The Westminster Confession of Faith

THE VISIBLE CHURCH (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH ON THE CHURCH – PART 2)

Theologians commonly distinguish between the “invisible” and “visible” church. In our previous post we looked at what the Westminster Confession of Faith (25.1) has to say about the invisible church. What about the visible church? The Confession goes on to say the following:

“The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” (25.2)

First, notice that the visible church (like the invisible church spoken of in 25.1), is also in some sense “catholic or universal.” In what way is it universal? The Confession goes on to spell that out in detail, saying that “under the gospel” (i.e. in the New Testament era) the one true church is no longer “confined to one nation” as it used to be in the Old Testament age. The church used to be confined to one earthly nation – Israel.  The gospel is now to go out to all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).

There is also another sense in which the visible church is catholic or universal – whereas the invisible church consists of “the whole number of the elect” (25.1), even so the visible church consists of “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children” (25.2). Everyone who professes the true religion is a member of the visible church.

Professing the true religion, strictly speaking, involves more than merely professing faith in Christ (as essential and important as that is). The visible church is not just every individual professing Christian in the world. Rather (as the remaining sections of chapter 25 will go on to make abundantly clear) the church as church is in view here (no pun intended). Today’s overly-individualized and privatized version of the Christian faith was an utterly foreign concept to the Westminster divines, and rightly so. Indeed, it is a foreign concept to Scripture itself as well! (See here.)

Not only that, but the visible church also includes the children of all those who profess the true religion as well! That may seem like a strange concept to many in our day, but this is the consistent pattern found throughout Scripture (both Old and New Testaments alike). The children of believers have always been included in the covenant community, and have always had the sign and seal of the covenant applied to them (circumcision in the Old Testament, and Baptism in the New Testament). That is why Paul can say in 1 Corinthians 7:14,

“For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” (ESV, italics mine)

Does that mean that all of the children of believers are somehow automatically saved (salvation by association?), or even that all of the children of believers, without exception, will come to saving faith in Christ? Of course not. But is it not most often the case that the children of believers in Christ, having been raised in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4) and brought up in the church, end up, by God’s grace, coming to a saving knowledge of Christ?

The Confession also states that the visible church is “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God.” It is as if no one analogy or metaphor for the church is sufficient in order to convey everything that the church really is. Paul says something similar in 1 Timothy 3:14-15, where he writes,

“I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” (ESV, italics mine)

The church is Christ’s kingdom. Now Christ rules over all things, not just the church (Psalm 8:6; Matthew 28:18; 1 Corinthians 15:27), but, as Paul says of Christ in Ephesians 1:22, God “placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church” (NIV, italics mine). He is head over all things for the sake of His church! And so the visible church, strictly speaking, is not co-extensive with the limits of Christ’s kingdom (for there are no limits to His authority and reign), but it is the primary manifestation of the kingdom of God on this earth.

Not only is the visible church the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, but it is also “the house and family of God. What a privilege it is to be included in the family and household of God Himself! What a blessing it is to not only be reconciled to God and be able to call upon Him as our heavenly Father through faith in Christ, but also in Him to be given a multitude of “brothers and sisters and mothers and children” (Mark 10:30, ESV)! The church is not just an organization, or even an organism – it is a family!

Lastly, the Confession makes a statement that is sure to raise a few eyebrows in our day. It says that outside of the visible church “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” A similar statement is also found in the Belgic Confession (which is the confession of faith for the continental Reformed churches, just like the Westminster Confession is for the Presbyterian churches). It says,

“We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition.” (Article 28, emphasis mine)

And so it is clearly the standard reformed position that there is no salvation apart from the visible church, or at least not normally so. There are some, to be sure, who have no opportunity to join themselves to a local church body where the Word of God is truly preached, and the sacraments are rightly administered, and church discipline is faithfully exercised. Some are suffering extreme persecution and even imprisonment for the faith. Others may live in a place where there simply is no (true) local church. But for most professing Christians that is certainly not the case. And so, as the Belgic Confession makes clear, “no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself.” No man is a church unto himself, “regardless of his status or condition.” No one is sufficient in and of himself to live the Christian life on his own.

