Justification by faith, where vile sinners are counted as righteous before God for the sake of Christ, is often polluted by the waters of moralism. Martin Luther is said to have described this justification as ‘the article by which the church stands or falls’. It was this that brought him to faith in Christ, as he read through Paul’s epistle to the Romans, while still a monk.
Since the Reformation, countless sermons and books have been preached and written in defence of this pivotal doctrine, and Reformed and evangelical churches throughout the West continue to do battle for it.
One fairly recent theological fad that has caused discord and confusion is a teaching called Federal Vision (FV). This had its beginnings in the 1970s, when Dr Norman Shepherd, a former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, began to teach to his students that we are saved by a combination of faith and works.
In 2002 he spoke at a pastors’ conference, at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America, PCA) in Monroe, Louisiana, along with Douglas Wilson (who only in January 2017 has now distanced himself from FV), John Barach, Steve Wilkins and Steve Schlissel, on ‘The Federal Vision: an examination of Reformed covenantalism’.
Through lectures and academic papers, Shepherd and others propose that baptism imputes the benefits of Christ’s righteousness to the person being baptised, and that a true believer can fall away from the faith.
FV teaching is still active today in certain churches. Dr R. Scott Clark, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, California, describes the movement as ‘a group of writers, some of whom are ministers in confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches’ who deny or question the ‘distinction between the church visible and church invisible and … [propose] that there is no distinction between those who are in the covenant of grace externally and internally’ (The Confessional Presbyterian, Vol. 2, p.4, 2006).
FV fundamentally teaches three things: that men are saved by faith and works; that baptism confers salvation to the soul; and that a true believer may lose his salvation.
FV is about a supposedly Reformed view of covenant theology — hence the name ‘Federal’, meaning covenantal, and much of what it seeks to accomplish is a redrawing of the lines between Lutheran, Catholic and Reformed. But, in doing so, it makes a confusing doctrinal mess.
FV adherents suggest there are two kinds of election: an eternal, unconditional election, in which God decreed a particular number to be saved; and a conditional election, in which believers are saved on the condition of their obedience, not Christ’s, after coming to faith in Christ. FV maintains that through baptism someone is regenerated, and all who are baptised are in the covenant family of God.
While FV seems to espouse a high view of the church and cater to the covenant theology-loving hearts of Reformed believers, its ideas are neither found in Scripture nor in the Westminster Standards of Faith that FV writers claim to hold dear.
The Westminster divines clearly made the point that baptism does not save: ‘Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptised are undoubtedly regenerated’ (Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF), 28.5). Baptism is a sign and seal of our union with Christ, but not the actual agent of that union.
Furthermore, the Scriptures state that none of the elect can fall from grace, and denies they are saved by both faith and works. Paul says: ‘For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring, not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham’ (Romans 4:14-16); and ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9).
FV brings confusion into the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Peter Leithart wrongly maintains that ‘God’s judgment is never simply a declaration that changes one’s legal standing without changing one’s condition or situation’.
Steve Wilkins states, ‘The Bible teaches us that baptism unites us to Christ and his body by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). Baptism is an act of God (through his ministers) which signifies and seals our initiation into the triune communion … At baptism, we are clothed with Christ, united to him and to his church, which is his body’ (see PCA’s Report of ad interim study committee on Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theology).
FV writers also state that Christ’s active obedience is not transferred to his people and that imputation is ‘redundant’ because it is subsumed in ‘union with Christ’ (Ibid.). But this is directly opposed to the Westminster Standards:
‘Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God’ (WCF, 11.1).
One of the things that FV seek to remedy in their teaching is excessive introspection about assurance that can be common among believers. However, they only make assurance more difficult when, in effect, they teach that salvation is dependent on our covenant faithfulness rather than Christ’s obedience.
The PCA report (above) states the situation this way: ‘In the context of Romans 8, one FV advocate concludes that “clearly, Paul is not stating promises that are true only for some unknown group called the elect. Nor is he speaking only to a portion of the congregation whom he judges to be regenerate. Rather, he is applying these promises to all the members of the church who have been baptised and united to Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection’.
Behind this FV quote is their common assumption that, when the apostles addressed their readers as ‘elect’, they intended this to refer to all members present in the church. Yet this is not true. Romans 9 clearly concludes that there are those within the visible church who are not saved.
While FV proponents use baptism as an anchor for assurance, the Westminster Standards state it is the power of Christ that keeps believers united to himself. WCF, 17:1, states that those ‘whom God has 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, 3.6, also states these beautiful truths: ‘As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, 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.
How comforting this is! It would bring little comfort to believers if our salvation relied on our keeping of the covenant, when Christ did that for us, imputed it to us and, furthermore, keeps us united to himself.
FV is a very slippery slope which makes our union with Christ, justification and assurance all dependent on something that we do. We can indeed be thankful that God’s gospel is a gospel of grace in Jesus Christ, and not dependent on our works.
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA