By Joseph Minich
This essay attempts neither a defense nor a critique of the Federal Vision (FV). My exclusive aim is to ask this overlooked question - can we consider advocates of FV to be within the bounds of Reformation orthodoxy? Critics and defenders expend a great deal of energy engaging the question of whether or not proponents of an FV perspective are correct. While that is an important question, present circumstances demand a fresh examination of whether they are acceptable. Heated arguments, calls for church discipline or church splits, accusations of gospel denial, etc. are often carried out without sustained recognition that correctness and acceptability may be separate issues. For example, while many Reformed Christians consider postmillennial eschatology to be incorrect, few ultimately find it unacceptable or see it as a reason for church division. I realize that many consider the current topics to be over the "vitals of religion." Even granting the centrality of the issues raised by FV authors, this does not commit us to reject diverse formulations of doctrines when the substance of those doctrines is preserved. We may restate the question of acceptability as a question of whether the FV or NPP represents a "different formula/emphasis" or a strike at the substantive "vitals of religion."
I write this essay because I love the church of Christ, and after studying these issues, I believe that within it, brothers are being accused of a high offense - leading the sheep astray with a false gospel - without warrant. My plea is that we all try again to understand these men afresh. I do not fault anyone's motives in this matter. I laud most of them. We should and must be concerned about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Especially in this age, it is vital that we do not give in to the temptation of compromise and nullify the power of the gospel. But let us live the gospel in this controversy. If we err, let us err by putting as charitable a spin on any statement as the truth allows. This essay demonstrates that when we read FV theologians charitably, we find no cause to charge these brothers with heresy or with departing from the core of Reformed orthodoxy.
The references to personal correspondence in this paper do not demonstrate a relationship to the movement, but only reflect research aided greatly by e-mail. Though I make this clear to avoid suspicion, I would not be embarrassed to call these men my friends.
My central question demands that I mostly leave aside questions of propriety and personality. Both sides that have formed in various Reformed bodies over these questions have their handful of feisty churchmen. One clarification is needed, however, at the beginning. Opponents often argue that FV advocates use "confusing" language, are dangerously ambiguous when speaking, and use divisive language. Consider that most of the quotations we read from FV advocates come in the context of criticism. This is natural, but our impression of these gentlemen changes when we read their comments in their own contexts - as if we had never read the critics first. Often, the FV advocates speak to a sympathetic group where there are common assumptions about certain matters that outsiders do not share. If one takes statements from those contexts and puts them into another, such statements may easily seem problematic. Knowing the qualifications implicit in the original context is vital in understanding exactly how and why certain words are used in nontraditional ways.
Those who give attention primarily to critical responses often encounter "nasty quotes" from FV advocates, presented through the lens of traditional categories. Such presentations leave the impression that FV advocates have simply said, "Hey! We believe in baptismal regeneration and judgment by works!" In reality, FV statements are often more guarded than this, and usually immediately qualified, often by reference to traditional categories. For this reason, I will attempt to represent FV theology in its own context, defined in its own way.
In January of 2002, the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Monroe, Louisiana hosted a conference titled "The FV: An Examination of Reformed Covenantalism." The speakers at this conference (John Barach, Steve Schlissel, Steve Wilkins, and Douglas Wilson) highlighted the benefits of a covenantal perspective for issues such as the assurance of salvation and child training. Diagnosing a lack of these emphases in contemporary Reformed theology, the speakers presented their lectures as a healthy theological and pastoral corrective drawn from the wells of Reformed covenant theology.
The speakers received a shock when public accusations of heresy (explicit and implicit) were made against them only a few months later. That summer, the Counsel of Chalcedon, a publication of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States (RPCUS), published several articles questioning the orthodoxy of the soon-to-be dubbed "Monroe Four." Joseph Morecraft III was a chief critic. In addition, Andrew Webb (PCA), in a subsequent edition of the The Counsel, authored an article with the now infamous title "Foolish Galatianism." In June of 2002, the RPCUS issued a "call to repentance" to those involved with the Auburn Avenue conference. The session of Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church reports being "dismayed beyond words" by the charges. The Auburn Avenue pastor's conference would now become the Auburn Avenue controversy.
The controversy escalated chiefly through the Internet, where scores of articles, blog posts, and message boards facilitated attack or defense of the Monroe Four. Sides were drawn. The publication of a controversial book by Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace, did not help matters. Many critics sensed a vague connection between Rev. Shepherd (whose theology had been the subject of a dispute at Westminster Theological Seminary from 1975-82) and the Auburn Avenue pastors. To complicate matters, it was not long before this that the Anglican theologian N. T. Wright was being discovered more widely by those in the PCA. The publication of his What Saint Paul Really Said in the late 90's had opened the eyes of many evangelicals to something called the "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP) - a movement inherently interesting because of its relevance to the doctrine of justification. Though the NPP's increase in notoriety was a totally distinct phenomenon, an amalgamation of the NPP and FV blended in the minds of most pastors and laypeople. Writers blurred the distinction between NPP and FV. Even those who retained the distinction often claimed that the two movements fed parasitically on one another. The period 2002 through 2004 saw the publication of numerous criticisms by Michael Ericson, Matthew McMahon, Brian Schwertley, John Robbins, R. Scott Clark, Michael Horton, and many others. Many, such as Robbins and Schwertley, condemned this "new teaching" as heresy. Others, such as Horton, displayed more caution. The Auburn Avenue session itself published a position paper on the issue to alleviate concern. It did not have its intended effect.
Some attempts to seek mutual understanding took place. The 2003 Auburn Avenue pastor's conference hosted a series of interactions between proponents and critics of FV theology. While this bore some fruit, E. Calvin Beisner, an attendee at the conference, said, "my belief that much of the contention was over misunderstanding was confirmed. But at the same time I began hearing things which I could not dispense so easily. I began to wonder whether some of the accusations might have credibility." As a result, in August of 2003, Beisner invited a group of speakers on both sides of the controversy to a colloquium in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida for further interaction. Knox Theological Seminary published the colloquium papers in 2004 under the title The Auburn Avenue Theology. Tragically, the colloquium did not bring about unity - the sides became further polarized. One pastor subsequently said he feared the controversy to be beyond dialogue. Though sympathetic at first, Beisner concluded that the FV was a deviation from Reformation orthodoxy. The Internet battles grew larger than ever. Collisions between Michael Horton, Lusk, Andrew Webb, Mark Horne, etc. lit the virtual sky.
In 2004 and 2005, the church courts were hard at work and the controversy moved from the stage of theological conflict to that of judicial action. One denomination, the Reformed Church in the United States, officially anathematized the teachings of Norman Shepherd. In 2005, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) formed a committee to study all issues pertinent to the controversies and report its findings to the 2006 General Assembly. Frustrated with the OPC's slow reaction to the controversies (and other issues), several congregations and individuals left the denomination in 2004. Within the PCA, the Mississippi Valley Presbytery formed a study committee and published a forty-page document that has implicitly charged FV advocates, Norman Shepherd, and N.T. Wright with heresy. The Mississippi Valley Presbytery tried unsuccessfully at the PCA General Assembly in 2005 to have their document distributed to all PCA presbyteries. Without bias towards its content, the PCA rejected the overture because it did not want to implicitly endorse a document concerning matters upon which the larger denomination had not made a judgment. Since then, at least two other congregations within the PCA have adopted an officially critical stance towards the FV, while another presbytery plans to request that a denomination wide study committee be formed at the 2006 General Assembly. The Louisiana Presbytery, of which the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church is a part, publicly exonerated Steve Wilkins concerning suspicion of heresy. Many contributors to the Florida colloquium responded in protest. Since then, at least one other presbytery within the PCA has adopted a moderate position. Also worthy of note, the Central Carolina Presbytery asked the Standing Judicial Committee of the PCA to examine the legality of the Louisiana Presbytery's exoneration of Rev. Wilkins. Within the PCA, then, only denomination-wide action can possibly have any effect in this controversy. Either people from each side of the fence will have to dialogue further, learn to live with disagreement, or they will have to split. The likely formation of a study committee at the 2006 General Assembly will be the next step towards resolving what has become a tedious fight within Christ's church.
The FV is not a discrete doctrinal system, but rather an organic series of concerns or dispositions. Considerable diversity exists among those labeled as FV advocates. With those caveats, I structure this discussion using a four-fold scheme identifying what seems to be the chief areas of FV concern: the objectivity of God's covenant people, the effectiveness of God's sacraments, the unity of God's gracious covenant, and the Christ-centeredness of God's Gospel. I will present the most controversial statements made by FV advocates, some sense of their nuance, and a brief indication or their alleged Reformed precedent (or warrant).
