Children At The Lord’s Table? A Review

Cornelis P. Venema, Children at the Lord’s Table?: Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009).

Note: This review was published originally on the Heidelblog as a series in 2009 and is slightly revised.

In his latest book Cornelis Venema has tackled a serious problem in the Reformed world that needed to be addressed and he has done so in a thoughtful, thorough, biblical, and confessionally Reformed manner.

Background to the Review
Before we begin the review it will be useful to put the current question in its immediate historical and ecclesiastical context.

Over the last forty years the conservative and confessional Reformed churches (the two groups are not always identical) have been afflicted with a series of movements which reflect what I call the Quest for Illegitimate Certainty (QIRC—on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession). Among these movements have been the theonomic and Christian Reconstruction movements, the Federal Vision movement, and the paedocommunion movement.

Each of these three movements has attracted followers from evangelical fundamentalism into the Reformed sphere and in the NAPARC (sideline) Reformed and Presbyterian churches. They have also stimulated ecclesiastical committees, reports, and controversies. Over the years, most of the NAPARC churches have addressed theonomy (e.g., the the RCUS and PCA have had Synodical and GA reports and most of the NAPARC denominations have rejected the self-described Federal Vision movement. A few have tackled paedocommunion. The Presbyterian Church in America, the largest of the NAPARC bodies, addressed infant communion in a 1998 report. The majority concluded, “It is the thesis of this report that…the main argument [for paedocommunion] is not sustained. The PCA is well advised to continue the classical Reformed practice of delaying the admission of children to the Lord’s Table until they reach a 
level of maturity at which they can profess their faith and partake of the elements with discernment.” We should be grateful that the GA adopted the majority report and recommendation that: “That the PCA continue the practice defined in our standards and administer the Lord’s Supper “only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.”

About the same time that the PCA addressed this problem, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) received a report containing a majority report which rejected paedocommunion (and two minority reports advocating it). As the OPC site notes, these reports have no constitutional authority but they probably reflect the range of opinion in the OPC.

The United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) addressed the doctrine and practice of paedocommunion at Synod in 2004. Synod concluded, “The confessions to which the URCNA subscribe (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort) accurately summarize the teaching of scripture in, for example, 1 Cor 11.24–25; 28. Thus our confessions, in harmony with the scripture, require that the Lord’s Supper be administered only to those who have publicly professed their faith, in the presence of God and His holy church.” The question of paedocommunion has also been addressed recently by Matthew Winzer, in the Confessional Presbyterian (2007): 27–36.

Nevertheless, the paedocommunion problem persists. There was a minority report in the PCA written by Robert S, Rayburn (pastor of Faith PCA in Tacoma) which argued “That the common opinion of the Reformed church on this matter was and remains ill-considered.” This was essentially an Anabapist argument: the Reformation did not go far enough, it remained unduly influenced by medieval theology and practice. There are other advocates of paedocommunion, many of whom are federal visionists, theonomists, or at least sympathetic to theonomy or the federal vision. A website propounding paedocommunion provides a “Who’s Who” list of paedocommunion advocates which confirms this judgment. It offers the names of 15 proponents several of which are advocates of the FV or the NPP (e.g., James Jordan, Steve Wilkins, N. T. Wright) and many others of which are associated with the theonomic movement either as ought right advocates (e.g. Gary North, R. J. Rushdoony) or as advocates of quasi-theonomic ethic (e.g., G. I. Williamson who wrote essays in the 1980s advocating a sort of quasi-theonomic ethic). A couple of names on the list are a little surprising—Jack Collins (OT Prof at Covenant Theological Seminary, the denominational seminary of the PCA) and William Willimon, a mainline (UMC) Methodist and insightful critic of contemporary Christianity. There are other advocates of paedocommunion, however, who are not listed: Douglas Wilson, the de facto head of the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches and a Tim Gallant (a graduate of Mid-America Reformed Seminary, who operates a website devoted to paedocommunion), who advocated paedocommunion within the URCNA and whose views were rejected by the URCNA and who has since left for the Christian Reformed Church. The move by the CRCNA in 1995 to open the door to paedocommunion—recently ratified at synod—was overlooked in the furor over women in office, but the admission of infants to the Lord’s Table is arguably as significant a sign of the inroads of fundamentalism and evangelicalism into the CRCNA as the admission to women to presbyterial and ministerial office is a sign of liberalism.

As a matter of logic the fact that the primary and most vociferous proponents of infant communion are advocates of, associated with, or tolerant of aberrant movements such as the Federal Vision and theonomy does not, in itself, prove that paedocommunion is wrong. The provenance of the doctrine, however, is relevant for understanding its impetus and its adoption in segments of the Reformed world. In my experience since 1980, many of those who are attracted to paedocommunion are recent converts to the Reformed faith from fundamentalism.

It is also worth noting that it is beyond doubt and admitted by all intelligent proponents of paedocommunion that the Reformed Churches do not and never have confessed paedocommunion. It is a fact that the Reformed Churches were aware of the theology and practice of paedocommunion as they formed their confession and practice of the Supper. As we begin the survey of Venema’s book, we should understand that the questions are really these: “Have the Reformed Churches been fundamentally wrong about the nature of holy communion and the relations between the sacraments of baptism and the Supper since the early 16th century?”

I realize that this is a prejudicial way of stating the question. That is intentional. On matters indifferent to the being or safety of the churches we may be dispassionate and open-minded but on matters touching the being or essential theology, piety, and practice of the Reformed Churches we should be more than careful. We should be aggressively defensive of the Reformed confession. At ordination, Reformed ministers vow to take such a stance toward the confession. It may be that our confession is wrong. We confess the primary and unique authority of holy Scripture and thus our confession is subject to revision, but when the Donatists, Novatians, Valentinians, or more recently, the Anabaptists, or the Federal Visionists come knocking, we have every right to place the burden of proof squarely where it belongs (upon their shoulders) and to demand that they meet the highest standard of evidence and to exercise the greatest caution about their proposals. In the case that, in the NAPARC world at least, the theology and practice of paedocommunion usually comes wrapped in a theonomic or federal visionist bundle should also make us abundantly hesitant about it.