There are certainly some within the visible church who profess Christ without actually possessing Christ (i.e. they do not truly believe), and there are also some, no doubt, who are outside of the visible church who truly profess and possess Christ, but these are the exceptions and not the rule. No one who professes faith in Christ should willingly cut himself off from membership in the visible church. No one who professes faith in Christ should be “at home” (or at peace) without a (true) church home.

Part of the reason for that can be seen in Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3, which speaks of the means of grace that are to be found only in the church – the “ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God” which are given “for the gathering and perfecting of the saints” (i.e. believers). (Lord willing, we will deal that section in more detail in a future post.)

Love for our brothers in Christ is one of the evidences of salvation. In 1 John 3:14 the Apostle John writes,

“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” (ESV)

How can we say that we love our brothers in Christ if we avoid fellowship among them in the church? Or is it possible to truly love Christ, while seeking to avoid His body and bride, which is His church?

If you profess to know Christ by faith, but are somehow not a member of a local church. Do not be content to stay by yourself. Do not look for a perfect church, for that does not exist in this life. But rather make it your aim to find a true church where the Word of God is preached truly and sincerely (even if imperfectly), where the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered rightly, and where church discipline is faithfully and lovingly exercised for your good.

When you find such a church (and all do not fit that description, of course), despite her imperfections, join that church. Stay at that church. Worship and serve at that church. And may our faithful Savior Jesus Christ be pleased to greatly bless you in that church, to His glory!

The Invisible Church (Westminster Confession of Faith on the Church – Part 1)

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What exactly is the church? (Have you ever given that much thought?) The biblical doctrine of the church is probably one of the most neglected doctrines in all of the Scripture. To many in our day, having a clear theology of the church (its nature, necessity, purpose, ordinances, offices, and marks) seems much like an afterthought. And yet the very fact that both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed include statements regarding the church speaks toward the abiding importance of the church and what we are to believe concerning it.

The Westminster Confession of Faith includes an entire chapter on the church. That brief chapter provides a great deal of clarity on this important but neglected subject, so we hope to, Lord willing, examine each part of that chapter, one section at a time.

The very first section of the Westminster Confession’s chapter on the church deals with what is known as the invisible church. Protestant/Reformed theologians have commonly made a distinction between the invisible and the visible church.  The Confession (25.1) states:

“The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that fills all in all.”

Now the visible church and invisible church should not primarily be considered as two separate churches, but rather as two aspects of the one true church in Jesus Christ. (We will deal with the visible church in more detail when we come to Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2.) What does it mean that the church is invisible? Louis Berkhof writes,

“This church is said to be invisible, because she is essentially spiritual and in her spiritual essence cannot be discerned by the physical eye; and because it is impossible to determine infallibly who do and do not belong to her.” (Systematic Theology, p.566-566)

The Confession’s statement above teaches us the following:

  1. The invisible church is catholic or universal. The word “catholic” simply means universal (not Roman Catholic), and refers to the fact that Christ has one Redeemed people, one church, one body. This idea is found in Ephesians 1:22-23, where Paul writes, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (ESV).
  1. The invisible church consists of all of the elect. It is “the whole number of the elect” (25.1). In other words, everyone who will ever be saved in Christ.
  1. The invisible church consists of all of the elect throughout all time. It is “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof . . . .(25.1)” So everyone – past, present, and future – who will have been joined to Christ. Many people who have not even been born yet are then part of the invisible church, as are the saints of old, who are now absent from the body but present with the Lord!
  1. The invisible church also consists of both the church militant (the redeemed on this earth) as well as the church triumphant (the redeemed in heaven).

One day the invisible church will finally become visible to us! Revelation 7:9-12 says,

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (ESV)

On that great day all of the elect will at long last get to behold that “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (v.9). What a beautiful sight that will be – the ultimate family reunion!

John Owen on Obedience as Sons

owen-communion-with-god-2It should go without saying that believers in Christ have an obligation to obey God’s commandments. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament provides more than ample evidence of this truth.