Wilkins writes, "Covenant is a real relationship, consisting of real communion with the triune God through union with Christ. The covenant is not some thing that exists apart from Christ or in addition to him...rather, the covenant is union with Christ." 28] Alluding to the way the Apostle Paul addresses the weak Corinthian congregations, (sanctified in Christ, baptized in the name of Christ, brothers, etc) Wilkins continues, "He was not able to speak like this because he had some special insight into the secret decrees of God. He was speaking about what was true of these objectively by virtue of their union with Christ in covenant." In sum, "All in covenant are given all that is true of Christ." Thus, according to Wilkins and others, all covenant members are "saved" in some sense. They are Christians. John Barach factors in the doctrine of election, explaining, "God does not make His covenant exclusively with those who have been predestined to eternal salvation. Rather, he establishes His covenant with all who have been baptized, with professing believers and their children. The whole church, head for head, is in covenant with God." Modifying the way the doctrine of election is traditionally employed, Barach continues, "But what if we tell the church, ÔGod chose you and Jesus died for you' and then some of those people fall away and end up in Hell? Have we lied to them? No! We have spoken to them in a faithful and trustworthy manner in terms of their true covenantal relationship to God." In short, God "has decreed that some of those whom he has chosen to bring into a covenant relationship with him will enjoy that relationship only for a time. God brings those people into His covenant and unites them to Christ for a time...they really experience His love, but they do not respond with repentance and faith and love." Where does this emphasis lead? FV advocates view church membership/being-a-Christian as something tangible and objective. Those, like Israel, who are visibly in covenant with God, ought to be addressed as though they possessed all the blessings of salvation and union with Christ. Covenant is not a means to salvation; it is the very objective form that salvation takes.
Assurance of salvation (being-in-covenant), then, is not based on a subjective search for moral virtues that manifest a hidden regeneration. Rather, all members of the church can trust that, as Paul attributed the blessings of salvation to congregations in general, so we may consider ourselves forgiven, saved, elect, justified, etc. if we are visible members of the church of Christ. As a consequence, the apostate falls from true "blessing of the covenant, including the forgiveness of sins, adoption, possession of the kingdom, sanctification," etc. The FV argues that one may identify Christians as we would citizens of any other nation; membership is not akin to expressing agreement with an ideology. In an exclusively ideological group, apostasy becomes the acid test that reveals that one "didn't really" adhere, and thus was never really a member. Those who fall from the covenant, "in some sense...were really joined to the elect people, really sanctified by Christ's blood, and really recipients of new life given by the Holy Spirit." The phrase "objectivity of the covenant" captures this FV emphasis.
Likely, these statements raise our Reformed hackles. However, we must probe more deeply into the FV formulation of these matters. Douglas Wilson clarifies,
"Are we asserting no distinction' between the apostate and the faithful son in the decrees? Absolutely not. But we are saying that when it comes to the covenant, the man who stands and the man who falls are distinguished in the standing and falling."
"When a man falls away from the faith, there is clearly a sense in which he was never truly in the faith. But when a man falls away from the faith, in some sense he has to have been in the faith in order to fall away from it."
According to Wilson, the reprobate falls away "in one sense from what they never had in another sense." Thus, when FV advocates speak about covenantal salvation, they clearly make some qualification regarding the nature of that salvation. They do not speak of being a "Christian" in the same way we might speak of a "born- again Christian." Nor do they speak of possessing the benefits of union with Christ in the same way we might speak of "having a personal relationship with Christ." Indeed, they strictly maintain the necessity of faith for the enjoyment of these benefits. Says Wilkins, "The gospel is only saving to those who hold fast to the word. (1 Corinthians 15:1-2)'" From the perspective of the covenant, however, no one can say when/if a man has faith, is regenerated, or truly converted; and so these things cannot be the objective basis upon which we "define the Church or identify God's people." These twin truths enable pastors to assure tender souls of their salvation by speaking to them the way Paul speaks to New Testament churches. This does not mean that visible saints may live as they wish. While tender souls may be assured that they are "in" the covenant and possess salvation, presumptuous souls may not rest in that. Those who fail to live in faithfulness to Christ within the covenant are cut off as the branches in John 15 that bear no fruit. So, while Christians should not struggle with the question of whether they are in the covenant, Christ's people cannot remain assured if they do not seek to obey him. Anyone in covenant is "obligated to walk in faithfulness, loving the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. If he is unfaithful, he is called to repentance. If he refuses to repent, he is to be cut off from the body of Christ and delivered over to Satan." According to FV advocates, viewing salvation through the lens of the covenant helps us to locate the middle path between antinomianism and legalism.
Perhaps our Reformed hackles still are raised. Is this not a novel way of approaching the covenant? Is there some precedent for this formulation of an objective covenant? Calvin distinguished between two types of election with regard to the people of God - a "common" and a "special" type. This distinction enabled the Reformer to say of God's people, "it is not enough that God should choose any people for himself, except the people themselves persevere in the obedience of faith." Calvin may speak of apostates as "redeemed" in one place, and in another say "the reprobate are justly said to believe that God is merciful toward them." In this same place, Calvin speaks of the "temporary faith" of the reprobate. He also warns believers, "Holiness is not to be forsaken, for it is the bond of our union with God." The "keeping" of all the benefits of union with Christ depends (in some sense) upon the perseverance of the believer. Yet, like the FV theologians, Calvin makes the proper distinctions, saying that the elect alone have an "incorruptible seed" in their hearts, and that "strictly speaking," the forgiveness of sins is "sealed" in the elect alone. As for later Reformed generations, John Murray found the distinction between the "visible" and the "invisible" church problematic at best, arguing that scripture knew nothing of an "invisible" church. The way in which these men are able to speak of a possession of salvation in one sense and the lack of it in another (with respect to the reprobate) requires elucidation below.
The FV is not a denial of the Westminster doctrine of election. It affirms, rather, that scripture speaks of all members of the visible church as "elect" in some sense. It is not a denial of any distinction between believers and unbelievers within the church at any level. All the elect will persevere and all the reprobate will not; they are distinguished in eternity past, present, and future. Only with respect to the covenant, is their standing is the same. Two men might be worlds apart with respect to their personal relationships with Christ, or their destinies within the decrees of God; but visibly they are brothers. They are entitled to the same blessings, which include all the benefits of salvation. FV advocates often use the analogy of marriage. "Couple A" might have a great marriage while "Couple B" has a terrible marriage, but from the standpoint of the objective relationship of marriage itself, the parties involved are entitled to and in some sense possess the same blessings, even if "Couple B" does not enjoy them. These are crucial distinctions. And so, we may covenantally (confidently) speak to the people of God the way scripture does. Scripture both speaks of the saint's perseverance and yet warns them of apostasy (Even as Calvin does in his sermons on Ephesians 5). Scripture speaks of both special and general election. John Barach summarizes the theological posture of FV advocates - "even if we don't understand how all these things fit together, even if we don't all agree with each other about how these things fit together, let us agree on this - we must speak the language of Scripture to our people. We may not do otherwise."
If faith is invisible, yet God's people can and should be objectively identified, what is the ecclesiastical fingerprint? Steve Wilkins leaves no doubt, "The Bible teaches that baptism unites us to Christ and His body by the power of the Holy Spirit...Baptism is an act of God...which signifies and seals our initiation into the Triune communion." This requires elaboration. When FV advocates say that baptism "unites us to Christ" and makes us part of God's "covenant people," they do not mean that all who are baptized are inevitably saved. They do, however, mean to say that God "saves" all the baptized in a sense. In common Presbyterian terminology, infants are said to be "in the covenant community," existing in a - this is key - conditional relationship to God. God calls them by their baptism to faith and obedience towards Christ. FV advocates say more than this, but not much more. They are willing to (with qualification) call this conditional relationship "salvation." Salvation is relational, and to exist in a covenant relationship with God is to exist in a saving relationship. Even mature believers exist in this relationship. They stand in "conditional" relation to God through Christ. If they fall away in unbelief, (hypothetically) they will perish. Thus, salvation must not be reduced to "going to heaven when you die," but must incorporate notions of "inheritance." That is, all (non-apostates) who are baptized are on their "way" to heaven, and this "way" is a salvific relation to God in the way that a young son possesses an "inheritance" that he does not yet enjoy. In the same way that the son may forfeit his inheritance through unfaithfulness, so baptism gives one a "right" to such an inheritance, but baptism does not guarantee its own fulfillment.
And so, when doubting whether or not one is a Christian, one may simply look to his or her baptism. Douglas Wilson explains, "I cannot have faith in the contents of the secret decree because I cannot know it. My faith must be exercised in response to those ways in which the promises of God come to me in this world - primarily in Jesus, who meets me through Word and sacrament." Notice the particular emphasis here and in Wilkins statement above. Baptism is not a "work" performed, after which one can have full assurance. It is not another "instrument" of justification alongside faith. Rather, it is a visible act of God (especially apparent in the case of infants) that is to be seen as the locus of Christian certainty. It is the place where God promises to meet His own. To look to baptism for assurance is not to look for salvation in "water," but to cling to the place where God promises to meet His people and bless them. That, after all, is faith!
An objection arises - not all church members have faith. Were they really "saved" at baptism? Yes and no. On the one hand, we may say that (with respect to the covenant) both the elect and reprobate receive blessings from the font of baptism. But, as we have just distinguished between a relationship in which one has the "right" to a blessing, and a relationship in which one actually enjoys such a blessing, we can see that the effects of baptism differ with respect to various recipients. But that is just the key. It is in the recipients that the effects differ, not in the liturgical act itself. Another way of saying this is that baptism secures "conditional" salvation for all who receive it. All are offered redemption in baptism and given a visible place among the redeemed, but only some receive it inwardly.
