With these points Synod struck at what is perhaps the fundamental error of the Federal Vision (FV), which the Nine Points has already addressed in principle in the preface. This is also perhaps the most difficult aspect of the FV theology to grasp. Essentially what the FV movement has done is to set up two parallel theologies, the historical (or “covenantal”) and the decretal. These two parallel theologies, like a drawing of two lines, eventually converge in perspective. They seem to begin as distinct lines but they end up becoming the same thing.
The FV argues that just as the Lord established a temporary covenant with national Israel, so too, the Lord establishes a temporary, historical, conditional covenant with Christians today that is inaugurated in baptism. Having been initiated into this conditional, historical covenant by grace it remains for the Christian to fulfill his part of the covenant by cooperating with grace. Those who cooperate sufficiently with grace are said to be decretally elect. To facilitate this understanding of “covenantal election,” i.e., a historic, conditional, temporary election, they teach that, in baptism, every baptized person is united to Christ such that he has all the benefits of salvation: election, union with Christ, justification, adoption, and sanctification. According to the FV, however, these baptismal benefits can be lost if the Christian does not cooperate with the grace given him.1
All this, they say, is the result of their biblical theology or their understanding of the history ofredemption. They say they just want to be faithful to the narrative of Scripture and they do not want dogmatic or systematic theology to flatten out the biblical story. Of course, this is exactly what the Socinians and the Remonstrants argued. Proponents ofthe FV say that they continue to affirm (most of) the traditional and confessional Reformed theology of election and union. There is, we are told, a “covenantal account” of Reformed theology and a systematic or confessional account ofReformed theology. Proponents ofthe FV also contend that they do not want to let the doctrine ofelection unduly color or ruin the story of covenant and redemption.
In parts two and three of this series I have already sketched some o fthe difficulties with this approach to doing Reformed theology. First of all, such an approach is not biblical. Scripture itself does not have two competing accounts of the faith that are in tension with each other. Scripture tells the story ofthe history of redemption and then draws theological conclusions from it. Imagine if the Apostle Paul followed the theological method of the FY. The book of Romans would look rather different. In fact, however, the Apostle Paul had no difficulty relating election and covenant. We can see how he does it in Romans 9. The beginning of the chapter starts with a truly historical problem: the fact of unbelieving Jews.
How should we think about the fact that, despite the covenant God made with national Israel, many Jews has rejected Christ as Messiah? Is it the case that either Jesus is not the Messiah or that, somehow, the covenant has failed? “No,” Paul says, “there is no fault with the covenant and there is no doubt that Jesus is the Messiah.” Rather he offers another solution, one that seems to have eluded the FV altogether: Election. God loved Jacob unconditionally from all eternity and he hated Esau from all eternity. There never was when Jacob was not unconditionally elect and there never was when Esau was not a reprobate.
The fact that the FV simply cannot say this is perhaps the most damning fact about their theology and biblical interpretation. They have set up a theological system that cannot be reconciled with Paul’s explicit teaching about the history of redemption and its relation to the divine decree. They have an alternate system that is neither Pauline nor confessionally Reformed.
The answer to the problem created by the FV theology is to make a distinction that they consistently deny, minimize, or ignore, viz., to distinguish between the two ways of being in the covenant of grace. The great Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Witsius spoke of a “double mode of communion” in the covenant of grace. This is exactly what Calvin taught both in his commentary on Romans 9, in his Institutes (3.21–24), and his sermons on election.2 Calvin insisted that all baptized Christians are in the covenant of grace and he said that to deny that external relation to the covenant is virtually blasphemous. It does not help the problem to do as some have done, i.e., to deny that unbelievers or reprobates have any relation to the covenant whatever. At the same time, it is equally harmful to refuse to distinguish between ways of being in the one covenant of grace. From Calvin to Witsius (and after) the Reformed sorted out this problem by saying that, though there is one covenant of grace, there are two ways of being in it. All baptized persons are in the covenant of grace outwardly or externally but they are not all in the covenant of grace inwardly or internally.
Jacob and Esau were both in the covenant of grace. Both had received the sign and seal of the covenant, but the sign and seal were, as it were, fruitful for Jacob but not for Esau because they were not combined with faith (Heb 4:2) and we know (from Romans 9) that Esau did not believe because he was not elect. Though Jacob and Esau were both in the covenant of grace, ultimately they did not have the same relation to it. They were both “in” the covenant of grace, but they were not both “of’ the covenant of grace.