Read through the Gospels, and you will find numerous imperatives and commands. There you will often find the Lord Jesus quoting, explaining, and applying the commandments to His hearers. A lengthy section in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) explicitly deals with a right view of God’s commandments.

Read through the Epistles, and you will find numerous imperatives and commands, even citations and quotations from the ten commandments. There is not the slightest hint that God’s moral law as expressed in the ten commandments has somehow been set aside or abrogated.

For just one such example, both the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul taught the continuing validity and importance of obedience to the 5th commandment. (See Mark 7:8-13; Ephesians 6:1-3.) Honoring one’s father and mother is still a basic and essential part of the life that God’s redeemed people are expected (commanded!) to live. That has not changed.

The gospel of Christ has not reduced or done away with our obligation to obey God’s commands. In fact, quite the opposite is true! The Westminster Confession of Faith, in its chapter on the law of God, tells us the following:

“The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” (19.5, italics mine)

So in the gospel of Christ we have even more reason (not less) to obey God’s law! Christ, in the gospel, ‘much strengthens’ our obligation to obey. (When was the last time you heard anything like that in a sermon?)

But what does such obedience look like? What is the essence of truly Christian obedience? In his book, Communion With God, the English Puritan writer John Owen (1616-1683) offers a helpful (and thoroughly biblical) analogy:

“Slaves find freedom when released from their duties. Children find their freedom in doing their duty. There is no greater mistake in the world than the idea that the freedom of sons in God’s house lies in choosing whether they will obey or not, whether they will do their duty or not. This is a freedom stolen by slaves, not a liberty given by the Spirit to sons.

“The liberty of sons is in the inward spiritual freedom of their hearts gladly and willingly obeying God in everything.” (p.160)

In Christ we are not freed from obeying God’s law, but rather for obeying it! The “liberty given by the Spirit to sons” (to use Owen’s phrase) leads us to obey God as sons, not slaves. Sons obey their heavenly Father out of love and gratitude, not out of slavish fear or for the expectation of wages, as a hired hand. As 1 John 5:3 says,

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”

We are to keep the commandments out of love for our heavenly Father. And in Christ, by the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are both enabled and led to truly love and obey God for the first time. As sons we may at times find keeping His commandments difficult, but not burdensome. And that is because, as sons, we no longer view God as a tyrant, or as a difficult taskmaster, but as our heavenly Father!

John Owen on the Regulative Principle of Worship

owen-communion-with-god-2John Owen has some rather strong words to say regarding what has come to be known as the “regulative principle of worship.” In his book, Communion With God, he writes,

“God never allowed the will of the creature to decide how best to worship God. Worshipping [sic] God in ways not appointed by him is severely forbidden. God asks, ‘Who has required these things at your hand?’ And again, ‘In vain do you worship me, teaching for doctrines the traditions of men.’

“The principle that the church has the power to institute and appoint any thing or ceremony belonging to the worship of God other than what Christ himself has instituted is the cause of all the horrible superstitions and idolatry, of all the confusion, blood, persecution and wars that have arisen in the Christian world. The purpose of a great part of the book of Revelation is to show this truth.”

The context of this quote is nearly as instructive as the quote itself. It is significant that he writes this in a book that is about (as the title suggests) believers’ communion with God, and in a chapter of that book that deals particularly with the consequences or results of our fellowship with Christ. One of those consequences/results is that the saints (believers) will be faithful to Christ. It is in this context that Owen deals with the regulative principle of worship.

According to Owen one of the primary ways in which believers will demonstrate their faithfulness to Christ will be in how we worship. Are we being faithful (i.e. obedient) in our worship? That is a question that we often fail to even ask, isn’t it? We often seem to be much more interested in asking if what we do in worship is pleasing to us (preference?) or maybe even to outsiders (pragmatism?). But what we really should be asking, first and foremost, is whether or not it is pleasing to God.

How do we know if our worship is pleasing to God? We can only discern the answer to that question by asking what God has commanded and appointed in His Word. And that is what the “regulative principle of worship” is really all about, isn’t it. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way:

“. . .the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.” (21.1)

This is what Owen is talking about in the above quote. This is what he means when he says, “God never allowed the will of the creature to decide how best to worship God.” And Owen is quick to point out in that same extended quote that God has not left it up to the church to decide either. The choice, when push comes to shove, is between faithfulness to Christ in our worship, and idolatry. Another way of putting that would be to say that we do not enjoy fellowship with Christ in worship on our own terms, but rather on His terms, as revealed in the Scriptures.