Here, the work of Peter Leithart is particularly significant. Instead of trying to distinguish various senses in which one may be considered saved or not saved, Leithart brings up the more basic subject of how Western persons conceive of personal identity. In his own words, "It is not the case that I have an existence and an identity that can be distilled and isolated from my multiple relationships with my wife, my children, my students, my friends, my Presbytery, and so on. These relationships are not detachable pins stuck in the pincushion of the Ôreal me.' These relationships constitute the real me." In other words, to speak of who does and does not have the identity "Christian" (or any identity) is not about acid-testing an invisible esse. Rather, to be a part of any particular structure of people is to be one of those people. To identify one's self with Christ, whether elect or reprobate, in the initiatory sign of baptism, is to become a Christian. Put simply, "entry into the church is always a soteriological fact for the person who enters." Peter Leithart and Lusk have written extensively on this social understanding of the human person, as grounded in the Holy Trinity. They speak of human identity as a social narrative. One enjoys even Christianity within the "story" of one's life. Indeed, one might enjoy elect status, the forgiveness of sins, etc, and then lose them through apostasy. That is, one might exist in a relationship where these things are possessed conditionally, and yet forsake this relationship through unbelief. Now, obviously nothing changed in God's decrees. Rather, one interprets Christian experience as real, even if only enjoyed in a visible way. Lusk further suggests that a fresh evaluation of the incarnational language of scripture and the multifaceted way in which scripture speaks of God's relationship to time and space might aid us in wrapping our minds and hearts around these issues. Before we make charges against FV orthodoxy in this regard, we must understand that, without denying the old categories, they employ new ones that are not subject to the strictures of the old. It is, they suspect, simply Platonic philosophy that demands we speak of "Christian" and "saved person" to denote an inner reality that is undefined by social roles and identities. Rather, the "real" is just as much social as it is hidden.
This has particular significance for the way covenant children are viewed. Indeed, most of us would accept as "Christian" any adult receiving baptism. But do we call our children "Christians?" Are they simply brought "near the covenant," or are they actually placed in a covenant relationship with Jesus Christ and given a place at His table? Obviously, the benefits of the sacrament are not tied to the moment of administration, as the confession teaches. But, in a covenantal sense, do we automatically consider our children members of the people of God, and entitled to all His benefits? It is here that the FV claims faithfulness to the Reformed tradition. Calvin, for instance, is able to say in his 1538 Instruction for Children in Christian Doctrine, "Teacher: How do you come into the communion of the church? Child: Through baptism; Teacher: What is this baptism? Child: It is the washing of regeneration and cleansing from sin...Teacher: What fruit do you receive from this? Child: Very great fruit, because it is no small thing if I obtain remission of my sins." Further, says Calvin, "there is a two-fold grace in baptism, for therein both remission of sins and regeneration are offered to us. We teach that full remission is made, but that regeneration is only begun, and goes on making progress during the whole of life." And furthermore, "when we have baptism and the Lord's holy supper ministered incorruptly - we may say it is an election of God." Even further, says Calvin, "We are not disputing whether it is necessary to baptize infants, nor calling in question whether by Baptism they are engrafted into the body of Christ, nor whether it is to them a laver of regeneration, nor whether it seals the pardon of their sins." As for the issue of assurance, Calvin states, "as often as we fall away, we ought to recall the memory of our baptism and fortify our mind with it, that we may always be sure and confident of the forgiveness of sins." Calvin is not alone in the Reformation tradition. There were Luther and Bucer before him and Heidelberg Catechism authors Olevian and Ursinus after him. Ursinus was able to say, "Those are not to be excluded from baptism, to whom the benefit of the remission of sins, and of regeneration belongs. But this benefit belongs to the infants of the church for redemption from sin...is promised to them no less than to the adult." He was able to say further, "to be born in the church, is, to infants, the same thing as a profession of faith." Francis Turretin, as well, writes, "God does not trifle by instituting bare and empty signs; but as by the vocal word he really performs what he promises, so in the sacrament...he gives by the thing itself that which the signs represent." He further spoke of remission of sins being received "conditionally and sacramentally" in baptism, but "absolutely" only in those with internal belief. This is precisely the distinction that FV theologians attempt to make. These types of statements could be multiplied. E. Brooks Hollifield has demonstrated a tremendously high view of baptismal efficacy in early Puritanism as well. And this does not even touch upon the argument made, by historians such as David F. Wright - that some form of baptismal regeneration was taught by many delegates at the Westminster Assembly - and that their theology was influential in the drafting of the WCF chapter on baptism. The sacramental basis of assurance can also be argued as having been a concern to the Westminster divines. Even in a reformed scholar as recent as Herman Ridderbos, one finds statements such as "because baptism is incorporation into Christ, God's promises that are yes in Christ are likewise yes in baptism, God establishes us in Christ by baptism, and baptism, in that it makes us participate in the sealing with the Spirit, itself has sealing power." Now, of course, none of these gentlemen believes that baptism automatically saves anyone, or that the benefits of baptism can be enjoyed apart from faith. But all of them seem to be able to speak of baptism as effectively marking entrance into the people of God, and validly being seen as the place of redemption for the church.
The sacraments seem to be the "center point" out from which all of this controversy has radiated. Given the emphasis on the effectiveness of baptism that so obviously permeates the Reformed tradition, how do we reconcile our Westminster doctrines of election and perseverance? Calvin could clearly speak of the effectiveness of the sacraments, but agree with Augustine that "if you receive carnally, it does not cease to be spiritual, but it is not so for you." The difficultly of relating the effectiveness of baptism with the reality of apostasy has plagued the entire Reformed tradition. A number of attempts at harmonization proceed by distinguishing external and internal membership in the covenant. Presbyterian James Bannerman was able to make a distinction between the "right of property" and the "right of possession" with respect to covenant children. That is, while all children have a "right" to the blessings of the covenant, only the effectually called and elect among them actually choose to possess those blessings.
As FV advocates see it, the advantage of their formulations is that they can speak of baptismal standing in the church as salvation, conceive of human identity along narrative lines, and thus account for passages in the New Testament such as Matthew 18, the story of the unforgiving servant. In the story, we see what seems to be forgiveness of a legal debt from a king who is analogously the Father. In the parable, the King revokes the forgiveness given to the servant, and he reinstates his debt. Also accounting for passages which speak of the "irrevocability" of God's forgiveness and its eternality, FV advocates find distinctions such as "conditional" and "absolute," (Turretin) "top-down" and "bottom-up," (Serariah) "general election" and "special election," (Calvin) etc. helpful in resolving these biblical tensions. And once again, baptism in this view is seen as an act of God, not an act of the believer. As such (as in the Westminster Confession), none denies that God might save without the performance of baptism. The FV claim is that God has ordinarily bound himself to the sacraments, not that he himself is bound by them.
Historical theologians generally agree that Heinrich Bullinger was the first theologian to propose the covenant motif as an organizing principle for Christian theology, and that this theological development arose from a dispute concerning the sacraments. Bullinger's argument for the unity of God's covenant from Abraham to Christ enabled him to defend exegetically the Reformer's practice of infant baptism. Though covenant theology developed along several lines subsequent to Bullinger, FV theologians have a few particular emphases with respect to covenant unity.
First, God's covenant is personal, not just legal. It is filial, not just juridical. Drawing upon the personalism of Cornelius Van Til, Ralph Smith has argued that God's covenant is a reflection of his own inter- personal communion. That is, in line with Meredith Kline, we must not view God's covenant with humanity as an "additive" to an otherwise non-covenantal human situation; rather, covenant inheres in the created order, and the created order itself reflects God's own interpersonal relationship. Modifying a statement by Karl Rahner, the economic Trinity reveals the ontological Trinity. And if God deals with humanity in covenant, then covenant must reflect something located ontologically in the Godhead himself. But if the covenant is inherently Trinitarian, then it cannot ultimately be reduced to or even primarily explained by contractual or treaty metaphors. One does not imagine a "contract" between the persons of the Trinity, extending into the eternal past. One imagines a familial bond of unity and communion. Of course, some Reformed theologians have proposed a "covenant of redemption" between the members of the Trinity, but do not see it as inherent in the very life of the Trinity itself. FV advocates argue that a covenantal creation reveals an inherently and essentially covenantal God. In short, covenant relationship copies the Trinitarian relationship. This is not to say that the covenant has no legal aspects, but that the covenant cannot be exhausted with reference to legal or contractual metaphors. What this says further is that certain interpretations of the doctrine of "the covenant of works" are out of place in FV theology. As Lusk protests, if the covenant of works with Adam or Christ is regarded as an offer of eternal life based on obedience to contractual terms, "the Trinity is grafted on to the covenant as an afterthought."
Though the covenant has legal elements, the covenant is not meritorious. In Calvin's terminology, it is God's "binding" himself. And in the language of the Westminster standards, God's covenant with humanity is his gracious condescension to enter into union and communion with creatures made in his image. In the garden, God was not required to offer Adam life, or to give him commands. God could have demanded more or less of Adam. Furthermore, in strict justice, God would not have owed anything to Adam, because a creature can never have a claim on the Creator. Here Van Til's ghost is apparent. No matter what resources Adam used to obey God or receive eternal life, he received these resources only through God's unmerited favor, not because of anything in himself. The claim of Michael Horton and others that God's initial "blessing" of Adam in Gen. 1:28 was a result of Adam's being made inherently "good" just moves the issue one step back. Adam did not "attain" his inherent "goodness." God gave it freely to Adam via a voluntary and gracious condescension.
