by Brandon Robbins

“I am the vine; you are the branches.  Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.  If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers.” (John 15:5-6)

 

Federal Vision (Auburn Avenue Theology)1  is a movement within reformed circles that has caused some heated debate in presbyteries and general assemblies across America.  Federal Vision (From now on FV) is neither a denomination nor a group that hands out membership cards.  Guy Waters states that FV is not really a movement, but a “theological system.”2  I am calling it a movement, however, because of the diversity of thought within this group despite some common core commitments.  There is such confusion surrounding this issue that much of the debate is about how one side just does not understand the other.  My goal here is to bring clarity on the issues involved and provide a platform for further discussion.

FV is a movement with common concerns about the nature of the  church and sacraments.  Although a good bit of the debate and concern with this movement are in regards to the latter (the sacraments), I am not focusing on that issue here.  My main concern here is to define this movement and show how it is primarily a move toward an “objective” expression of the Christian faith.  I will provide my concerns over this “objective” shift and highlight areas in which I think it to be in error.

The questions that surround this movement are varied, but often charges are leveled against it like:  It is a return to Catholicism; it is a works based system of salvation; it teaches baptismal regeneration; it removes any assurance of salvation.  These criticisms often fail to really understand the main point of FV and I hope to clear up some of the misunderstanding.  Before I begin any kind of real criticism, though, I must state the areas in which I find myself in agreement with their teachings:

 

  1.  A commitment to covenantal theology (although not their covenantal theology).
  2.  The importance of community.
  3.  The view of children being in the covenant.3
  4.  The frustration over revivalist theology
  5.  The frustration with an individualistic view of faith over a corporate understanding.
  6.  The frustration with the low view of the sacraments in the church.
  7.  The frustration over the church giving supremacy to subjective experience over   the objective truth of the Word and Sacrament.
  8.  The supremacy of God’s Word over Confessions.
  9.  The supremacy of God’s Word over theological systems.
  10.  The commitment to be always reforming the church in accordance with God’s Word.

 

I have learned and continue to learn many things from those within this movement.  Yet, I still find a number of things disturbing.

 

What makes Federal Vision, Federal Vision?

What is it that makes FV a distinct movement?  The one point above all that makes FV what it is is its emphases on the objective nature of the covenant.  To most laymen the Christian faith is about a subjective change in an individual’s heart.  It is believed that to become a Christian you need to be “born again.”  This change often leads people to believe that God changes how he feels about them due to their subjective experience, which in turn leads Christians to look within the recesses of their own heart for confidence about their salvation.  What FV seeks to stress is that God’s covenantal promises, blessings, and curses never change; we just change in relationship to them.  This objectiveness finds it’s expression within FV in its understanding of the church.

The church in traditional reformed circles has been characterized by the terms “visible” and “invisible.”  The so-called “visible church” includes those who are openly and visibly a part of the church (i.e., the people you see on Sunday mornings in the church services including, for those in the Reformed camp, the children of believers).  Many who belong to the visible church are true believers, but some are not.  The “invisible church” is made up of all those whom God has and will call to himself throughout all of time; it is those who are truly members of God’s Kingdom whether they attend church services or not.  Guy Waters characterizes the distinction as: “The church as God sees it (invisible) and the church as man sees it (visible).”4

Douglas Wilson, an advocate of FV, claims that a better way to understand the church is under the terms “historical and eschatological.”5 Most of the remainder of this article will be about coming to grips with what Wilson and other FV writers mean by these terms and the applications that flow from them.

 

Federal Vision Illustrated

Steve Wilkins states that the basic commitment of FV is the belief that “to be in covenant is to be in real communion with God, attendant with real privileges and real blessings.  It is to be brought into the circle of eternal fellowship that has always existed between Father, Son, and Spirit.  It is to be made partaker of the divine nature.”6  Looking at a passage like John 15:5, Wilkins understands that the whole church (including what we call the visible church) experiences “true” and “real” blessings as a part of the vine.