What We Confess
The Heidelberg Catechism Q. 81 asks, Who are to come to the Lord’s Table?

Those who are displeased with themselves for their sins, yet trust that these are forgiven them, and that their remaining infirmity is covered by the passion and death of Christ; who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to amend their life. But the impenitent and hypocrites eat and drink judgment to themselves.

In his introduction, Venema makes the point that how we frame the question makes a good deal of difference. If we ask, “Daddy, Why Was I Excommunicated?” we beg the question (i.e. assume the conclusion in the premise). I would add that we distort the question because “excommunication” presumes that one was “communicated” in the first place. The author says, “The historic view does not deny that the children of the covenant are invited to the Lord’s Table. As a matter of fact, if thier baptism means anything, it means that they are invited to respond in faith to the Lord’s Gracious promise, which would qualify them to receive the sacrament that nourishes that faith. Therefore, the only thing preventing such children, or any others, from coming to the Table is the absence of an appropriate response to the invitation” (2).

What is meant by “covenant children” and “paedocommunion.” He distinguishes between a “soft” version of paedocommunion which advocates communion earlier than middle to late adolescence (2-3). It admits those who’ve made a simple but credible profession of faith. The second class of paedocommunionists he calls “strict,” i.e. those who favor “the admission of any baptized child of believing parents who is physically able to receive the communion elements.” These two views, he rightly says, are “quite distinct.” Indeed, I was not aware that arguing for communion prior to “middle to late adolescence” made one a paedocommunionist of any kind.

Some advocates of the “strict” view (which seems to me to be paedocommunion proper) like to call their position “covenant communion.” With the “strict” view, however, “there is only one basis for admission to the Table of the Lord, namely, membership in the covenant community” (3). Venema is quite rightly unwilling to concede the term “covenant communion” to the strict paedocommunionists.” The Reformed Churches have reckoned their practice of communion as “covenantal” since the 16th century. For paedocommunionists to appropriate (hijack?) the adjective “covenant” is to assume what needs to be proven (more question begging; 4).

He acknowledges that the appropriate age for communion is not easily determined (4). More on this below.

The rest of the introduction quickly sketches the four main areas of discussion: the history of paedocommunion, the nature and administration of the covenant of grace, the matter of the analogy with Passover, and the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11.

As one who is sympathetic to the notion that communion might occur before “middle to late adolescence” I am a little skeptical of Venema’s assertion that “middle to late” adolescence is the “historic” position of the Reformed Churches. It may have been the practice of some of the Dutch Reformed Churches in the modern (since the 18th century) period but my understanding is that Calvin expected children to learn a catechism which was rather larger than the Heidelberg and to be ready to make profession of faith and come to the table by age 10 (see below). Would this make Calvin a “soft” paedocommunionist? I think not.

Calvin wrote:

How I wish that we might have kept the custom which, as I have said, existed among the ancient Christians before this misborn wraith of a sacrament came to birth! Not that it would be a confirmation such as they fancy, which cannot be named without doing injustice to baptism; but a catechizing, in which children or those near adolescence would give an account of their faith before the church. But the best method of catechizing would be to have a manual drafted for this exercise, containing and summarizing in simple manner most of the articles of our religion, on which the whole believers’ church ought to agree without controversy. A child of ten would present himself to the church to declare his confession of faith, would be examined in each article, and answer to each; if he were ignorant of anything or insufficiently understood it, he would be taught. Thus, while the church looks on as a witness, he would profess the one true and sincere faith, in which the believing folk with one mind worship the one God (Institutes 4.19.13).

Article 54 of the Acts of the Synod of the Hague (1586), a regional synod of the Dutch Reformed Churches, declared:

No one shall be admitted to the Lord’s Table unless he conforms to practice of the church he is joining and has made profession of the Reformed religion as well as furnishing a testimony to his pious conversation. Without this those who also come from other churches shall not be admitted.

This was the language of Art. 61 of Church Order of the Synod of Dort (1619):

No person shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper, but those who make confession of their faith in the Reformed religion (Gereformeerde Religie), agreeably to the practice of the churches to which they are joined, and who also have the testimony of pious deportment; without which also, none coming from other churches shall be received.

These two articles do not answer when that profession was made but neither do they stipulate that it can only be made in mid to late adolescence.

The Historical Argument
The historical argument for paedocommunion, according to its proponents, is that the evidence is mixed but it was “likely the original practice of the church” (11). Proponents argue that the loss of paedocommunion in the Western Church was due to the rise of the doctrine of transubstantiation (i.e. the doctrine that the elements of the supper become the literal body and blood of Christ). “In contrast to the relatively strong evidence for the early and general practice of infant baptism, clear evidence for the practice of paedocommunion in some segments of the church begins in the middle of the third century (12).

Justin Martyr made reference to the “proper recipients of the Supper” in his First Apology (12-13) where he taught that only those who have embraced the teaching of the church and who have resolved to live in accord with the gospel are to be communicated. Clement of Alexandria restricted access to the table “to active believers” (13). Origen also “seems to suggest that small children (parvuli) are restricted from communion.

There is some evidence from Cyprian that, during the Decian persecution, may have come to the table. Venema argues that this practice was probably not widespread (15). Contemporaneous evidence suggests that the earlier practice of restricting children from the table was the practice.

Paedocommunion became a “normal practice” of the church in the 4th and 5th centuries (16). This is clear from many places in Augustine’s writings and was closely connected to his realism (i.e., things do what they do because they are what they are) and his view that the sacraments work ex opere (i.e., by the working, the use of the sacraments) it is worked. The thing signified isthe sign. It was closely connected to his doctrine of baptismal regeneration.

It is not clear when paedocommunion became the dominant practice In the Eastern church but the “practice of Eastern Orthodoxy since the fourth century certainly lends support to the argument that paedocommunion enjoys the sanction of church history” (19).

