Pictures and diagrams can be helpful in teaching theological concepts. These are two pictures I used a few weeks ago in preaching through Romans 2; some of you guys have asked to see them again so you can process them more fully. Unfortunately I’m booked up right now with lots of art and design projects, so I won’t be able to answer requests for additional graphics that mirror the sublime excellence of these ones. I mean, we artists need time to devote to our craft. You can’t make art like this overnight. Well, actually, you can. These diagrams are blatantly stolen from Dr. Richard Pratt of Reformed Theological Seminary. And to his credit, I think he was using Powerpoint 97 or something back when he made them, so he’s probably a better artist than they suggest.
The point is to show that we commonly think in only two categories: believer and unbeliever, saved and unsaved, Christian and non-Christian. But actually, the Bible knows 3 categories of people: those outside of God’s covenant; the visible covenant community (those who profess to follow Christ); and the true covenant community (those who are actually regenerate). Covenant is the grid that ties together Old Testament and New and makes sense of the entire Bible.
This distinction between the visible and invisible church is simply the only way to make sense of Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom of heaven is like a field that grows both wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30), or of Paul’s contention that “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (Rom 9:6), or of John’s statement that anti-Christian people “went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us” (1 John 2:19). Read your Bible carefully and you’ll start seeing these three categories everywhere. Not all who profess faith actually possess it. (This should be intuitively obvious to most of you.)
The most common question is: what is the difference between the people in the yellow box and the people in the red box? And it’s a good question. From the outside, they look very much the same. They both attend church. They both profess faith in Jesus. They both engage in various religious exercises. The difference is that the people in the red box have truly experienced the internal transformation wrought by the Spirit of God, in fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:33: “I will put my law within them, and on their heart I will write it.” For truly regenerate people, obedience to Jesus and love for Jesus and service to Jesus are internally driven, motivated by the Spirit of God who indwells them. For the people in the yellow box, obedience and love and service are externally driven, motivated by tradition or peer pressure or religious guilt.
This is the heart of the contrast mentioned by Paul in Romans 7:6: “But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” If you are still serving Jesus in the “oldness of the letter” (i.e. driven by external pressure and not by the internal propulsion of the Spirit), you might be in the yellow box. May God use this discussion, by His grace, to grab your heart and move you into the red box.
I am sure questions will be forthcoming. Don’t be shy, ask away. I’ll do my best.
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From God’s perspective, there are still only two categories, don’t you think- regenerate and unregenerate? I mean, Jesus is either your Savior and you’re under grace, or he’s not and you’re under wrath, right?
It seems to me that the three categories do not represent three distinct states or relationships to God, but instead is His teaching to us about true vs false worship, something along the lines of “just because you come to church doesn’t mean you know me- there are many who do so and yet do not know me, nor I them.”
If it was a truly distinct third category, it seems to me like there would be some corresponding distinct state for the yellow box- but there is not. There is no benefit of the yellow box over and above the blue (ignoring for the moment the influence of being with true believers), nor is any favor given to red-boxers extended to the yellow. So the three categories are a teaching device for our benefit, and not an actual distinction that God makes. What do you think?
Lane, I think you are both right and wrong. Your last paragraph – and your point that there are only two eternal destinies – are right on. If you are regenerate (red box), you have eternal life; if you are not regenerate (yellow or blue), you do not have eternal life.
It is not true, however, to say that these three categories are “not an actual distinction that God makes.” Nor is it true to say that “there is no benefit of the yellow box over and above the blue.” Au contraire, being in the visible church has benefits! Just like being part of God’s covenant people in the OT (the Jews) had benefits. Remember, this is Paul’s point in Romans 3:1-2: “What then is the benefit of being a Jew? Great in every respect!! First of all, they were entrusted with the oracles of God.”
Even a covenant-breaking, idolatrous Jew had the benefit of knowing the law of God – God’s divine design for the best human life possible. Just knowing the law is a significant benefit over not knowing it! And even a covenant-breaking, non-regenerate “church person” has the benefit of hearing the word of God preached, and of being in Christian community, and of being exposed to the gospel in numerous ways. Those are true spiritual benefits! And the neglect of them is a serious thing: “To whom much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).
Is that really a benefit then, . . since said knowledge of the truth and access to the Word of God will only heap condemnation on those who have it but “hearts are far from Him” in the age to come?
I remember Bob displaying these diagrams on a Sunday night in the chapel at CCC years ago. They got me frustrated and questioning my salvation… wondering if I was a true believer or merely a professor of faith. It was quite disturbing. It took a few years, but I’m not questioning any more. Bob likes frustrating us, and in this case, I’m grateful 🙂
Nick… thanks for saying so.