As I have worked through the issues involved in FV, I think the best way to understand it is to keep in mind this “organic” picture of a tree or a vine.  A tree is a visible objective thing that can be talked about, touched and seen: I can water a tree, I can feed a tree, and if a branch produces no fruit I can prune it.  According to FV, the church is like an objective tree made up of the visible body of Christ all the members of which are in covenant with God.  Every branch, whether it will one day be cut off or not, receives spiritual blessings because it is apart of the same covenantal “tree.”  If a branch is objectively attached to the root of the tree, there seems no choice but to assume it receives the same nourishment as any other branches.7  Douglas Wilson, speaking on John 15:6, states: “The one cast out as a branch was a branch, and not some bit of tumbleweed caught in the branches.  So there is such a thing as genuine covenantal connection to Christ which is not salvific at the last day.”8   At this point we begin to see how Wilson’s theology of the historical and eschatological church play out.  The whole historical church is objectively connected to Christ and receives blessing because of the union, yet some of the historical church will be pruned away and not be part of the eschatological church.  These pruned away branches had a “real” connection to Christ, yet fell from that state of grace.  We will return to this later.  Before I move on I need to point out the connection and distinctions between FV and the New Perspective on Paul we covered in our last issue of the Areopagus Journal.

Federal Vision and The New Perspective on Paul

It is sometimes assumed that everyone within the FV movement also holds to the insights found in the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). 9  This is not necessarily the case, and many within FV are at odds with NPP at some points.  Some within FV do not hold to the main thesis of NPP—that 2nd Temple Judaism was not legalistic).  This does not mean that FV has no connection to NPP at a fundamental level, however.  The main areas in which we do find agreement between FV and NPP are:  the denial of the covenant of works in Adam, the denial of the notion of merit, and the consistency of a contingent covenantal structure between the old and new covenants.

I have dealt with these issues elsewhere,10 so I will not respond to them here.  Nevertheless, to illustrate how they play out in FV, let me turn back to my tree illustration: Christ is the root or the trunk of this objective organic covenantal tree.  Because he was faithful and we are a part of the tree, we receive or are seen as faithful.  It is not about merit in the traditional since; it is almost exclusively about union in the new life of Christ.  Christ did not earn points or fulfill a covenant of works on our behalf.  He simply remained faithful to his calling. Yet, to remain in the historical tree until it matures into the eschatological tree, we must remain true to our confession or be cut off from the tree.

 

A Response to the Federal Vision

Advocates of FV work out the historical/eschatological understanding of the church outlined above in several areas, I want to focus on three specific ones here.  These are: Justification, Regeneration, and Election.  In what follows I will explain the FV view on these matters and provide a response.

 

Justification

Those who hold to FV claim that justification has a dual aspect.  On the one hand, the community of God, the historical church, is declared righteous by God because of the finished work of Christ.  So, from the perspective of FV, there is a status of justification which is given to all those who are in the historical church.  This historical justification anticipates the justification that one receives at the last day.

Of course, not all in the historical church are part of the eschatological church.  And it is this point which causes such turmoil in reformed circles because it clearly implies that some who are justified historically will not be justified eschatologically.  Some, apparently, will loose their justification.   This might seem to imply that justification is conditional and thereby to some extent dependent on human works.  But, the FV denies this apparent implication.  Those who hold FV would state that they do not deny anything about the traditional view of justification by faith alone.  What FV does claim is that all of the “visible” church receives a corporate status of justification.  Some of those who sit next to you at church will leave the faith and lose that status of justified.  But, from God’s perspective, all those he predestines to eternal life will never lose their justification.  To clarify, according to FV, people can and do lose corporate/historical justification, but they can’t and don’t lose individual/eschatological justification.

In response, we must say that this is at least a bit confusing.  It raises the question of what is meant by the term “justification.”  Is that term being used in the same way in the phrases “historical justification” and “eschatological justification”?  Or are these two conceptually distinct types of justification?  The FV view is not always clear at this point.  If “justification” is being used univocally (referring in both cases to a declaration by God that a given person is

righteous in His eyes), then it would seem that all the FV is saying when it says that the elect cannot lose their (eschatological) justification is that God knows (and perhaps determines) who in the visible church will persevere to the end.  But this still seems to imply that justification is conditional on continued faithfulness.  The advocates of FV need to provide some clarity at this point.

Another question here is how this view of justification impacts individual assurance of salvation.  Those who are part of the historical church can fall away, be cut off, and lose their status as justified.  So how do you know that you will retain your historical justification and be declared just as apart of the eschatological church?  According to FV, one finds present assurance by looking to his confession (Rom. 10:9), his baptism and his participation in the Lord’s Table.  By staying true to your objective confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and looking to the covenantal markers (sacraments), you know you are within the justified people of God.  As Wilson states, “Objective assurance is found in real faith responding to an objective gospel.  Objective assurance is never found through trying to peer into the secret counsels of God, or into the murky recesses of one’s own heart.  The gospel is preached, the water was applied, the Table is now set.  Do you believe?”11  The covenantal tree is declared just because of the work of Christ.  If you remain a part of this tree, you are declared just.