Since the covenant is a relational pact of union between creature and Creator, it cannot contain merit in any sense. And since the covenant of works and grace are not as dichotomized in this model, FV theologians suggest that all covenants in scripture operate according to a blessing/curse model. Adam would come under a curse for violating the covenant. Abraham's family would be "cut off" if he avoided circumcision. The nation of Israel would receive "curses" for lack of faithfulness to the law of God. And in the new covenant, those who are faithful to receive its sign (as in the old) but fall away in rampant disobedience come under the same curses. Faithfulness is as much a condition for eternal life in the new covenant as it was in the old, and faith was as much a condition for eternal life before the fall as it was after.
Once again, our Reformed ears might be twitching, but do not the statements of our forefathers provoke the same discomfort? According to ecumenical historian Anthony Lane, Calvin never joined Trent in speaking of the "meritorious cause" of our salvation. This does not mean he altogether avoided the term merit, but it does mean that his commitment to it was "tenuous at best." He openly complains about the word, "I wish that Christian writers had always exercised such restraint as not to take it into their heads needlessly to use such terms foreign to Scripture that would produce great offense and very little fruit." Regarding Christ, he writes, "It is absurd to set Christ's merit against God's mercy...Apart from God's good pleasure Christ could not merit anything." And of Adam's position in the Garden of Eden, Turretin writes, "Adam...would not have merited life in strict justice, although (through a certain condescension) God promised him by a covenant life under the condition of perfect obedience." Anthony Burgess (A Westminster delegate) could say of the pre-fall situation, "though it were a Covenant of Works, it cannot be said to be a covenant of merit." One could adduce many other theologians who register these same reservations. It is significant that Rowland Ward, who has probably amassed a greater amount of resources than any other recent historian regarding the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works, argues that its administration was almost always seen as gracious, and its rewards as unmerited.
As for conditionality within the covenant of grace, the Reformed tradition is not silent. Michael Horton, in a recent essay, and in clear distinction from some Reformed theologians such as David Engelsma and John Robbins, speaks of the new covenant as a conditional covenant, yet somehow judges Lusk's formulations as tending towards error. Once again, Calvin is the clearest; "Although God will have us impute all the good which he does for us to his free mercy, yet he adds this condition: he will have us serve him." And again, "Those whom the Lord has destined by his mercy for the inheritance of eternal life he leads into possession of it...by means of good works." Illustrative of Turretin's view is this statement - "Rather the question concerns the necessity of means, of presence and of connection or order. Are they required as the means and way for possessing salvation? This we hold." It is significant that Turretin interprets Christ's commandment to the rich young ruler as an offer of the gospel, not just an administration of the law. Furthermore, Ursinus is able to write, "Good works are necessary to salvation...that without which no one can be saved is necessary to salvation...as a part of salvation, or as a certain antecedent necessary to salvation." Jonathan Edwards made similar statements - "Perseverance in faith is, in one sense, the condition of justification; that is, the promise of acceptance is made only to a persevering sort of faith; and the proper evidence of its being that sort is actual perseverance." Finally, concerning the last judgment, R.L. Dabney concludes, "This last declarative justification will be grounded on believers' works...and not on their faith, necessarily."
Contrary to the allegations of some critics, this point of view does not mean that FV theologians bring in works-righteousness through the back door of the covenant. Rather, it means that they extend traditional Reformed positions about the covenant of grace and the conditions within it into the covenant with Adam. By eliminating certain Covenant of Works formulations, the FV does not expand works; after all, it expands grace! Furthermore, the rejection of merit from their system means, at least in principle, that there is no "gaining favor" with respect to the conditions for salvation. Nor does it mean that conditions for salvation are conditions for justification! The FV theologians speak of salvation, in this context, in much broader terms. Lusk, for example, speaks of faith as the "mother condition" of the covenant. We will deal with objections arising from the distinction between the Adamic administration, Christ's righteousness, the believer's faithfulness, and the law/gospel below.
Finally, the personal element of the covenant motif in FV theology has Reformed precedent, but mostly in recent Dutch theologians since Kuyper. However, it is significant that many historians argue that early covenant theology conceived of the entirety of covenant history as gracious. At that stage of doctrinal development, theologians considered the covenant a post-fall arrangement of God that dealt strictly with redemption. Despite Lillback's recent attempt to argue for something similar to the "covenant of works" in Calvin's theology, Calvin avoids covenant terminology for this Adamic arrangement. As a relevant aside, the sonship, not employee, motif for covenant theology is a recent exploration in Reformed theology, and its implications have yet to be worked out fully. But it provides some boundaries and categories within which FV theologians might tie together the relational and legal elements of their approach to the creation covenant.
To speak of the gospel as "Christ-centered" seems rather trite. We all know that the gospel is Christ- centered. Or do we? Evangelicals commonly frame the gospel and the experience of the gospel in terms of events within the life of the believer. Justification, faith, sanctification, salvation, forgiveness, etc. are all things that happen to believers. To be sure, Christ is seen as necessary to these ends, but with respect to gospel experience, his work becomes but a precondition to events experienced by individuals in themselves. For FV theologians, however, the gospel has primarily to do with events in the life of Jesus Christ. As Steve Wilkins notes, "He was baptized and lived his life faithfully according to that baptism, keeping covenant as the second Adam, doing all that the first Adam failed to do...he is the justified One. At his resurrection he was vindicated by the Father, publicly declared to be the righteous one. We might say that by his resurrection he was the first One to be born again." Developing the Reformed notion that Adam was to receive eschatological life in the garden, FV theologians (along with many Reformed theologians) teach that Jesus' attainment of glory for us constitutes justification. Justification is not, then, a "declaration" abstracted from the very person of Christ. It is not so much the transfer of some pronouncement upon one of his virtues (his righteousness) that is subsequently inserted into a cosmic legal book with our name in it; rather, justification is the gift we receive by virtue of union with Christ. Lusk employs the analogy of a person with great wealth giving riches to a beggar. One might simply give a beggar wealth and make her rich. Or a rich person might marry a beggar and make her rich by virtue of the union in marriage.
Once again, Reformed theology contains enormous precedent for this point of view. Luther himself uses Lusk's marriage analogy in his Freedom of a Christian. (1520) Of course, marriage is legal, but it is also relational, and within it, we do not receive benefits extracted from persons. We receive benefits in the other person. As Calvin elaborates, "We do not...contemplate him (Christ) outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body...in short, because he deigns to make us one with him." Recent dissertations from Westminster Theological Seminary examine the importance of this doctrine for understanding how Herman Bavinck and Jonathan Edwards understood justification.
Following the work of Richard Gaffin, Anthony Hoekema, and John Murray, FV theologians speak dynamically of justification and sanctification. Though distinct concepts, definitional dependence exists between justification and sanctification; while Christian growth is never the grounds for justification, God's declaration that one is just - in union with Christ - can never leave the human person unaltered. This does not entail the claim that the ground of justification is in the alteration of the person, but it does mean that justification entails freedom from the mastery of sin in its very declaration and as a consequent effect of God's powerful word. The most important thing to realize here is that FV theologians unanimously consider faith as the sole instrument (on the human side) of union with Christ. While the works of faith are necessary in the way that "breath" is a concomitant necessity of lungs, even Norman Shepherd (an acknowledged influence upon the FV theologians) could elaborate, "if Paul says that the faith which avails for justification is faith working through love, does he mean that faith derives its power to justify from love so that it is after all love or works that justify and not faith? Not at all." He elsewhere approvingly quotes Calvin, "it (faith) does not take its power to justify from that working of love. Indeed, it justifies in no other way but in that it leads us into fellowship with the righteousness of Christ." This should protect FV theologians from the accusation that their view of salvation merely places Christians back into the position of pre-fallen Adam. Lusk writes, "faith and faith-wrought good works are necessary in every era...with the important caveat that faith alone is the instrument of justification for fallen sinners." He writes further, "Any and all covenant conditions must be understood within this wider framework of union with Christ, the One who has already kept the covenant in full on our behalf, and who shares that covenant keeping (as both status and life) with us. All covenant conditions are intrinsic to our union with Christ, not extrinsic (as though they had to be met from outside of union with Christ). The conditions are not... 'Do this and live.'" That last quote is particularly relevant. Our union with Christ has both an effect on our status and our life. God views us as legally righteous because Christ himself is righteous. And this union has an effect on our life, because Christ himself, as the apostle says, "lives in us." The righteousness by which we are legally righteous is alive - it breathes. And so we can see that while works are a "condition" for salvation in a larger covenantal framework, the ground of our acceptance with God ever is and remains, as Shepherd says, "in no sense to be found in themselves (sinners) or what they do, but is to be found wholly and exclusively in Jesus Christ and in his mediatorial accomplishment on their behalf."