Venema disputes the account of medieval history given by proponents of paedocommunion as “unduly simplistic” (20). The evidence, however, is that “prior to the eleventh century, paedocommunion was practiced” (20-21) but it diminished in the period leading up to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) where admission to the supper was granted to those age 7 or older. Between the 13th century and the Reformation the practice of baptism was separated from the practice of communion.

By the Reformation, “the only groups practicing paedocommunion were the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Armenian church, and the Bohemian Hussites.” In the Reformation the Lutheran and the Reformed admitted children only after catechism training. Venema distinguishes between the Lutheran practice of “confirmation” and the Reformed practice “profession of faith” (22). He continues by surveying Calvin’s approach to the differences between baptism as “the sign of new birth and incorporation into Christ” and the Supper as a “means of nourishing the faith of believers” (23).

Wolfgang Musculus was one of the “few dissenters to the prevailing view…” (24) He argued for paedocommunion “on the ground that children are included in the covenant of grace with their parents.” His view was “an exception to the rule among the Reformed churches of the continent and the British Isles.”

Venema observes that observance of paedocommunion was only “in some sectors of the church” by the middle of the third century, but it was never as prevalent in the Western church as in the Eastern. He reminds us to take note of the diverse reasons offered for it. We should note the connection between the rise of paedocommunion and sacerdotalism. He reminds us that, though transubstantiation may have had a role in the decline of paedocommunion, there were other reasons for challenging it even in the medieval period, including the long-standing view in favor of an informed reception of the Supper. Finally, he notes that the Reformed churches stressed the distinct function of the Supper as distinct from baptism. The argument for paedocommunion from history is “inconclusive” (26).

Sola Scriptura Is Not Biblicism
Venema observes that the Reformed Churches are committed to the principle of sola Scriptura which means that the Scriptures are to be “regarded as the supreme standard for their faith and life” (27) but that principle does not mean that we read the Scriptures in isolation from the church or from church history.

One of the marks of biblicism is doing just that: refusing to read the Scriptures with the church. This is a quite different principle than that by which Rome operates. She makes the Scripture the product of the church. That’s exactly backward. The church is the product of the divine Word. The Word is not the product of the church. So the Reformed Churches neither conform to the general pattern of evangelical biblicism (though more than a few Reformed folk have become biblicists in the modern period) nor do we conform to the Roman pattern of making church norm the Scripture.

Venema says that the question of paedocommunion cannot be settled merely by appealing to Scripture. “It is also necessary to study what the Reformed churches have confessed regarding the proper recipients of the sarament of the Lord’s Supper.”  The evidence from the confessions is that “Reformed believers held that the Lord’s Supper ought to be administered only to professing believers.” In distinction from the Baptists, the Reformed  churches affirm that “the children of believers, together with their parents, are recipients of the gospel promise and ought to receive the sacrament of baptism, which is a sign and seal of incorporation into Christ and membership in the covenant community of the church.”  The Reformed churches also require, however, that children undergo instruction prior to attending to the table (27).

He proceeds to give a summary of the confessional teaching on the relation of the Word and sacraments, the distinctive nature of the sacraments, the two sacraments of the New Covenant, and the proper recipients of the Lord’s Supper. His claim that the dictum often assigned to Cyprian (but actually a received summary of his teaching on this question),  “extra ecclesiam nulla salus est” (outside of the [visible] church there is no salvation) is “not explicitly echoed”  (29) in the Reformed confessions is hard to understand since in footnote 2 (p. 29)  he writes, “Cyprian’s dictum is using the the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. XXV….and the Belgic Confession, Art. 28….” One wonders if the “not” was an editorial oversight?

In the Reformed confessions, the preaching of the gospel has ‘a priority” in relation to the sacraments (29-30). “The sacraments do not communicate anything other than the grace of God in Christ, the grace that is communicated firstly and primarily through the preaching of the gospel,” (30).

The sacraments are auxiliaries, appendices to the preached gospel. This is the teaching of HC 65. He addresses the question of the relative necessity of the sacraments. Are they indispensable? Venema writes, “the best answer to this question…must be that ordinarily the sacraments are necessary and indispensable.”  That indispensability is not absolute. It is a consequence of the Lord’s “appointment of the sacraments for the believer’s benefit.” (30-31). It is ingratitude to neglect the sacraments.

The sacraments have the most intimate relation to the grace signified and yet they are distinct from that grace. They are signs and not the thing signified (32–33). They add nothing new to the grace of Christ promised in the gospel and like the gospel they must be received in faith (33). Thus the Reformed rejected the doctrine of sacramental regeneration apart from the the Spirit’s working through the Word. They “do genuinely serve, as means of grace, to confer and to communicate the grace of God in Christ” but only as the Spirit “is working through them and as they confirm the faith required on the part of their recipients” (34).

As addressed above the Reformed churches confess two distinct sacraments, with two distinct roles or functions (35). Baptism is the sign and seal of the adoption of believers. The emphasis falls on the privileges of baptism but the Westminster Larger Catechism also teaches the accompanying obligations of baptism (36). They do not teach baptism regeneration but they do teach “a real efficacy” in “conferring the grace of God in Christ on believers” (36). It is not merely a visible testimony to the believer’s subjective state. Because it is a promise by God and commanded by God, baptism is to be administered to believers and to their children (37). We don’t baptize infants on the ground of presumed regeneration or infant faith (38).

The Supper is the sign and seal by which God ‘continually nourishes and strengthens the faith of its recipients” (39). Unlike Baptism, it is meant to be repeated. The governing metaphor in the confessions is that the Supper is a “sacred meal” (39). It is a memorial but not merely that (39-40). It is a means of assurance. It is a holy communion with Christ. “It also serves the purpose of uniting believes more intimately with Him and calling them to a life of loving obedience and holy consecration” (40). Those who receive “Christ through the sacrament with the mouth of faith genuinely partake of him” (41). “In several of the confessions, the language used to describe Christ’s presence is quite robust” (41). Nevertheless, we reject the Roman and Lutheran doctrines of the Supper.