But, only those who are never pruned will be declared just on the last day.  So, how do you know if you will remain faithful?  How do you know if your historical justification will lead to eschatological justification?  Richard Lusk, who wants to affirm the concept of “real apostasy,”12 would have you believe that current historical justification is no guarantee of final justification.  Real apostasy is a driving concept within the FV system.  So how do I really know I will remain faithful and retain a status of righteousness before God?  Paul in the 8th chapter of Romans tells me that I have been set free from condemnation (justified) by my union with Christ.  How do I know I am in union with Christ? Romans 8:15-16 “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”  I guess there might be something to peering into the recess of one’s own heart after all.  For it is there we find the objective testimony of the Spirit of God, who alone gives us a true sense of our standing before God.

 

Regeneration

John 3:3 tells us:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  What does the “new birth” mean under FV?  Remembering that there is some diversity within FV circles, there are a few fundamental points on this issue I want to address.  Regeneration according to FV is a spiritual blessing that is received by all who are part of the covenant.  James Jordan states: “My position: everyone who is baptized has been given the same thing.  No one has been given a permanently changed ‘regenerated heart.’”13 True, others within FV speak of qualitative differences between those who are in the historical church and those who God has predestine to eternal life, but this only creates other problems for the position.14 The most important point to be made here, though, is that there are no biblical grounds to view regeneration in an objective sense.

What happens in the new birth?  Passages like 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 tells us that the veil is removed and we are being transformed.  In other places Paul speaks of the Christian as being a new creation in which “all things are new” (2 Cor. 5:17).  Paul has great confidence that if God has begun a good work in someone, he will finish that work; he will bring it on to completion (Phil. 1:6)!  It seems to me that we are confronted in Scripture with two kinds of people.  One: those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.  Two: those who have had the scales removed.  We were all born dead in our sins unable to see the truth of the Gospel, but God being rich in mercy gives new hearts sinners to see and respond and live in fellowship with him.  Is this not the great difference between the old and the new covenant? (Jeremiah 31:31) Does not this new covenant provide greater security than the old because of what God does in the hearts of His people?

How does one become an un-new creation?  It seems that you have to downplay the subjective effects of the Spirit on all those within the historical church or come up with a two-level soteriology—one for those who will fall away and one grander for those who will not.  There seems to be no Scriptural support for either of these options.  On a practical level, most of us who have been in the church more than five minutes have seen and talked to people that do not seem to have spiritual eyes.  It seems evident that the traditional understanding of the visible/invisible church makes more biblical sense than the option FV has put forth.

 

Election

There were a few fireworks at the latest (2007) General Assembly of the PCA concerning the issues surrounding NPP and FV.   During the 2006 GA a study committee was formed to look at these issues and was asked to provide an evaluation. There are a number of complaints that those within the FV have about the report.  Most revolve around the accusation that the committee has a “narrow” view of certain reformed doctrines.  This means in part that the traditional view reflected in the Westminster Confession and the PCA report applies only to the eschatological church, not the historical church.  Once this distinction is made, there should be room, they think, for the FV’s broader perspective.

As an example, the complaint of equivocation was level against the report on the issue of election.  The FV speaks of election in two different senses and the PCA report is not clear in its criticism which “election” is being criticized.  FV advocates make a distinction between decretal election and historical election.  Under the term “decretal election,” FV affirms the election of individuals to eternal life (in full agreement with the Westminster Standards), but they also affirm a historical corporate election of the historical church.  The complaint is that the PCA committee fails to understand this distinction and confuses the issue.

How does corporate election relate to individual election?  This is the core of the issue between FV and traditional reformed theology of the Westminster Confession.  Rich Lusk, speaking about Ephesians 1, Acts 20:28-30, and Romans 8 and 11:17f., states, “Paul is treating the generally, or corporately, elect, as specially elect until and unless they prove otherwise.”15 That statement in and of itself is not a big problem, but the issues gets further mottled when we remember that FV believes that the corporate church receives “real” union with Christ in their historical election.  Lusk is going beyond pastoral optimism to affirm a spiritual reality in his view on election.  He promotes the view that election needs to be seen through the lens of the covenant.  Lusk believes that all individual election is worked out in the context of historical corporate election.16