The motif of union with Christ is important in several regards. First, it helps us steer between legalism and antinomianism. While the ground of our salvation remains always in the person of Christ, union with Christ cannot co-exist without its effects. Yet, both John 15 and Romans 11 indicate that one can be "cut off" in some sense from this union. This idea is particularly difficult for Reformed Christians in our day, but the distinctions employed above are valid here as well. We may say that Union with Christ exists visibly and covenantally for all the baptized, but the elect alone enjoy vital experiential union. John 15 and Romans 11 speak of union with the tree of God's people as having two levels. While FV advocates rightly argue, "union with the tree is union with the tree," it is nevertheless true that one union is characterized by "abiding" and "faith," and the other by "fruitlessness" and "unbelief." Clearly, only those who "abide" enjoy a complete union (some call it vital union) with the tree. From the perspective of the covenant, the distinction is entirely in the branches who do not abide and who do not believe. Once again, the marriage analogy helps. One might have covenantal union with a marriage partner, but this can only be enjoyed by the entrusting of one's self to a spouse. While the covenant enactment (marriage ceremony/baptism) assumes that such an entrusting is occurring, very often, it does not occur at the subjective level. True marital union might never be fully achieved, even though liturgically enacted. Some fail to find these necessary distinctions in the FV writings, but they are clearly present. As Lusk states, "perseverance is not...the caboose at the end of the salvation train...its presence or absence qualifies one's participation in the ordo salutis."
This question needs greater clarity. The question is not about the advantages of the FV. (That is reserved for the next section) This question concerns why FV advocates make the above claims even setting aside the systematic theological benefits. This is important, because many critics of the FV reduce it to a mere reaction to rampant individualism and subjectivism. That is, they do not allow that it might result from real exegesis and critical analysis.
In the words of Barach, "We are bound to what Scripture says about election, but we are also bound to the way Scripture speaks about election." And again, "We have no other choice but to let God teach us how to address His people, even if we don't have it all worked out in our minds." That is, we must submit our theological categories to the refinement of the biblical narrative. If Paul may speak to congregation after congregation with the word "elect," says the FV theologian, then so may we. Absent from scripture are the all- too-common qualifications, "if you really believe," "if you have really been regenerated." Rather, according to FV theologians, Paul always assumes the election and salvation of entire congregations, and simply encourages them not to fall away, instructing them how to live a life of faith. This concern - to defend the license of ministers to use scriptural language - is a major theological emphasis of the FV perspective.
This does not mean that FV theologians get rid of systematic theology. Wilson, for instance, says clearly that systematic theology is a great concern to FV advocates. The FV plea, however, is for pastors and theologians to recognize that the Scriptures do not always employ categories (such as election) in precisely the same way our systematics do. The problem here is that scriptural categories are far more expansive than culture-bound systematic categories that often arise in response to error. Further, systematic theologies reflect entire worldviews that are not easily transported back into scripture. Much of Western thought, for instance, focuses upon questions of "substance" and "definition" and "identity." We do theology with tools of geometry and the methods of a natural scientist. We create dictionaries of theological terms, so we can speak with increased clarity and precision. The Hebrew world, however, is less rigorously scientific and more artistic; it does not typically speak in the language of abstractions, but rather paints in the grammar of phenomenology. Much as we speak of the sun's "rising" from the perspective of our human perceptions and experience, so Scripture often speaks of things from the angle of the senses. Scripture teaches theology and ethics predominantly with stories and images, not treatises. This is not to condemn the Western model, nor to make a tight, fallacious, conceptual distinction between "Hebrew" and "Greek" thought, but merely to point out its limitations in interacting with a source written in a sometimes very dissimilar mode of discourse. From this perspective, it is not hard to see why Scripture might refer to a whole people group as "elect" or "Christians," because phenomenologically (by confession and baptism), they all are! The difference here is one of category, not necessarily substance. At the same time, the FV theologians do seem to emphasize the necessity for humility in attempting to map one world of thought onto the categories of another.
FV theologians do not see themselves as some "new thing" in the church of Christ. They present themselves as preservationists of certain elements in the Reformed tradition. As is obvious from the discussion thus far, many statements from our theological forefathers can be amassed in their support. This does not mean these views have been prevalent in Reformed theology, or that no innovation is going on. On the first point, it is clear that the FV view of sacramental efficacy has been a minority in the Reformed world in the last 150 years. Still, precedent exists in the writings of Philip Schaff and John Nevin, in the views of Dutch Reformed theologians, such as Klaas Schilder in the early twentieth century, and in the writings of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. On the other point, the innovation represented by the FV is a reflection of the innovation in all areas of modern theology. The "kingdom of God" motif, for instance, is almost entirely "new" as a controlling paradigm of the Biblical narrative. And it is widely recognized that John Murray's reworking of covenant theology was innovative. Indeed, even Meredith Kline's formulation of covenant theology (with whom many FV critics agree) is innovative (e.g., his view that covenant is not subsequent to creation, but inherent in it). FV theology represents both a return to the sources (ad fontes) and an impulse to go beyond them (semper reformanda). The tensions that it makes apparent are tensions that already exist in the history and soul of the Reformed tradition.
The FV impulse seems motivated by pastoral concerns. In distinction from the now-quiet Reconstructionist movement, for instance, the FV represents less of a "how to" program for anything, as it does a pastoral reflection on the Christian life. Faced with the problem of assurance of salvation in the Reformed tradition, and the corresponding antinomianism that plagues the modern church, FV theologians have been forced to reflect on the implications of applying God's word to God's people in certain traditionally Reformed ways. The embodied and organic theology of scripture does not sidetrack laypeople with questions such as "Is that really spoken to me?" - it descends in a living way into the trenches of human experience. This is not to allege that FV critics are lacking, pastorally. It is a question of whether or not they can employ the full gamut of Christian revelation (both systematic and biblical) in the war of their daily Christian life. Many FV critics, especially Michael Horton, regularly encourage Christians to believe the promises and speak of the foundation of assurance as objective. Indeed, Horton's statements about sacramental assurance are often undistinguishable from those of FV advocates. But since the promises offered in the sacraments must be believed, the question of assurance (for many) gets pushed back into an obsession over whether or not one believes. Reformed pens have lavished tons of ink on this pastoral issue. The particular "innovation" of the FV is its claim that this question does not apply to whether or not one "has" faith. If one is baptized, they claim, one is in. Assurance applies to continuing in the faith, and so the demands of the Christian life are ever present, and continually drive believers to the throne of grace in the time of need. In other words, rather than obsessing over whether or not God has granted one saving faith, the FV theologians urge that one must recognize God's objective promises in baptism (that is faith after all) and continue to cling to Christ alone for salvation and preservation. The obsession over whether or not one has faith seems almost parasitic on Reformed spirituality. As Douglas Wilson bluntly chides, "We cannot teach...to believe by teaching...to doubt."
Simply put, the FV claims to aid the people of God in attaining the "infallible assurance" spoken of in the Westminster Confession, and the "trembling" that the Confession claims co-exists with saving faith. If Paul can speak of all the baptized as "in," so can we. The issue that so many tender souls face in the Reformed community is whether or not they are "regenerate" or "really believe." FV pastors are saying, "If you are baptized, you don't need to keep asking that question." God has set a seal upon you, now believe His promises and walk in His ways! It other words, FV advocates attempt to get believers beyond the initial question of assurance. It is completely untrue, as many critics suggest, that FV advocates deny subjective grounds for assurance. They reject these tests as demonstrating whether or not one is in a covenantal relationship with God. They do not reject these tests when they concern whether or not one is claiming and enjoying the blessings of such a covenant. In other words, instead of saying to a practicing sinner in the church, "You aren't acting like you died with Christ, so you need to examine whether or not you really did," they are saying, "since you died with Christ, live like it!" Those who fail to live in faith are cut off from the tree of God's promises and salvation. (Romans 11) But the tender conscience should be able to cling to the promises of God offered in baptism, not questioning whether or not he is "elect" or "regenerate" or "deceiving himself" by misinterpreting the alleged evidences for the same.
On the other hand, those who are baptized and confess to follow Christ must live like it. One cannot claim to know Christ, and walk with the devil. (James 2) Paul constantly warns the churches that if they do not persevere, they will perish. (Rom. 8, Eph. 5) This does not mean that one must constantly worry, "Am I going to fall away? Am I going to fall away?" Rather, the warning passages are meant to drive the souls of God's people to Christ, so that their faith might be increased. As Lusk writes, "Full assurance does not make us immune to the warnings of Scripture. Assurance has a paradoxical quality: we can only be assured of our salvation against the backdrop of our possible damnation. It is the ever-present danger of apostasy that drives us to continually cling to Christ as the One in whom saving grace and full assurance are found." And of course, from the perspective of the decree, Christ's sheep hear His voice in the warnings, and follow him. (John 10) Assurance is not "security," but certitude of hope in Christ.
The FV imagines that God has always had a visibly identifiable people. Just as the children of Israelites in the Old Testament were Israel, so are children in the new covenant "Christians." But just as God required children in the old covenant to live in faith through trusting in His forgiveness and persevering in obedience to His commands (and such faithfulness could be accomplished according to Luke 1:6), so are New Testament children required to do the same.