With this understanding, we avoid another great FV error (one that takes them so close to Arminianism that the two positions are virtually indistinguishable) that teaches that there are those who are believers who nevertheless apostatize. Consider this statement:
…those who are incorporated into Christ by true faith, and have thereby become partakers of his life-giving Spirit, as a result have full power to strive against Satan, sin, the world, and their own flesh, and to win the victory; it being well understood that it is ever through the assisting grace of the Holy Spirit; and that Jesus Christ assists them through his Spirit in all temptations, extends to them his hand, and if only they are ready for the conflict, desire his help, and are not inactive, keeps them from falling, so that they, by no deceit or power of Satan, can be misled nor plucked out of Christ’s hands, according to the Word of Christ, John 10:28: “Neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginning of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of neglecting grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full confidence of our mind.
This statement has at least some the hallmarks of a FV statement. It contains some truth, some deliberate ambiguity about central issues of the Christian faith, and it contains serious errors. In fact it quite resembles the FV Statement released in July 2007.3 The statement says truly that believers are incorporated into Christ by “true faith.” It also says that the Spirit gives believers power to fight against sin, the flesh, and the devil and that God gives his people assisting grace in sanctification with which they must cooperate. It errs, however, when it makes our cooperation with grace or our covenantal faithfulness the condition of perseverance. It errs when it says that those who have “true faith” can fall away such that they do not simply lose the joy of their salvation or the sense of God’s presence, but that they actually return “to this present evil world….” Right down to the closing ambiguity and feigned expression of humility this brief statement has Federal Vision written all over it. Which leading Federal Visionist wrote it? Perhaps this a part of the recent FV statement that was lost on the cutting room floor?
Actually, this statement is none of these things. A group known then as the Remonstrants published it in 1610. You know them as the Arminians. In 1609, their leader, James Hermanzoon (Jacob Arminius), died. For almost twenty years he had denied that he was teaching the very things that the Remonstrants, his followers, published not long after his death as the Five Articles. It was to these five articles that the Synod of Dort replied.
You know, of course, that the Reformed churches replied to the Five Points of the Remonstrants in the Canons of Dort (1619). The Reformed churches of the Europe and Britain uniformly and utterly rejected the notion that there are regenerate, elect people who fall away from Christ. The Reformed know nothing about a Christians being historically, temporarily, conditionally elect (and united to Christ, etc). Canons of Dort (CD) 1.8 explicitly rejects the notion that there are “There are various decrees of election….”
There is a section after each head of doctrine in our Canons of Dort titled, “Rejection of Errors.” These rejections have not received as much attention as the positive teaching of the Synod, but we learn from them a great deal about the threat the Reformed faced from Arminianism (in roughly the same way we learn the threat Paul faced from the Judaizers by reading Galatians). In the Rejection ofErrors (RE) 1.2 specifically rejects the doctrine that there are “various kinds of election” and that any such thing as a “revocable, non-decisive, conditional” kind of election.
CD 5.4 requires that we distinguish between the objective truth (what God has said) and our subjective experience. It is true that sometimes the elect “are not always so influenced and moved by God that they cannot depart in some particular instances from the guidance of divine grace, and be seduced by the lusts of the flesh and obey them.” This does not mean, however, that the elect actually fall away, i.e., that they become reprobate. Because the elect belong to God and cannot fall away, believers are urged to “continually watch and pray, lest they should be led into temptation.” They must watch lest they “may not only be carried away by the flesh, the world, and Satan into great and heinous sins ….” If this occurs, however, as it did with King David, it is by “the righteous permission of God.” This is not the same thing as saying that one was elect (in any way) and then fell away.
That the Synod was describing the subjective condition of the believer is clear in CD 5.5 when we confess that by such sins they very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences, and sometimes for a while lose the sense of God’s favor, until, when they change their course by serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them.
As Ephesians 2:4, so in the Canons of Dort 5.6 there is a glorious, “But God…”
But God, who is rich in mercy, according to His unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His own people even in their grievous
falls; nor does He allow them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption and forfeit the state of justification, or to commit the sin unto death or against the Holy Spirit; nor does He permit them to be totally deserted and plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.