It may be the case that as pastors and leaders we need to look out on the congregation and see believers in Christ, holy ones, saints.  Yet, we don’t go from there to presume that the Holy Spirit has indeed done something in everyone’s lives sitting before us.  What is given to these saints? Well Paul states, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” (Eph. 1:3).  Lusk and other promoters of FV view this passage as telling us that this applies to all covenant members in the church even to those who will fall away.  Some of the blessings given to the whole historic church according FV are: adoption, redemption, and forgiveness (cf. Eph. 1:4-10).  The basic claim of FV at this point is that all those within the historical elect church, whether they are part of the eschatological church or not, have the same fundamental experience. The best way I can explain FV’s view of election is to go back to my “covenantal tree” Illustration.  The objective tree is the corporately elect people of God.  This is what Wilson calls the historical Church.  Throughout the ages this tree will be pruned and branches will be broken off and others grafted in until the end of the age when we have the mature, eschatologically elect tree.  FV writers say that they agree with the Confession’s view of election, but they think that view is limited because they see the election of the historical church and the decreed election of the eschatological church as two different things.  But this distinction, again, has no basis in Scripture.  It is based, rather, on an unwarranted objectification of election.  This objectification stems from a wrong application of the shadowy forms found in the Mosaic administration into New Covenant church life.

 

Conclusion

Often those within FV try to state that they are consistent with traditional reformed thought, that they add to the tradition, but do not take away.  But what they “add” creates something totally different than traditional reformed thinking on the doctrine of the church and the doctrine of salvation and how they relate. This view of reformed doctrine is a totally different system.  It seems to me to be quite disingenuous to claim consistency with reformed confessions and at the same time create a new vision of the church.

I do think FV makes some good points that rightly challenge certain shortcomings in our current understanding of the church and the nature of salvation and the use of the sacraments.  For example, the call to look for assurance in the objective proclamation of Christ risen and baptism and the Table, and not just introspection, is a great point!  Yet,   introspection is a good thing too!  Jesus talked to the religious people of his day who were doing all the right things, yet their hearts were far from Him.  We need to ask those introspective questions.

And the shift to seeing the church as historical and eschatological rather than visible and invisible provides a system of thought that goes beyond Scripture.  I find it to be a helpful distinction to a point, but we cannot automatically move from optimism about the Spirit working in people to claim that the Spirit is working simply on the basis of church membership.  What we end up with in FV are two groups of people who receive true spiritual blessings from the Spirit.  One group remains true to their confession while the others do not.  As we look to the Scriptures and deal with those passages that speak to the whole church about the assurance of salvation and those passage that speak of apostasy, which view of the church rings true?  I am hard pressed to believe that FV’s systems or approach to this problem is the correct one.

 

Brandon Robbins is a staff apologist for the Apologetics Resource Center.  He is a student at Birmingham Theological Seminary.

This article was first published in the Areopagus Journal Vol. 7 No. 3, May-June 2007.

NOTES

1    Federal Vision started as a movement through a conference given at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian  Church.

2  Guy Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006),  299.

3 I realize, of course, that many readers of this journal are of a “baptistic” persuasion and will strongly reject this point. As a Presbyterian critiquing other Presbyterian s, though, it is important that I state my agreement with them on this point.

4 Guy Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology, 122.

5 Douglas Wilson, ” ‘Reformed’ is not enough: Recovering the objectivity of the Covenant” (Moscow: Canon Press, 2002), 74.

6 Steve Wilkins, “Introduction” in The Federal Vision, ed . Steve Wilkins (Monroe: Athanasius Press, 2004), 11.

7 This is the point in which you find some diversity within FY. It is not always clear if there is a qualitative difference in the blessings of some.

8 Douglas Wilson, “Reformed” is not enough. Recovering the objectivity of the Covenant. P. 135

9 The New Perspective on Paul was covered in the March-April 2007 issue of Areopagus  Journal.

1 0 See Brandon Robbins, “Playing Checkers on a Chess Board: Understanding the Paradigm Shift of the New Perspective,” Areopagus Journal 7:2 (March­ April 2007): 20-26.

1 1   Douglas Wilson, “‘Reformed’ is not enough,193.

1 2  Rich Lusk, “New Life and Apostasy, in The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology, 271-290.

1 3 James Jordan , ” Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration,”

Occasional Paper No. 32 (Niceville :Biblical Horizons, 2003), 7

14  It seems to me that if you make any qualitative distinctions in the activ­ity of the Spirit on those in the “historic” church you are bringing in sub­jective experience. Therefore, a hard “objective” view of the covenant is no longer maintained.

15   Rich Lusk, “Covenant and Election FAQs”  Quoted in:  Guy waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology, 115.

16 Ibid.