The FV perspective makes two points here. First, in line with much modern ecclesiology, (and in distinction from the emphases of Theonomy) the church is the new polis of God, the city that will eschatologically compose God's new humanity. (Rev. 21-22) As such, she has the composition of a nation by covenant generation (a historically Reformed emphasis) and functions as a heavenly kingdom bound together by a heavenly constitution in the midst of the kingdoms of this world. Secondly, children hold a "place" in the covenant is no different than the place of professing Christian adults. We treat the children of Christians as Christians just as much as we treat professing Christians as Christians. While it is possible that children may fall away, it is just as possible that the adult Judases and Demases in our congregations may fall away. The response of faith always conditions our experience of the benefits of the covenant, whether infant or secret adult infidel. Believers of all ages need to remember the promises and cling to Christ every day, so that they might be found in him. (Phil. 3) And God promises to give help to those who ask. (Heb. 3, 12)
Lusk regards catholicity as (perhaps) the most overlooked issue in the FV controversy. The year after the two conferences on the FV, the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church hosted a conference on Reformed Catholicity, with such notables as John Frame and John Armstrong present. According to Lusk, those involved with the FV should be called a "loosely allied Reformed Catholic' group." What does this mean?
First, it means that theology must be done from several different perspectives. It means that Reformed theology is one tradition within the larger stream of the Christian tradition (albeit one with necessary and valuable emphases). It means that conversation with the larger Christian world must occur so that we may refine one another in pursuit of eschatological unity. As John Frame argues, denominations (by tearing apart the body of Christ) concentrate God's gifts and perspectives in separate boxes that disenable God's people from fuller, mutual edification. Of course, questions of Catholicity concern several FV critics such as Robert Godfrey. FV theologians argue, however, that gentlemen such as Godfrey hold to corresponding perspectives about how to do theology that wind up harming the cause of Catholicity. They suggest that a certain humility towards precise theological articulation holds the best promise for bringing together the diverse understandings that God has given his people so they may accomplish his goals in this world. Love must evidence itself in the church in such a way as to "bind all things together" in new creation (Col. 3). A lack of charity shown by God's own people hinders the God's cause in this world. Hence, the importance of Biblical theology to the FV.
Second, having a view for Christian unity gives FV advocates a fresh appreciation for the larger church of Christ in history. They borrow this emphasis in part from Hodge and Schaff. Reformed historians, who have a very hard time finding Luther's doctrine of justification before, well, Luther, often speak of the Roman church as part of the "visible church." They are forced to do so, since if the visible church is constituted by precise formulae regarding justification, then the church didn't exist truly before Luther. FV advocates, while not supporters of documents like ECT, fully sympathize with these historians. While they universally see the Roman Church to be wrong on key issues, they all recognize her as part of the visible church, and seek to learn from her, even while offering their own correctives. This does not mean they consider all in Rome "on the highway to heaven." As Wilson stated in a public debate with James White, apostasy from the gospel is severe to FV advocates because they view all Christians as bound by their baptism to understand and apply the gospel correctly. Heresy, in short, is spiritual "adultery." Yet by virtue of our common sacraments, we are liturgically part of the same body as Rome. But as our part in that body depends upon our faith, Protestants must cling to their understanding of the gospel, lest false teaching creep in and lead to heretical action and apostasy. Catholicity is not alone preserved as believers enshrine a perfectly articulated theology about Jesus, as important and essential as that is. This sacramental catholicity forces one to view the church as constituted by the continuing presence of Christ in spite of human sin.
Many objections have been anticipated and briefly dealt with above. Here I will quote from particular sources with particular objections, and attempt to show how FV advocates have or might respond to these arguments.
One problem with the FV is its "denial of the traditional doctrine of the visible and invisible church and... [its]...practical denial of the distinction between common and saving operations of the Spirit as distinguishing the sincere believer from the hypocrite."
Answer: If they did deny the doctrine of the visible and invisible church, they'd have the cheerful company of John Murray, but this objection is not quite accurate. Wilson states, "I agree completely that the grace experienced by the apostate and the persevering grace experienced by the elect differ, and that they differ in the hearts of those concerned." And while Wilson does not necessarily disagree with speaking about a visible and invisible dimension to the church, he is more comfortable to speak about a historical and eschatological church. This is because the New Testament church is one church. (Eph. 4) In her history, many will become a part of her that will later be broken off for unbelief. Perhaps a helpful way of expressing this point is that the "church" is not synonymous with the Reformed doctrine of unconditional election. The AAPC summary statement says that the difference between those who persevere and those who do not is not to be reduced to the time of their duration in the covenant. Indeed, employing this very point, it goes on to say, "God does work 'effectually' in those whom he has predestined to eternal life so that they do not fall away in unbelief. In this sense, we may say that there are things that are true of the 'elect' that are never true of the reprobate. But these distinctions...are impossible to recognize at the beginnings of one's Christian experience within the visible church." While the distinction is not as precise as the traditional one, it would be incorrect to say that there is no distinction. I might further remind the reader of the distinction between "salvation" as a conditional relationship and "salvation" as an enjoyed benefit (only for the elect), as discussed above.
"For assurance, the believer is directed away from discerning the inward and spiritual graces unique to the regenerate person, and is directed towards his water baptism...FV proponents understand the doctrine of the sacramental union to mean that the sign and the thing signified invariably accompany one another."
Answer: The AAPC answer to this charge is simply a categorical denial. As argued above, subjective grounds for assurance have always been maintained by FV advocates, but not as a matter of determining whether or not one is "really" in covenant with the Lord. As to the direction towards "water baptism," this can be misleading. No one in the FV discussion argues that water baptism saves in itself. Indeed, as Herman Ridderbos emphasizes, baptism is always spoken of in the "passive" in scripture. People don't perform baptism; they "get baptized." The scriptures never speak of baptism as our work, but God's. Baptismal assurance, as taught by John Calvin and Michael Horton, simply means that one claims the promises that God has objectified and conferred in the sacrament. If we may afford Horton the benefit of the doubt as to the acceptability of his formulations, why not FV advocates? Such inequity gives these debates a suspiciously political flavor. With respect to the charge that FV advocates maintain no adequate distinction between the sign and the thing signified in the sacrament, the AAPC session replies, "Just because the thing signified is offered in the sign does not necessarily mean it is received. We have repeatedly and in various ways stressed that faith is absolutely necessary if the sacraments are to be effectual to eternal salvation, and frankly, are at a loss as to why this is not noted."
As an aside, we might also answer this question from the incarnational aspect of biblical theology mentioned above. This is in line with Leithart's discussion of personhood and "role." What really happens to a person defines who that person is in history. From this angle, to be baptized is to "become a Christian," to become an objective part of the redeemed community's story in time.
"Justification is defined in terms of a process not a definite act, and good works are said to be necessary to justification, particularly the believer's final justification at the Day of Judgment."
Answer: The evidence for this claim is sparse indeed, and has been responded to by Peter Leithart, as critics presented his remarks as chief evidence on this point. The critic backed up this claim by an appeal to Leithart's discussion of justification as liberation from sin's mastery. But as he responds, "My statement about the interchangeability of justification and definitive sanctification does not say that justification is a process, nor that good works are necessary to justification...(but)...a judgment in our favor is inherently transformational." Leithart's makes a relatively complex argument, but he basically argues that God's declaration of justification takes the form not of some cosmic speech, but of liberation from the mastery of sin. This does not mean that God looks upon us as just because we are liberated from sin. Rather, we are liberated from sin by the declaration of justification, which has both legal and transformational dimensions. He is here following upon the scholarship of Richard Gaffin, who argues that the vindication of Christ takes the form of His resurrection. In the same way, Christians are justified by Christ's resurrection, inasmuch as they are "raised with him." (Romans 6) But Leithart maintains clearly that "justification...has to do with God's counting someone as a covenant-keeper, not with the justified person's own covenant-keeping...Sinners...are counted as covenant-keepers because we are in the covenant-keeper Jesus, and His covenant-keeping is regarded as, and is, ours through faith."
This objection also shows concern about FV formulations that speak of justification at the last day. But this is simply historic Reformed doctrine. The Westminster Confession speaks of the last judgment as requiring us to give an account for all things we have done in the body. Robert Dabney, as quoted above, spoke of the last judgment as based upon more than faith alone. Indeed, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has recently added Romans 2:13 as a proof-text for the open acquittal of all believers at the last day in its denominational edition of the Westminster Larger Catechism (90). In Lusk's allegedly problematic statements, he affirms that initial justification is by faith alone. Most FV theologians view the last judgment as a demonstration of the faith of God's children, and the verdict of final justification is simply a pronouncement that those who revealed themselves to be in Christ are part of His people. In other words, it distinguishes the sheep from the goats (Mat. 25). All are clear that "the final justification is not a change in status...We are already acquitted and righteous; but these facts are openly acknowledged and consummated before the whole world." Lusk emphasizes this point again - "these works are not the ground of our justification or glorification." That is, resurrection publicly declares our justification; as Augustine says, God crowns His own gifts in the faithful. Even Calvin spoke this way, "because he examines our works according to his tenderness...he therefore accepts them as if they were perfectly pure; and for this reason, although unmerited, they are rewarded with infinite benefits, both of the present life and also of the life to come." Similar statements could be adduced from Turretin, Westminster delegate John Ball, and Jonathan Edwards. If these statements cannot be judged wanting, then how can those of FV advocates?