Notice how we-this is our confession-speak about election. When it comes to salvation, we only know about one kind of election: the eternal, unconditional kind. So we speak of God’s “unchangeable purpose of election.” God never withdraws his Spirit from those whom God has elected. The elect never lose God’s grace, their adoption, or justification.
In CD 5.7, we confess that God has placed, within his elect, an cooperation with grace or our “faithfulness,” but with God’s initiative and sovereign grace. The ground of our salvation and preservation lies in God’s immutability (unchangeability). Our God does not change and cannot be changed. His decree (counsel) cannot be changed. Neither can the “merit, intercession, and preservation of Christ be rendered ineffectual, nor the sealing of the Holy Spirit be frustrated or obliterated.”
For this reason, we can trust the promise of God (CD 5.9–10). If the FV has confused the administration of the covenant of grace with the decree, there are some in the contemporary Reformed world who have ignored the objective promises of God and have become overly subjective in their theology, piety, and practice. There are those who will not go to the Lord’s Supper unless and until they have the right sort of religious experience, a sort of second blessing or sealing of the Spirit. We confess, however, that we find assurance that we belong to Christ in the Gospel promises, without “any peculiar revelation contrary to or independent of the Word of God.” The source of our comfort, confidence, and assurance is “God’s promises, which He has most abundantly revealed in His Word for our comfort; from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit that we are children and heirs of God….” To require special revelation for assurance is to reintroduce the “doubts of the papist” into the Reformed churches (RE 5.5)
In this life we will doubt (CD 5.11) and we may not always have the “full measure of assurance” that we ought to have, but “God, who is the Father of all consolation, does not allow them to be tempted above that they are able, but will with the temptation make also the way of escape, that they may be able to endure it, and by the Holy Spirit again inspires them with the comfortable assurance of persevering” (see also 1 Cor 10:13).
Like the Remonstrants before them, the proponents of the FV worry that the Reformed approach to covenant, justification, and assurance will lead to immorality. This concern is unfounded. The mystery of sanctification is that it is not produced in the way we might expect (by demanding it through fear and law) but rather the Spirit sanctifies his people through the foolishness of gospel preaching (1 Cor 1:20–25; 2 [all]). Grace produces gratitude and sanctity; not all at once but gradually (CD 5.12–14). This is a very important point. Notice how the Reformed deal with sanctity. How do we “get there”? We get there via the promise and gospel of Christ. There is no shortcut to sanctity around the foolishness of the gospel. If preachers want their congregations to be sanctified, the secret is not to preach sanctity (at least not all the time). The secret is to preach Christ and his obedience for his people. The secret is to preach the unmerited, eternal favor of God toward his people. The secret—and it is no secret really, we have been doing it for centuries is to preach Christ’s faithfulness in the history of redemption and to preach God’s moral law for his people in the light of the gospel. The gospel is the power of sanctity and piety. The law is the structure of our holiness and worship, but it does not have the power to give what it demands.
According to CD 5.15, these things are alien to the “carnal mind.” Telling Christ’s people to “be pious,” however intuitive it might be, is not going to work, neither will it work to make our justification before God contingent upon our behavior. Even if it all depended on our cooperation with grace or faithfulness, i.e., upon our sanctity, that would not be enough incentive to overcome our sinfulness. Grace and gratitude is a more powerful, if less intuitive, motive for piety than fear of damnation.
In RE 5.1 we reject the error of saying that perseverance is not the fruit of election but rather that it is a condition of the new covenant, “which (as they declare) man before his decisive election and justification must fulfill through his free will.” Notice that the Remonstrants distinguished between a “conditional election” and a decisive election! Now, I am not saying that the FV are “Arminians,” but I am saying that they have been very foolish by wandering so near to the Remonstrant reservation. The FV makes a similar distinction, though theoretically different and practically ends up in a very similar place. This is remarkable for ministers who call themselves Reformed and who say that they subscribe the Canons of Dort. In RE 5.3 we reject the idea that “God does indeed provide the believer with sufficient powers to persevere, and is ever ready to preserve these in him if he will do his duty.” Again, Synod rejected the same sort of conditionality proposed by the FY. We believe in “conditions” in the covenant of grace, but not the sort that the Arminians attached, whereby salvation becomes merely possible for those who do their part. We also reject the sort of conditions attached to the covenant of grace proposed by the FV, whereby salvation becomes merely possible for those who do their part. The Synod of Dort called the idea that God preserves those who do their part “outspoken Pelagianism…” (RE 5.2).