The proper recipients of the Supper are limited by  the nature of the Supper as a sacrament and its intended purposes. The confessions describe the “kind of faith that is competent to remember, proclaim and receive Christ through the Lord’s Supper” (43). This is why we fence the table. Unbelievers are not to be admitted. It violates the nature of the sacrament to allow the unbelieving or impenitent to the table (44). The confessions require the active participation of believers in the Supper (44). They warn against the danger of eating and drinking judgment to oneself (45). They explicitly limit participation to those who are capable of articulating their faith who are, as HC 81 says, “displeased with themselves for their sins and yet trust that these are forgiven them for the sake Christ….” (45). The marks of true faith in Q. 81 are the same as the three parts of the HC: guilt, grace, and gratitude. This was intentional. This was the consensus of the Reformed churches in Europe and Britain (46-48).

What Does Scripture Say?
At the heart of the revisionist, paedocommunionist case is that the confessional and historic Reformed theology and practice of the supper effectively denies the OT pattern of, as it were infant communion, and excommunicates children unjustly.

Venema does a fine job surveying the paedocommunionist case (53-59). He concludes that “the Old Testament does not provide a case for the admission of children to the Lord’s Supper….” (59). In his critical evaluation of the paedocommunionist appeal to the OT, he notes that they tend to slight two principles of interpretation: 1) “the ultimate norm for the practice of the church must be the New Testament description of the administration of the new covenant.” 2) “participation in the observances of the covenant….must be governed by the Lord’s insistence that His people worship him “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24) (59).

Reformed covenant theology has always acknowledged that the old and new covenants are “one in substance” and various in “mode of administration” (WCF 7.6; p. 60). He also notes (61) that we cannot assume that “simple membership in the covenant community automatically grants to believers and their children access to all its rites and observances.”

The paedocommunionist appeal to the manna in the wilderness (1 Cor 10; Ex 16–17) proves too much. It is true that children ate the manna. Presumably strangers to the covenant ate the manna as did animals (62). The manna was a type, not a blueprint. It was also a means of bodily sustenance. The sacrament is a means of spiritual sustenance but it is not intended for bodily sustenance. There are differences between the OT types and the NT fulfillment. Circumcision was, in the nature of the thing, applied only to males. Baptism is applied to both sexes. The Passover was annual and the Supper was frequently administered (62).

Children participated in the feats of weeks and booths (63) but children did not participate in those that “more directly ‘typify’ the sacrifice of Christ, which the Lord’s Supper commemorates and proclaims….” The work of atonement and their accompanying meals was restricted to Levitical priests. Venema faults the paedocommunionists for highlighting those places that teach the participation of children while “downplaying those that stipulate restrictions” (64).

One of his more interesting observations/arguments, one that I find compelling, is the NT usage of Exodus 24 (Heb 9:20). The NT regards this as perhaps the most important OT precedent for the Supper. Moses, the covenant mediator, “sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings before the Lord” (65). He spread the blood over both the altar and the people (including the children). The accompanying fellowship meal was celebrated on the mountain. Infants did not participate in this meal, but our Lord appealed to this typological event in the institution of the Supper. There are significant OT precedents for the Supper that do not support paedocommunion (66).

As to the Passover, there is “no indisputable evidence for or against the claim that all of the children of the covenant participated fully in its celebration” (67). Venema helpfully distinguishes between the first celebration of the Supper and its subsequent celebrations (68).  The initial celebration was a household event, but the subsequent celebrations were pilgrim feasts that “required only male  members of the covenant community to keep the Passover and the other two pilgrim feasts…(68) (i.e. feasts and booths). Since there is no “clear biblical evidence that women or children attended the pilgrim Passovers” it doesn’t follow, therefore, that exclusion from Passover was tantamount to excommunication.

Perhaps the most helpful thing Venema does in this chapter is to challenge some of the more fundamental paedocommunionist assumptions about the way things “must” have been and about the way continuities between typological and fulfillment periods in redemptive history should be viewed and used.

In ch. 5 Venema addresses the NT evidence (or lack thereof) for infant communion in the NT. Thus far he has argued that the case from history is mixed at best. The case for paedocommunion from the Reformed confessions does not exist. If the case from the OT is lacking, then the case for paedocommunion is tottering precariously at best.

He proposes to resolve the debate “only on the basis of an argument that considers general features of the New Testament doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and its relation to the Word of the gospel” (78). E.g. the accounts of the institution of the Supper in the gospels “reflect an understanding that may suggest how this question should be answered.

He notes (80) is the difference between Baptism as a sacrament of initiation that, in the nature of the case, can only be administered once. Either one is baptized or one is not. The Lord’s Supper, however, “is to be celebrated regularly in the context of Christian worship and the ministry of the Word of God until Christ comes again.” Thus Paul quotes the words of institution (1 Cor 11:25) “this do as oft as ye drink it” with the “obvious implication” that the Supper is to be “celebrated frequently by the church….”

The Supper is to be observed and celebrated “in remembrance of Christ.” Participation is “in response to an imperative….” The sacrament is a sign to be received “remembering and believing” (emphasis original). The Supper requires “the active participation” from the recipient that is not required in baptism (80). This is “particularly significant” for the question of paedocommunion.

He notes that Jesus’ meal with the two men on the road to Emmaus has been understood to refer to the Holy Supper (81) and that the men “knew” that he was the risen Lord. Acts 2:42 records the practice of the Apostolic church and the “breaking of bread” “may be an allusion to the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper…” (82). If so, then it is is significant that those who ate the Supper are said to have received the preached Word. Communion is observed in the context of the preaching of the Gospel. He points to two possible allusions to the Supper in Rev 3;20 and 19:1-9 wherein it is described as a means of fellowship with Christ and in which it could be withdrawn as a matter of discipline.