Do we think of worship in these terms? Do we consider worship in light of our fellowship with Christ? Do we consider it in terms of faithfulness to what the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has commanded and appointed? Perhaps if we did so, we would be far less prone to the allure of innovation & idolatry.

Berkhof on the Difference Between the Lutheran & Reformed Views of the Threefold Use of the Law

BerkhofIn part 5 of his Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof includes a chapter on “The Word as a Means of Grace.” At the close of that chapter, he points out that there is often a distinction or difference between the way that Lutherans view the threefold use of the law (i.e. the civil, pedagogical, and normative uses of the law – see here), and the way that the Reformed view that same threefold use.

Now he is quick to point out that both groups “accept” or affirm the threefold use. Neither would reject any of the three uses of the law. The difference is rather to be found in the emphasis on one of the uses over the others. Berkhof notes that “Lutherans stress the second use of the law” (i.e. the pedagogical use, wherein the law of God reveals our sin to us and drives us to Christ for salvation). He writes,

“In their estimation the law is primarily the appointed means for bringing men under conviction of sin and thus indirectly pointing the way to Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners. While they admit the third use of the law, they do it with a certain reserve, since they hold that believers are no more under the law. According to them, the third use of the law is necessary only because, and in so far as, believers are still sinners; they must be held in check by the law, and should become ever-increasingly conscious of their sins. It is not surprising therefore that this third use of the law occupies no important place in their system” (p.615).

In other words, the emphasis is primarily a negative one. To the Lutherans, the primary use of the law of God for believers is to remind them of their sins, and to restrain them from sin. To be sure, the Reformed certainly acknowledge this aspect as well. The Westminster Confession of Faith (19.6) says that the law of God is of use even to the regenerate in order to “restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law.”

What about the Reformed view? Berkhof continues:

The Reformed do full justice to the second use of the law, teaching that through the law cometh the knowledge of sin,” and that the law awakens the consciousness of the need of redemption; but they devote even more attention to the law in connection with the doctrine of sanctification. They stand strong in the conviction that believers are still under the law as a rule of life and of gratitude. Hence the Heidelberg Catechism devotes no less than eleven Lord’s Days to the discussion of the law, and that in its third part, which deals with gratitude” (ibid).

So, if you are a believer in Christ, which (if any) describes your approach to the third use of the law of God? Do you approach it “with a certain reserve” (as the Lutherans commonly do), or do you devote even more attention to the law in connection with the doctrine of sanctification” (as the Reformed commonly do)? By all means we should “do full justice to the second use of the law” (as Berkhof puts it), but that should in no way prevent us from ‘devoting even more attention’ to the third use of the law of God when it comes to sanctification. There is no reason to make an either/or choice out of what the Scriptures present to us as a both/and proposition.

Original Sin – Rotten to the Core

Apple 2What is original sin? The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides us with a helpful definition:

Q.18. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate [i.e. condition] into which man fell? A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.

So according to the Shorter Catechism, original sin refers to the sinful condition or state that all mankind fell into in Adam’s first sin the garden of Eden. And it basically consists in three (3) things:

  1. The Guilt of Adam’s First Sin
  2. The Want (or Lack) of Original Righteousness
  3. The Corruption of Our Whole Nature

First, the guilt of Adam’s first sin. Adam was not only the first sinner, but also the first representative (federal head) of the entire human race.  So when he sinned and fell, he did so not only for himself, but on our behalf as well.  And the proof is in the result – we are all sinners, and we all die (Romans 5:12-21).  We all sinned in Adam; we all fell in Adam, just as if we had ourselves partaken of the forbidden fruit. That is what Paul is talking about when he says that “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Romans 5:18, ESV, italics mine). Outside of Christ all of humanity shares in the guilt of Adam’s first sin.