As for the allegation that FV positions describe justification as a "process," all FV advocates clearly hold that there is only one justification, even though it is manifested in three moments. Ultimately, the death and resurrection of Christ is the "moment" of justification (1 Tim. 3:16). By participation in these benefits, we receive the judgment of the last day now according to faith. Douglas Moo's widely regarded commentary on Romans clearly teaches this "eschatological" aspect of our righteous status. The final judgment is the vindication and revelation of a judgment already made concerning God's people who are in Christ through faith. It is not a process, but a single event made evident in three stages. Luther himself spoke this way. While Richard Phillips may call anything with a beginning and end (in time) a "process," this does not recognize that the language of "process" in theology has to do with a Tridentine concept of something that has an initial conception and then organically grows and "increases." No FV advocate promotes this sort of concept regarding justification. As the AAPC statement says, "We do not consider justification as a process, but as an act of God."
A critic of Norman Shepherd writes, "NS argues that justification contemplates faith not simply in its receptive capacity but also in its obedient capacity. In this sense he argues that the act of justification contemplates the believer's grace-wrought fruit of faith."
Answer: Though directing this objection specifically at Shepherd, the critic provides a useful argument to address, because it is often claimed of many FV advocates. Though E. Calvin Beisner, David VanDrunen, and R. Scott Clark bring similar criticisms, Shepherd has been quoted above as affirming the exact opposite of what these objections attribute to him. His specific formulations concerning justification have been the subject of extensive treatment by Horne. As for FV advocates, they are unanimous that faith does not justify because of its "contemplated" good works - "It should not be seen as a faith that has to perform a requisite number of good deeds so that it can earn its way into heaven. Rather, obedient faith is the only kind of saving faith that God gives. It is obedient because it is breathing." Wilson says elsewhere, "The only hand which a man may extend to receive the gift of justification is faith... [and]...Faith is the only instrument that occupies this place. We cannot intrude works...here. But there are multitudes of other instruments, used by God, that occupy other places in the process of salvation." We could adduce similar qualifications from the writings of Lusk, Horne, and others. Faith alone unites the believer to Christ, but in a larger sense, good works are a consequent necessity to salvation. This is simply historic Reformed doctrine. Interestingly, John Gerstner was able to speak the "problematic" language of FV theologians without much objection from the Reformed world. Consider his statement, "When we acknowledge Christ by faith, we must also acknowledge that, to be a living faith, it must have in it the full purpose of obedience...Faith which comes to Christ for forgiveness and does not come, at the same time, with the sincere purpose of wanting to be obedient...is not the faith which obtains justification. Faith - a living, dynamic faith - is the only faith by which we are justified." Of course, Dr. Gerstner qualified this statement in many ways, but so do FV theologians and Norman Shepherd.
"FV proponents deny the imputation of Christ's active (and perhaps passive) obedience to the believer for justification."
Answer: This allegation is patently false. As the AAPC statement says, "Men do vary on how they formulate imputation, but no one denies it altogether. At most imputation is seen by some as coming in conjunction with union with Christ. Some...have stressed the role of Christ's resurrection in our justification...but even then, place is given to Christ's active obedience and imputed righteousness." James Jordan, Horne, Lusk, Douglas Wilson, Steve Wilkins, and many more explicitly affirm the imputation of Christ's active and passive obedience. The debate has never been whether or not believers stand before God in the righteousness of Christ - the debate concerns the model we use to communicate this truth. As the analogy from Lusk (quoted above) shows, FV theologians speak more about marital union with Christ than they do about imputation, but this is not because they reject the theology behind imputation. It is because they think that union with Christ is an optimal, scriptural way to speak about it. Recent theologians, such as Don Garlington, Mark Seifrid, and Robert Jenson, have made similar points. The issue of the resurrection is important to keep in mind. It is specifically here that FV writers are simply on board with modern biblical scholarship, in the train of Richard Gaffin, Peter Stuhlmacher, and others. The above-quoted report grounds its claim by appeals to statements from Ralph Smith and Horne that speak of justification as the reception of a "status" rather than an imputation of merit. Merit will be discussed below, but it is odd to pit the reception of a "status" over against imputation. The point of factoring in the resurrection is to see that the status of believers is the very status of Christ. Lusk makes this point stridently in his replies to critics. And Christ received this resurrection status by his active obedience to the Father. His resurrection is the public vindication that he has been perfectly righteous. To be married to Christ in his resurrection life is to receive all that God crowned him with in his resurrection, on the grounds of his perfect obedience. The difference in the FV approach to imputation is merely the reorganization of categories, not substantive denial.
Now, Norman Shepherd does deny the imputation of active obedience, but he does not replace it with some infusionist theory of righteousness. He is clear, "The Roman Catholic doctrine that justification is a process in which the unjust man is transformed into a just man by the infusion of sacramental grace confuses justification with sanctification, and contradicts the teaching of Scripture that justification is a forensic verdict of God by which the ungodly are received and accepted as righteous on the ground of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. The Roman doctrine that faith merits...the infusion of justifying grace, and that faith formed by love performing good works merits...eternal life contradicts the teaching of Scripture that justification is by faith apart from the works of the law." While Shepherd does affirm the imputation of passive obedience only, he has well argued Reformed precedent for this, and nowhere denies the necessity of Christ's perfect obedience. Furthermore, it is a matter of the historical record (as admitted by R. Scott Clark and Bryan Chapell) that several Westminster delegates (including the rector of the Westminster Assembly) rejected the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, and that this diversity of opinion was reflected in the inclusive wording of the confession itself.
According to Richard Phillips, FV advocates reject "the classic Reformed understanding of God's dealings with Adam as the covenant of works...There is absolutely no room in their mono-covenantal scheme in which the law and gospel, along with faith and works, are no longer held in contrast...They posit a monolithic covenant by the keeping of which God's people may be saved. According to this view, we may only be justified in the same manner offered to our first parent Adam before sin entered into the works, and in the same manner by which Jesus himself was acclaimed righteous before God. Under this scheme, our righteousness comes not by receiving Christ's righteousness but by following his example as empowered by grace."
Answer: Even if the accusation that FV advocates deny the covenant of works were true, this would not in itself be an issue, nor would it lead to what Phillips says it does. Tim Gallant (a friend of the FV) argues that the infinite and representative value of Christ's obedience is valid not in contrast to the possible (but failed) merit of Adam, but in light of Adam's demerit. Furthermore, it has already been shown that tremendous Reformed precedent exists for saying that Adam would not have merited anything in the creation covenant from God. The FV does not result in bringing the requirements of Adam into the gospel, but rather, bringing the sovereign grace of the gospel into the life of Adam. He was not supposed to merit anything. Still, it is universally acknowledged that one infraction on his part would cause his falling away from the blessing of the Lord. And it is always recognized that his works had a unique instrumentality in receiving justification that ours do not, since Christ has entered eschatological life for us. Again, we should note that Lusk says that the grace Christ received is different from our own. I may quote him again saying "faith and faith-wrought good works are necessary in every era...with the important caveat that faith alone is the instrument of justification for fallen sinners." Norman Shepherd, in personal correspondence, conceded to me that in Christ, we are not merely in the same place as Adam, but have received an eschatological position. Furthermore, Paul Owen, (a friend to the FV) addresses the question by saying that, after the fall, obedience is not necessary as an instrument to receive justification, but only as a consequent necessity, though the situation is different before the fall. The denial of the covenant of works is not a leveling of all eras of redemptive history, but a denial that humans merit anything from God in any era. This is perfectly consistent with historic Reformed doctrine.
As has been hinted, it is not even quite right to say that FV theologians reject the covenant of works. James Jordan, who has probably written the largest article on the subject among FV advocates, is not totally against the concept. Indeed, in an interaction with Reformed Seminary's J. Fesko, Jordan said that he could live with the confession's version of the doctrine. FV theologians have not totally rejected the covenant of works, but only reshaped how it is understood. They have argued passionately that it is not a legal contract in which humanity receives wages for a job well done. Rather, Adam was God's son and was required to live in perfect faith and obedience to inherit the blessing eschatological and promised life. But, the issue here is not whether or not the human race stands or falls by the perfect obedience of Adam or Jesus, but whether or not such justification could be said to have been merited. Still, Meredith Kline has famously stated that "merit" is defined by the covenant, rather than some abstract notion of justice, and so to keep the terms of God's "covenant" is to merit blessing. But, according to Ralph Smith, Kline just redefines "merit" altogether. It is better to speak of the necessity of Adam's perfect covenant obedience than of his merit.
Beyond these particular discussions, there is the issue of whether or not the "covenant of works" is even essential to Reformed theology at all. It is no mystery that the Westminster Standards are the first Reformed confessional documents that mention a covenant of works (and that without merit). While it is assumed by many to be the foundation of the Reformed doctrine of justification, this argument is historically tenuous at best. Many overlook that there is a significant debate among historians right now as to the origin and precise function of federal theology (covenant of works in contrast to covenant of grace) in the early Reformed centuries. David Weir argues that federal theology arose in the German Palatinate out of debates concerning the origin of sin in the 1590's. Stephen Strehle argues that the entire federal tradition arose out of Medieval dichotomies regarding the will and personhood of God. Others highlight the particular contribution of Ramist thought in the rise of bi-covenantal Reformed theology. Still others do not recognize a mature federal theology before English Puritanism. Criticizing these theories, historical theologians Mark Karlberg, Richard Muller, and Michael Horton argue that the reformed doctrine of the covenant of works is an outgrowth of the historic distinction in Reformed theology between the law and the gospel. In my judgment, there is truth in each of these claims, but historical scholarship still waits for a definitive monograph on the history of federal theology, and especially in its relationship to the law and gospel.