Thus far, he says, nothing “in this evidence argues for the admission of non-professing children to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper” (83). “In its basic form, the argument of many paedocommunionists is easily stated” if all children (with the exception of unweaned infants) in the old covenant participated fully in the Passover meal, and if the Lord’s Supper is a new covenant form of the old covenant Passover, it follows that children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table.”  (84) The middle premise here is that the Supper is a NT Passover. To this question Venema now turns his attention.

Since the Supper was instituted in connection with the pascha, the premise has “apparent plausibility.”  (85). It has been traditionally believed that the elements used in the institution of the Supper were passover elements, but, he notes, that traditional belief has been questioned. There is some “apparent discrepancy” between the synoptic (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) accounts and John’s account (86). One resolution to read John’s language as indicating that the meal occurred on “Friday of Passover week.” The “similarities between the Lord’s Supper and the Passover should not be overstated on this account” since “there are several important differences between them” (86). First, there are the words of institution which were derived from “the covenant renewal ceremony of Exodus 24—a ceremony that was reminiscent of the way the Lord had confirmed His covenant with Abraham…” (87). Like M. G. Kline Venema observes that these OT antecedents of the Supper involved a bloodletting to signify the “solemn bond between them.” The Lord bound himself to them with a “self-maledictory oath” and taught that covenant breaking requires a blood atonement. Thus “Christ’s words of institutions do not connect the Supper with the Passover, but with the covenant renewal meal that Moses and the elders of Israel celebrated on Mount Sinai” (emphasis original). The Passover was the setting but the true antecedent was not the private family Passover meal, but the public, religious fellowship meal shared by Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the 70 elders.

The Passover commemorated the Exodus. The Supper commemorates “Christ’s sacrificial death, which is the fulfillment of of all the types and ceremonies of the law, especially the sin and guild offerings of the old covenant. (emphasis original). The Passover is certainly fulfilled in the Supper, but the Supper recapitulates and fulfills much more (87-88).

Is membership covenant in the covenant of grace sufficient ground for admission to the table? To answer this question Venema appeals to John 6 and 1 Cor 11. The former has important implications for our understanding of the Supper (90-91). Here Venema is following Calvin (93), quoting his commentary on John 6:56: What is in view in John 6 is not the Supper directly but rather the eating of Christ by faith. That eating says Calvin, however, “is figured and actually presented to believers in the Lord’s Supper” (93; emphasis original in Venema’s quotation). For Calvin, Christ made the Supper a “seal of this discourse.” It is necessary to participate in Christ but the only way to participate in Christ then, is to do so by faith and the Supper is the sign and seal of that faith (94-97).

Thus, in the Belgic Confession, we confess that “the manner of our partaking [of Christ by means of the Lord’s Supper] is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith” (Art. 35; quoted on p. 98). The Belgic echoes the teaching of John 6. The “general teaching of John 6 regarding how believers participate in Christ’s body and blood has a clear and compelling implication for any mode of communion with Christ, whether by by means of the gospel Word or the sacrament that accompanies the Word” (emphasis original; 98). Thus “the church’s requirement that those who are admitted to the Table of the Lord” make a credible profession of faith before communing is a “legitimate application of the teaching of this passage.”

According to Venema, the “most important and compelling piece of New Testament evidence that bears on the question of paedocommunion is undeniably 1 Corinthians 11:17–34” (101). This is the because this passage is “the most extensive and comprehensive New Testament passage on the Lord’s Supper.” The Supper has no exact analogy in the old covenant. The “scriptures of the new covenant must determine how it is administered and received.”

The historic Reformed interpretation of 1 Cor 11 “Paul’s instructions regarding what it means to participate ‘unworthily’ in the sacrament are viewed as normative for all members of the new covenant community.” Paul used this particular instance to articulate not only specific guidance but general guidelines for the administration of the holy Supper.

The “most important features of the traditional interpretation” focus on vv. 27–29 (103). Paul required self-examination before communing. The point of the self-examination was to “test” (Venema’s term) whether one’s faith and conduct are “in accord” with one’s profession. This requirement has been implemented variously in the Reformed tradition. Generally it has been taken to mean that “believers must test themselves in terms of the normal requirements of of a Christian profession.” Here he cites HC 81 in a footnote. It’s worth repeating here to set the context:

81. Who are to come to the table of the Lord?

Those who are displeased with themselves for their sins, yet trust that these are forgiven them, and that their remaining infirmity is covered by the passion and death of Christ; who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to amend their life. But the impenitent and hypocrites eat and drink judgment to themselves.

After the requirement for self-examination paul adds that “all who partake of the sacrament must do so only as they properly ‘discern’ the body of Christ (v.29). Such discernment includes an understanding of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and its implications for the conduct of believers in relation to him and others” (103). Thus, as Venema notes, the Reformed Churches have restricted the Supper to professing members in good standing. Paul’s teaching that some ate and drank judgment to themselves has weighed heavily on the Reformed as they’ve interpreted this passage and that weight is reflected in the language of the Belgic Confession (1561) Art. 25 when it makes self-examination a prerequisite for communion. The HC Lord’s Day 30 also appeals to this language (104).

Contemporary advocates for paedocommunion allege that the Reformed Churches have misunderstood this passage. They argue that the passage “commends the admission of all members of the church, young and old alike.” The traditional view wrongly “divides segments of the covenant community (in this case, professing and non-professing members) in a manner that is reminiscent of the unwarranted divisions in the Corinthian church.” They argue that the historic Reformed view and practice actually comes under the apostle’s rebuke since it “excludes some members of the community from full participation in Christ” (105).

Their view depends considerably upon their reconstruction of the circumstances prompting Paul’s response. For the paedocommunionists, the problem was not “orthodoxy” but “orthodopraxis” (right practice). The problem was not “unworthy” participants but ungodly pride and factionalism. [Here one hears echoes of the NPP/FV reconstruction of the 2nd-temple Judaism and of Paul’s response to it. Justification not about “acceptance with God” or “courtroom metaphors” but about “boundary markers” and the like. It’s not hard to see how the argument “The Reformation misunderstood Paul on justification” could easily become the argument, “The Reformation also misunderstood Paul on the Supper”—rsc] They argue that the language of “remembrance” and “showing” (vv.24–26) does not necessarily exclude infants from communion. They argue that the Supper is itself an exhibiting of the body and a remembrance, not that anyone necessarily has to remember. Advocates of paedocommunion argue that what the Corinthians failed to discern was their membership in the body of Christ. I have previously responded to this claim. Venema quite rightly concludes that the paedocommunionist interpretation of this passage has “clear and startling implications for the practice of paedocommunion” (107).

