwells in the hearts of any but believers, yet the effect produced, is internal in the mind and consciences of men, and, in some degree, in the will; which is almost persuaded to comply with it. These operations are sometimes called the ‘Spirit’s striving with man,’ Gen. vi. 3, but inasmuch as many of these internal motions are said to be resisted and quenched, when persons first act contrary to the dictates of their consciences, and afterwards wholly extinguish them; therefore the Spirit’s work in those whom he thus calls, is not effectual or saving; these are not united to Christ by his Spirit, nor by faith; and this is generally styled common grace.

The doctrine of election generally held is, that God, according to his own inscrutable purpose, has from all eternity chosen in Christ, and predestinated unto salvation, a certain number of individuals out of the fallen race of Adam; and that, in pursuance of this purpose, as these individuals come into the world, he in due season visits them by a peculiar operation of his Spirit, thereby justifying and sanctifying and saving them; whilst he passes by the rest of the race, unvisited by that peculiar operation of the Spirit, and so abandoned to their sins and their punishment. It is an essential part of the doctrine, that the peculiar operation of the Spirit, by which God draws the elect unto himself, is held to be alike irresistible and indispensable in the work of salvation, so that those to whom it is applied cannot be lost, and those to whom it is not applied cannot be saved; whilst all the outward calls of the gospel and what are named common operations of the Spirit, which are granted to the reprobate as well as to the elect, are, when unaccompanied by that peculiar operation, ineffectual to salvation, and do only aggravate the condemnation of the reprobate.

Neither are we to urge, what we elsewhere about grieving the Spirit of God: because we are to distinguish between the common operations of the Spirit of God, and the special operations of the Spirit of Grace : between the moral and the supernatural actions of the Spirit of Grace: between some more feeble impulses to certain exercises of virtue and piety, and that grand attempt of the Spirit, when he goes to convert an elect person. They grieve the Spirit of God, because they rather choose to obey the impulses of the flesh and of the devil, than his holy admonitions, which are partly proposed externally by the word, partly insinuated into their mind by conscience. Believers themselves also grieve the Spirit of Grace, whereby they are sealed, as often as they refuse to comply with his holy admonitions ; and though conscience, in which the Spirit has get [set? -editor] up his throne, in vain struggles with them, yet they suffer themselves to be carried away by the flesh and the world ; and likewise every time, that, with a becoming reverence of soul, they refuse to receive, cherish, follow his holy impulses, when he quickens them to duty. Whence nothing can be concluded against the invincible efficacy of God, when he calls internally, and effectually undertakes the conversion of his people.

John Flavel, The Whole Works, 7:124:

The common works found in unregenerate souls deceive many, who cannot distinguish them from the special works of the Spirit in God’s elect: see that startling scripture, Heb. vi. 4. where you find, among the common operations of the Spirit upon apostates, that illumination, which gives perspicuity to their minds in discerning spiritual truths, and that frequently with more distinctness and depth of judgment than some gracious fouls attain unto; besides, it is the matter out of which many rare and excellent gifts are formed in admirable variety, which are singularly useful to others as they are exercised in expounding the scriptures, defending the truths of Christ by solid arguments, preaching, praying, [etc.] and make the subject of them renowned and honoured in. the church of God, whilst, mean time, they are dazzled with their own splendor, and fatally ruined by them.

Thomas Manton, Complete Works, 21:311:

These preparations in regard of conversion are like the drying of the wood to the kindling of it or setting it on fire. The dryness of the wood is not the firing of the wood, or any degree of it, only a preparation of the matter, that it may take fire when it is put to it; or like the heating of metals before they are melted, and are cast into the mould to be fashioned. Such kind of preparations there are to regeneration; as when a man by the study of the law hath a discovery and anxious sense of his miserable condition out of Christ, and doth seriously deliberate what to do, and hath a desire and purpose to make use of all good means for the escaping of God’s wrath, as to hear, read, meditate, confer with others about the things that belong to regeneration. We may require you to use all these godly exercises, and to be diligent therein, that you may be in some readiness, and lie near at hand for God’s work, which is better than to be afar off. So these preparations are as the drying of the wood, though it be not fired; the heating of the metal, though it be not melted; and in these we feel some common operations of the Spirit at least; and they that refuse these preparatives are without excuse, and it is a sign they slight reconciliation with God and regeneration by his Spirit. Thus you see why we are to exhort, and you to look after it, that you may lie fair for God’s work.


In the Joint FV Profession, the signers state:
We affirm that all who subscribe to creeds and confessions should do so with a clean conscience and honest interpretation, in accordance with the plain meaning of words and the original intent of the authors, as can best be determined.

I have demonstrated that the words “common operations” cannot mean what they regularly say they mean. I would call them to act in accordance with their principles and admit they are out of accord with the Standards. 

Editor's note: Signers of the 2007 Joint Federal Vision Profession include:

Douglas Wilson (minister, CREC), Peter Leithart (minister, PCA), Jim Jordan (minister, teacher at large), Steve Wilkins (minister, PCA), Randy Booth (minister, CREC), John Barach (minister, CREC), Rich Lusk (minister, CREC), Jeff Meyers (minister, PCA), Tim Gallant (minister, CREC), Ralph Smith (minister, CREC), and Mark Horne (minister, PCA). Credentials were those held by the signers when the profession was released.

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