Second, the want (or lack) of original righteousness. Too often we conceive of righteousness in merely negative terms, as if it consisted only in refraining from transgressing God’s law. That is really only half of the story. True righteousness consists also in the positive fulfilling of God’s law, the actual doing of His will. Adam was originally created as a righteous man. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it,

Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably [i.e. subject to change], so that he might fall from it (9.2).

And fall from it he did. And we all in him as well. That is why, as Paul says in Romans 3:10, “None is righteous, no, not one.”

Third, original sin also involves the corruption of our whole nature. Every faculty of our nature was corrupted, so that we became dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1-3). Outside of Christ we all now have a natural inclination toward evil and away from God. It is from this corruption of our nature that “all actual transgressions” proceed (Q.18, above). In other words, we are not just sinners because we sin, but rather we sin because we are sinners. As Paul puts it in Ephesians chapter 2, outside of Christ we are all “sons of disobedience” (v.2) and “by nature children of wrath” (v.3).

Maybe you’re reading all of this and thinking to yourself that it doesn’t seem fair. Worse than that, it seems downright hopeless. That would certainly be the case if not for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 5:14 tells us that Adam “was a type of the one who was to come.” And that one to come in the likeness of Adam to be the representative or federal head of a new humanity. As Paul writes in Romans 5:18-19,

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

In Jesus Christ, through faith in Him, we have the cure for the curse of original sin. Where we used to share in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, in Christ we now have “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7). Where we formerly had no righteousness in Adam, in Christ we now have the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ accounted to us by faith alone (Romans 1:17). And lastly, where we used to be dead in sin in Adam,  we are now made alive from the dead in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:4-5), so that we are “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). We are not thereby made perfect or sinless in this life, but the Spirit of Christ within us works in us to conform us more and more unto the image of Christ.

Thomas Watson on the Necessity of Sanctification

WatsonIn his book, A Body of Divinity, Thomas Watson gives six (6) reasons for the necessity of sanctification in the life of a Christian. They are as follows:

1. God has called us to it. Watson cites 2 Peter 1:3, which speaks not only of God giving us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” but also having called us to His own “glory and excellence” (or “virtue” – KJV). He also points us to 1 Thessalonians 4:7, which says, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, make no mistake about it – God has called you to a life of holiness and sanctification.

2. Without sanctification there is no evidencing our justification. As he writes, “Justification and sanctification go together” (p.244).  See 1 Corinthians 6:11; Micah 7:18-19. They must be kept distinct, but never separate. Although Watson does not necessarily spell it out as such, the concern here seems to be one related to our assurance. Without sanctification, what evidence or proof do we have that we have been justified by Christ?

3. Without sanctification we have no title to the new covenant.  Part of the new covenant is that God gives His redeemed people a new heart. Ezekiel 36:26-27 says,

“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

So if we do not have a new heart within us by the Spirit of God and so do not walk in the statutes of God and carefully obey His rules or commandments, we are not yet members of the new covenant.

4. There is no going to heaven without sanctification. Here Watson twice quotes Hebrews 12:14 which states, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (NIV). This same thing is explicitly taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith in its chapter dealing with the doctrine of sanctification:

They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed,and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. (Westminster Confession of Faith 13.1)

Notice that the writers of the Confession also use the language of Hebrews 12:14. In other words, without sanctification no man shall see the Lord (or go to heaven).

5. Without sanctification all our holy things are defiled. He writes, “A foul stomach turns the best food into ill humours [i.e. indigestion or illness]; so an unsanctified heart pollutes prayers, alms, sacraments” (p.245). See also Isaiah 1:10-17; Matthew 7:21-23.

6. Without sanctification we can show no sign of our election. Here he points us to 2 Thessalonians 2:13, which says, “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (ESV, italics mine). Watson writes,”Election is the cause of our salvation, sanctification is our evidence. Sanctification is the ear-mark of Christ’s elect sheep” (p.245).

Let all of this be a comfort to every genuine believer in Jesus Christ, and an encouragement to grow in the grace of God in sanctification. May it also serve as a wake-up call of sorts to any who have up to this point contented themselves with a hollow profession of faith, but have never known the grace of God in truth.