Arguing that the distinction between the "law and gospel" is the centerpiece of Reformed orthodoxy only moves the historical and theological problem back one step. This particular issue is the crux of the matter for many Reformed Christians, particularly the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary in California. It is really undisputable that some distinction between the law and the gospel is part and parcel of the Reformed tradition. But there are at least two factors that need to be considered when one uses the distinction to question the orthodoxy of FV theologians. First, the distinction between the law and the gospel is variously formulated in the Reformed tradition. While books and articles produce famous quotes from Ursinus, Luther, and Calvin, one needs also to consider statements like the following from Zwingli, "I call everything gospel which God reveals to men and demands from men. For whenever God reveals his will to men, those who love God rejoice; and thus it is for them a sure and good message; and for their sake I call it gospel." The fact that Turretin interprets Christ's command to the rich young ruler as a gospel offer is significant as well. Bill DeJong argues that Calvin's employment of the law/gospel theme was not the same as Luther's. For Luther, the law played principally a condemning role, while for Calvin, an accidental role. Speaking of the similarities between the law and the gospel, J. Wollebius states, "Both (law and gospel) urge obedience with promises and threats." Even the Westminster confession speaks of those who "obey the gospel," (33.2) and the Westminster Standards in general treat the Mosaic covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace. Given this, FV critics need to recognize that the law/gospel distinction can variously be formulated. And second, FV critics need to recognize that FV theologians speak of the unity of law and gospel from a biblical theological perspective. They do not use the categories as handed over from systematic theology. Lusk clarifies, "I certainly do see a distinction between indicatives and imperatives, and have emphasized it repeatedly in other writings and teaching. However, I do not think indicatives = gospel and imperatives = law." That is the issue. For FV advocates, the distinction between the law and the gospel is redemptive-historical, the moving of God's story from an era of immaturity to maturity, bondage to eschatological life. There are huge exegetical issues that need to be addressed here, and once again, this nuance regarding the law/gospel distinction is an almost irreversible trend in modern biblical scholarship.
Clearly, FV theologians affirm all that the bi-covenantal law/gospel Reformed tradition intends to protect. In both views, Adam and Christ stand as the representative head of the human race, and the entire history of humanity depends on their actions. And, of course, "only faith can unite us to Christ; works cannot do that, though of course, works will flow out of a faith that has laid hold of Christ." In my judgment, while there are some significant disagreements between the two camps, there is significant continuity. If FV critics recognize conditions in the new covenant, and the consequent condition of good works for salvation, there is actually significant agreement. The rest is a matter of definition and formulation.
"FV explanations of apostasy suggest that a believer may genuinely possess Christ's redemptive benefits and yet lose them." Characterizing the FV, Horton criticizes a category he summarizes, "We get in by grace, but stay in by obedience." He goes on, "The reformers challenged this entire paradigm by insisting that one not only gets in but stays in by grace alone."
Answer: The AAPC session protests, "This completely ignores all the nuances and qualifications we have sought to make in our teaching on apostasy. Whatever future apostates receive in the covenant is fully commensurate with their membership in the visible church...nothing more, nothing less." The session asserts divine monergism when it states, "God has not changed his decree regarding such people; (apostates) to the contrary, he carries out His sovereign purposes in and through their unbelief and rebellion. Those elect unto eternal salvation are always distinguished by their perseverance in faith and obedience by the grace of God." Furthermore, the AAPC clarifies that the benefits received from Christ differ in the elect and reprobate - "All whom God has ordained to eternal life will surely be saved. But there is another sense in which all those in the covenant are 'saved.'" This tension is apparent when they go on to say "Whatever the precise complexion and content of that union (with Christ) for those who do not persevere...if Jesus himself is salvation, must we not conclude that being cut off from him means being cut off from the source of salvation, and in that specific sense, from salvation itself?" One clearly detects that significant qualifications are being made here. Despite the impression given by the report, FV theologians do not speak of "salvation" in the same sense as many evangelicals. They do not speak of it as some metaphysical change in an individual, or even as a series of cosmic pronouncements that are irreversible, but as a point in the narrative of someone's life. That is, salvation, for FV advocates, is spoken of as both relational and objective. It is a relationship. Once again, Peter Leithart is so important here. The "isness" of a person is only defined in terms of their "isness" in objective relationship. Salvation is not exclusively some hidden quidity possessed by all those who secretly believe, but the relationship possessed by all who confess Christ. To be cut off from it is to be cut off from the source of salvation, Jesus Christ. This is not to be seen as God's changing His mind about whether or not His elect will be saved or not. Once again, the various relationships of conditionality elaborated above must be kept in mind. This is also the importance of the FV's emphasis on union with Christ. Christians possess salvation in union with Christ, not outside of him. To be "in Christ" is to receive justification and sanctification by virtue of that relationship, not as something occurring in one's self secretly. Most biblical scholarship on this point agrees; biblical justification is an eschatological event that has occurred in the death of Christ as an anticipation of God's verdict at the last day. To be in Christ is to possess that verdict. To fall from him is to be lost from the source of justification. And even here, since scripture does speak of individual justification (Romans 5:1), the conditional aspects of the relationship need to be preserved.
As for Horton's claim that the FV teaches salvation by grace, but judgment by works, one can object that he uses very similar language in his reply to Lusk. He states, "we have never said that there are no conditions in the covenant - or even in justification. Rather, we have argued that the conditions of salvation as a whole process are many...But we have emphasized that these conditions are fulfilled by the gifts that come to us through union with Christ." Where does Horton get the impression that FV advocates see the matter differently, or (in the language of the quote above) deny that "staying in" is by grace? Apparently the issue is that FV advocates think that apostasy is real, and if apostasy exists, then salvation by grace cannot. One can see these tensions played out in Horton's recent work on covenant theology, where he struggles to explain how conditionality can work in the context of a covenant without real apostasy. The Reformed tradition has struggled with this long and hard. Are those who fall away in the covenant or not? Are they not "really" in the covenant but only in the "covenant community?"
Horton's objection is understandable. Objecting to the AAPC summary statement, which says, "By baptism one is joined to Christ's body, united to him covenantally, and given all the blessings and benefits of His work;" the MVP Report objects that (since) "baptism...does not guarantee what is termed the gift of perseverance...perseverance and final salvation are not understood to be among all the blessings and benefits' of Christ's work.'" The AAPC session later amended this sentence to read "By baptism, one enters into covenantal union with Christ is offered all his benefits." Once again, we see proper distinctions. Notice also that the language of "covenantal union" implies that there are other dimensions to "union with Christ" (as to marital union) that might be distinguished. Furthermore, to speak of the reality of apostasy does not undermine the uniqueness of God's work in the elect (they are "effectually called" according to the AAPC document), or the uniqueness of their possession of redemptive benefits, even if this distinction is not always explained in scripture. As quoted above, the AAPC statement is clear that the distinction between the elect and reprobate with respect to grace is not merely its "duration." And as Lusk states further, "I fully affirm... (that)...only those actually predestined unto life are effectually called and the reprobate never truly' come to Christ. There are numerous passages that differentiate the grace of the elect and the reprobate within the covenant. But this differentiation between elect and reprobate covenant members only becomes evident over time. Insofar as history is real to us (And to God!), we must take undifferentiated covenant grace seriously." Not only is this helpful, it is actually quite sophisticated. Undifferentiated grace is covenantal in nature, and historically real. John Frame has recently made some similar distinctions in his widely acclaimed Doctrine of God. Notice again how important the elements of time and narrative are here. Within the context of God imminently incarnated into our story, apostasy is very real. But from the perspective of His secret work, only the elect possess the enjoyment of union with Christ.
Another corrective to the objection here about grace is to realize that what we are dealing with is the problem of sin in a specific manner. No one chastises R.C. Sproul or John Gerstner for thinking of the origin of sin as a mystery, but somehow FV advocates are chastised on an issue they directly compare to the mystery of the fall. This does not mean that God's election changes or that particular redemption is in threat. As John Murray taught, non-elect persons receive benefits from the cross, but only as much as the cross purchased for them. Nor, as stated above, does this threaten assurance of salvation. Assurance of salvation has never been found via access to eternal decrees, but only in their manifestation within history in the sacraments. As Calvin argues, "Christ is the mirror of your election." Calvin constantly used the doctrine of predestination as an assurance to the visible people of God. Finally, one must understand that the reason to make these distinctions is primarily exegetical. To FV theologians, Reformed theology needs categories that enable us to speak in the dynamic language of scripture. This does not overturn our systematic categories, but merely expands them. No one denies that all the eternally elect must be saved, or that the reprobate will never be. Something distinguishes elect and reprobate at the fount of baptism. That "something" will manifest itself ultimately in perseverance and apostasy respectively. Those who are ultimately saved have always been "saved" in this sense. As we can see, all of these emphases must be understood within the theological and philosophical categories in which they are communicated. When we read charitably, we still may find the need to take exception to some FV formulations, but not to question their essential orthodoxy.