Essential to the paedocommunionist interpretation of 1 Cor 11 is their reconstruction of the original setting and problems that provoked Paul to write this section of the epistle. According to Venema the most basic premise of the paedocommunionist argument is that “the Lord’s Supper represents, in a  most powerful way, the unity and fellowship of the whole body of Christ” (108). He concedes that the theme of the unity of the body and the “full participation” of members in that body runs like a thread through 1 Corinthians. The Lord’s Supper is a “beautiful expression of the oneness of the body of Christ.” The theme of the Supper as an expression of the unity of the body is not isolated to 1 Cor 10:16-17. It is expressed in 1 Cor 7:14 and the early verses of 1 Cor 10. Does 1 Cor 10:16-17 support the case for paedocommunion?

Venema says, “No.” The Supper is a powerful witness to the unity of the body but “it seems premature to argue from the theme enunciated in 1 Corinthians 10:16–17 to the conclusion that all covenant children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table lest the oneness of the body of Christ be compromised” (109). If the historic Reformed view of 1 Cor 11:17–34 is correct then the paedocommunionist reconstruction of the original situation and their reading of 1 Corinthians 10 fails. 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 “must retain its unique status as the single most decisive biblical teaching for determining whether such children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table” (110).

If infants are not allowed to commune, is there status as members of the covenant of grace jeopardized? Well, Venema notes that the “participation in Christ” described in 1 Corinthians 10 included uncircumcised males and even animals! As previously noted, the paedocommunionist reading of 1 Corinthians 10 proves too much.

There are 4 sections in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34. Vv. 17-22 identifies the problem, vv. 23–26 contains Paul’s summary of the institution of the Supper, vv. 27–32 instructs us on how to receive the body and blood of Christ, and vv. 33–34 return to the original problem (111).

The problem is not reconstructing the original context and problems (112–14). Venema argues, however, that the advocates of paedocommunion use their reconstruction of the original context to obviate Paul’s clear instructions in ch. 11. In other words, because we do not have the same problems today (namely turning the Supper into factional meals) as described in 1 Corinthians 11 it  does not really apply directly to us. In other words, in the historic Reformed reading of 1 Corinthians 11, it is normative for our understanding of the Supper even if our circumstances have changed whereas for the paedocommunionist it is not so normative because of the change in circumstances. This move allows them to control the understanding of the supper via their reconstruction of the original situation and via their reading of 1 Corinthians 10.

Another question/problem raised by the paeodcommunionist reading of 1 Cor 11 is their “handling of the words of institution” by which they argue that we should translate “this do in remembrance of me” as “do this unto my remembrance.” The force of the revision is to move the locus of the act from the person remembering (which requires of certain level of cognition) to a purely objective state of affairs so that whenever the Supper is administered (including infants) it is done as an objective, corporate memorial along the lines of Leviticus 24:7 (115). From an historical-theological perspective this is a sort extreme anti-Zwinglianism. Is the “of me” in 1 Corinthians 11:24–25 subjective or objective? Is it “remembrance of me” or “my remembrance”? Contra the paedocommunionist reading most English translations (115–16) take it as “remembrance of me.” Venema argues, the “point of the Lord’s words of institution is that the participant in the sacrament is placed under the obligation to obey the Lord’s command, to act in such a way that expressed informed remembrance and believing proclamation of his death” (116).

The historic Reformed understanding of this passage recognized some distinction between the original context and our, post-apostolic, post-canonical context. This difference, however, did not stop them from rightly finding general principles in 1 Corinthians 11 that preclude infant communion (117–18). Paul’s instructions are “applicable to any celebration of the Lord’s Supper on the part of any believer” (118; emphasis original). Even if one no is not committing the very same sin committed by the Corinthians, it is nevertheless possible to eat and drink unworthily (note the adverb). The “closes parallel to this passage is 2 Corinthians 13:5 where the apostle summons all believers to “[e]xamine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove [test-rsc] your own selves. Know ye not that your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (Venema quotes the AV following RHB publication guidelines). The ESV reads:

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless indeed you fail to meet the test!

Venema points to Gal 6:4 as another parallel passage that has the same reflexive language. He also observes that the “idea of self-examination in verse 28 has often been freighted with the excess baggage of protracted, introspective process of spiritual inventory-taking, the term requires only a responsible testing on the part of the believer to see whether his faith is genuine” (119).

A second issue is the intent behind the language “discern the [Lord’s] body.” There is a textual variant here. The older text omits the qualifier “Lord’s.” This has allowed paeodcommunionists to argue that what should be discerned is the “church” not the body of Christ in the Supper. I have already addressed this claim. Venema concludes that the shorter reading is the best text but that the shorter reading does not support the paedocommunionist claim (121). The body to be discerned is not the congregation but rather the body which “he gave as a sacrifice on behalf of his people” (121).

I hope that readers will see that the historic Reformed, confessional theology, piety, and practice of the Lord’s Supper is not and has not been mere conservatism. The Reformed Churches have paid close attention to Scripture and from it have formed a covenant theology (i.e. a reading of redemptive history) and a view of the sacraments of the covenant of grace (baptism and the Supper). As Venema notes 127–28), the impetus for the modern revival of the error of paedocommunion in some Reformed denominations and federations is not a superior biblical exegesis or superior theology of the Supper but rather a covenant theology that is not Reformed, which is alien to the Reformed reading of Scripture.

He says, “[s]ome contemporary advocates of paedocommunion claim that all covenant members without exception—believers and their children who are recipients of the covenant promise and the accompanying sacrament of covenant incorporation, baptism—enjoy a full and saving union with Christ.”