Strictly speaking, the covenant of grace has no conditions. In its nature grace is unconditional. Many of our theologians have used the word “condition” broadly to say that faith is a condition of the covenant of grace. Herman Witsius reminded us, however, that it is better to speak of faith as the instrument of the covenant of grace rather than as the condition. Faith is not something that we must do; it is a gift of God created in us by the Spirit through the gospel.
We may, however, speak of conditions in the administration of the covenant of grace. Our children are members of the covenant of grace. We catechize them and pray for them and take them with us to the means of grace. If, however, they do not not make profession of faith in a timely manner, a consistory may judge that they have not fulfilled a condition in the administration of the covenant of grace. If a member of a congregation is impenitently sinning, he has violated a moral obligation or stipulation or condition of the administration of the covenant of grace and faces appropriate discipline. This has been standard Reformed theology since the sixteenth century.4
In CD 5.7 we reject a sentence of the Arminians that is perilously close to that of the FV: “That the faith of those who believe for a time does not differ from justifying and saving faith except only in duration.” Is not this exactly what the FV says about the common state of all the baptized? Is not this what they say about “baptismal union with Christ” and perseverance? I have been told by Federal Visionists more than once that the difference between Esau and Jacob is that the latter persevered and the former did not. Let us be perfectly clear about this. Any such teaching is flatly contrary to God’s Word and the Reformed Confessions. As RE 5.9 concludes, our Lord prayed that believers should continue in faith. The Arminians, and to the degree the FV agree in substance with them, ‘contradict Christ Himself, who says: “I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail’” (Luke 22:32).
The Reformed churches have always confessed that there is a decree and that it is administered in time, space, and history in the visible church. There are two great errors to avoid in this regard. The first error is that of the hyper-Calvinists who allow the decree to swallow up the administration of the covenant of grace and so reject the Reformed doctrine that it is by the free, well-meant, promiscuous offer of the gospel that God in his good pleasure brings his elect to faith (Heidelberg Catechism 65; CD 1.16; 2.5; 3/4.9,17; RE 2.6).5
The other great error (that of the FV) is to confuse the decree with its administration. By doing so they make the decree theoretical and become practical Arminians. The decree is one thing and the administration of the covenant of grace (preaching, sacraments, and discipline) is another. Not everyone who participates in the administration of the covenant of grace, is elect or saved, but ordinarily, no one is saved without participating in its administration in Christ’s church (Belgic Confession Art. 28).
Either perseverance is by grace alone, through faith alone, or it is not. Either our perseverance is by is preserving grace of the Spirit or it is not. Either the unconditional decree of election stands behind and makes our perseverance certain or it does not. Either our assurance is grounded in the promises ofGod or it does not exist. The Reformed churches do not have two systems of theology: a covenantal and a systematic. We have one faith that we express in two different ways. This is a basic difference between the orthodox and the FV and the fact that, after all the discussion and writing, they still do not understand this problem suggests that the movement is no mere experiment (as they have sometimes said). Their convictions concerning the covenant of grace and perseverance. place them at odds with our confession.
1. See R. Scott Clark, Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace (GrandRapids: Reformed Fellowship, 2007); idem, “Baptism and the Benefits of Christ: The Double Mode of Communion in the Covenant of Grace,” The Confessional Presbyterian Journal 2 (2006): 3–19.
2. See R. Scott Clark, “Election and Predestination: The Sovereign Expressions of God,” in David Hall and Peter Lillback, ed. A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).
3. http://www.federal-vision.com/ pdf/fvstatement.pdf (accessed 14 May 2008).
4. R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ, Rutherford Studies in Historical Theology (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2005), 190–209.
5. See also R. Scott Clark, “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel and Westminster Theology,” in David VanDrunen, ed., The Pattern of Sound Words: A Festschrift for Robert B. Strimple (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 149–80.
Dr. R. Scott Clark is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, CA) and Associate Pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad, CA