He is correct to highlight the connection between the covenant nomism of the so-called and self-described “Federal Vision” movement. You can read more about this erroneous covenant theology in the booklet, Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace, in this more academic essay, and in the volume, Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. To add a layer of complication that Venema does not mention but which draws the FV covenant theology perilously close to that advocated by the Remonstrants and rejected soundly at Dort, is their doctrine that the benefits conferred in baptism must be retained by grace and cooperation with grace. This, in their view, is the second part of “the covenant.” God has done his part and now you must do yours.

Since, in the FV theology, “the baptism of the children of believers effectively unites them to Christ and grants them full participation in his saving work, baptism by itself provides a sufficient warrant for admitting such children to the Table of the Lord without requiring a preceding profession of faith” (141). Venema is exactly right about this. The argument over paedocommunion, at least in our circles, is really an argument about covenant theology. What i the covenant theology of the Reformed Churches? The answer, of course, is that it is that which has been taught and confessed since the early 16th century and since that time we have consistently rejected paedocommunion because we reject the biblical exegesis of the paedocommunionist argument and because we have a different covenant theology. The FV view borders on (or crosses over into) “sacramentalism” (145). We understand, in the language of the Westminster Confession 27.2 that there is a “sacramental union” between the sign and the grace signified. The sign is not the grace signified.

Chapter 7 is particularly useful for its brief survey of the historical, exegetical, and theological issues and for a summary of the confessional Reformed response. One might do well to begin his reading with this chapter to get an overview before going to chapter 1. There is an appendix to the work, a chapter on covenant theology and baptism.

Venema has produced a truly helpful survey and analysis of the arguments being advanced by contemporary (Federal Visionist) proponents of paedocommunion. If you are tempted by the FV or its arguments for paedocommunion (and it is a temptation) you should read this book for yourself. All of us who value the historic, confessional Reformed reading of Scripture, the Reformed covenant theology, the Reformed Word and sacrament piety, and the Reformed practice of the Supper owe a debt of thanks to Venema for this fine work.

Should I Buy It? A Book Review

Frequently I receive the question in my inbox: “Should I buy this book?” What I would like to say is, “Yes, buy every book but don’t buy every book you buy.” I think it is a good idea to own and read books liberally. Sometimes I have the impression that the unstated premise of the question is something like this: “I suspect that I won’t agree with the book, so tell me if that is so and I’ll know not to buy it.” I do not share that view. I regularly purchase books with which I do not agree. This gets us to the second sense of “buy.” I think readers should read widely but they shouldn’t believe everything they read. So we should read liberally but we should read critically, i.e., thoughtfully and always asking ourselves: “Is that true?” “What is the writer assuming?” With these notions in mind I thought it would be helpful to consider the latest systematic theology to be published, John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2013).

There are presently two competing approaches to Reformed theology. One approach seeks to appreciate and appropriate the Reformed tradition and the confession of the churches and from that starting point and with those resources read the Scriptures and engage the state of the art. The other approach, however, seems to regard the tradition with a wary eye and seeks to revise Reformed theology in sometimes radical ways. The volume before us, though it has traditional elements, falls into the second category. This approach, which is more “biblicist” than confessionalist (on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession), has produced some significant divergences from historic Reformed theology.

The first divergence is methodological. To put it briefly, Frame has adopted what is essentially a dialectical approach to theology.1 I understand that this might surprise some readers. After all, when we think of dialectical theology we might think of Karl Barth and his view of revelation. Nevertheless, there is more than one way of arriving at a dialectical method. By dialectical I mean an approach to theology that affirms and denies something at the same time. Frame does this through a method he describes as triperspectivalism. This method is sometimes taken, naively I think, as a sort of common-sense approach to theology that seeks to take into account three perspectives: the norm to be applied, the situation in which the norm is applied, and the person doing the applying. Were that all that triperspectivalism entailed there wouldn’t be much reason for concern. That account, however, is only part of the story. There is more.

The second divergence, closely related to the first, is theological. Frame has come to defend views that are flatly contrary to the Reformed confession on a number of topics from the definition of theology through to Christian ethics.

  • In his earlier volume on the doctrine of God, he defended the proposition that God is three persons and one person, a view at which, in the present volume. he seems only to hint.2 Last I knew, few reviewers noted this significant departure from catholic (i.e., universal Christian) dogma and the Reformed confession.
  • Under the doctrine of salvation (soteriology), Where the orthodox Reformed writers all rejected categorically and heartily the very doctrines now described as the “Federal Vision” theology, where Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) dismissed Norman Shepherd for teaching justification through faith and works (or “faithfulness”), where the Reformed churches, including his own denomination (PCA) have rejected the Federal Vision theology, in contrast, Frame has defended the right of the self-described Federal Visionists to teach their doctrines. In the present volume he offers a (remarkably revisionist) defense of the principal godfather of the FV theology, Norman Shepherd.3
  • Under the heading of ecclesiology he published a book that presupposed the elimination of the marks of a true church.
  • He has, as I documented in RRC, proposed significant revisions of the Reformed understanding of the second commandment.

For the purposes of this review, let’s consider one result of Frame’s method. His method is not only dialectical, it is a latitudinarian, i.e., the goal is that we should tolerate doctrines that the Reformed churches have condemned. The results of his method also appear in his doctrine of God.

On p. 428 there is a heading, in bold typeface, that reads: “God Is Simple.” He says, “[t]heologians also speak of God’s oneness in another sense: his simplicity. He then turns immediately to a discussion of Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of simplicity that continues through the top of p. 431. To Thomas, whose doctrine of divine simplicity he characterizes as “Plotinian” (the neo-Platonic view; p. 430) and “natural theology ” (p. 433) and to what he characterizes as “scholastic metaphysics” (p. 431), he contrasts the teaching of Scripture. According to Frame, if we follow Scripture we will get “a doctrine of God’s necessary existence rather than a doctrine of simplicity as such” (p. 431).

He argues that God is both simple and complex. About the divine attributes he writes: “Note that these arguments do not rule out all complexity within the divine nature” (p.430) and “But does this pattern justify talk of divine simplicity? If the attributes are perspectives on a single reality, that reality will be simple by comparison, though also complex, as I must keep insisting” (p. 432).

According to Frame, simplicity so defined does not rule out “all multiplicity.” For Frame, the doctrine of divine simplicity is really just a way of talking about God’s necessary existence and his “fully personal” relationship to us as Lord (p. 433). Everything comes back to divine sovereignty and tri-perspectivalism.

So, we began with an apparently clear, boldfaced affirmation of divine simplicity but as we continue we find that, via a dialectical method, God is also complex. How is he complex? It is not clear. At points in the discussion it seems as if he is suggesting that the Trinity itself implies complexity in God. At other points it seems as if the existence of attributes might be the reason. I’m not sure but he does say that God is complex.

Why is this an issue? Well, in Belgic Confession, Art. 1, the Reformed churches confess: “We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth that there is only one simple and spiritual Being, which we call God; and that he is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good” (emphasis added).

Westminster Confession 2.1 says,

1. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty (emphasis added).

By setting up a contrast between Thomas and Scripture, Frame creates the impression that he is merely relieving us of an unnecessary problem, a leftover from “natural theology,” as he puts it. The doctrine of divine simplicity, however, is not a remnant of Thomas’ neo-Platonism. It is the interpretation of Holy Scripture and the confession of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. The churches have not confessed a conviction about every theological question or debate but where they have confessed we are bound to it and we do not confess that God is simple and complex. We confess one thing: that he is simple, that he is without parts and we do so, as Luther said, without horns (we don’t say this and not this or Sic et Non). Neither the Trintarian persons nor the attributes make God complex. That is why we say that God transcends our ability to comprehend him.

Frame says, “God’s essence is not some dark, unrevealed entity behind God’s revealed character. Rather, God’s revelation tells us his essence. It tells us what he really and truly is” (p.431).

This passage gets us closer to the heart of the problem, his apparent revision of the traditional Reformed doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God.4 As a matter of truth, God’s essence is a dark, unrevealed entity. God, as he is in himself (in se) is hidden from us. This is basic Protestant theology. Understood on its own terms, the theology of Luther, Calvin, and the Reformed orthodox will not allow us to say that God’s essence is hidden and it isn’t. When Luther taught that God is hidden (Deus absconditus) he was saying that God is a consuming fire (Deut 4:24; Heb 12:29). Our Lord himself said: “No one has ever seen God. The only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18).

1 Timothy 6:16 says “no one has ever seen or can see” God. 1 John 4:12 says that “no one has ever seen God.”  Were it possible to come into contact with God as he is, unmediated, unaccommadated, we would be destroyed. God, as he is in himself, is utterly transcendent, holy, just, etc in a way that, as he is in himself, we are not capable to apprehend, let alone comprehend. This is why the Reformed orthodox repeatedly taught the that “finite is not capable of the infinite” (finitum non capax infiniti). Calvin picked up Luther’s distinction between God hidden and God revealed as did the Reformed orthodox after him.

We know that God’s hidden essence is but we don’t know what God’s essence is. We’re not capable of knowing or understanding that essence. We know what God has revealed of himself to us. God has given us pictures, illustrations, analogies, but he has not revealed himself as he is in himself.  This is the Reformed doctrine of divine accommodation. Dialectically, formally, Frame affirms Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation (p.704) but that doctrine was premised on the very notion of divine hiddenness that Frame denies. Traditionally, Reformed theology has distinguished between what God knows (theologia archetypa) and what creatures know (theologia ectypa). Again, Frame formally affirms this distinction (p. 699–701) but he denies what the Reformed intended to teach by it.

Finally, consider how Frame proceeded on the doctrine of divine simplicity. He set up Thomas Aquinas as a foil and then proceeded to Scripture. What was missing in his account of divine simplicity? Any meaningful dialogue with the broader Christian and Reformed traditions. Certainly readers are not alerted that Frame is not entirely comfortable with the doctrine of the Reformed churches on this point.

Contrast his handling of divine simplicity with that in Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. Under the heading: The Unity of God (p. 61) Berkhof distinguishes between the unity of singularity (unitas singularitatis) and the unity of simplicity (unitas simplicatatis; p.62). The first distinction refers to the numerical simplicity of God: He is one. The most fundamental OT confession is: “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one” (Deut 6:4).

The unity of simplicity refers to the truth that God is not composite. He has no parts. The persons of the Trinity “are not so many of which the divine essence is composed, that God’s essence and perfections are not distinct, and that the attributes are not superadded to his essence.”

There he was following Turretin almost verbatim. He noted that it was the Arminians and Socinians who rejected the doctrine of divine simplicity (p.62). More recently, the classical Reformed doctrine of simplicity has been a bulwark against the heresy of Open Theism, the doctrine that future contingents are unknowable to God. Berkhof observed that it has been common in the modern period to deny divine simplicity as the product of metaphysical speculation and that Dabney argued—strangely—that God is no more simple than finite spirits.

In The Christian Faith (2011), pp. 228–30, Mike Horton’s account of divine simplicity is simultaneously more catholic, engaging with a broad variety of writers across the Christian tradition, more concise, and more orthodox. He gives not a hint that there is complexity in God, who is, according to Horton, “everything that all the attributes reveal” (p. 228). He appeals to the essence/energies (working) distinction in Basil. God is simple but his works are various. He is never self-conflicted (p.229). “None of his attributes can be suspended, withdrawn, diminished, or altered, since his attributes are identical with his existence” (p.230).

Horton’s language about the divine essence, as distinct from his revelation to us creatures, also resonates with the Reformed tradition:

One of the advantages of the “way of negation” (as in immutability) is that is halts before God’s majesty, content to affirm God’s infinite perfection without probing into the mysteries of God’s hidden being. We do not know how God is immutable or how realist the comparison is between his analogies and his essence. Yet God teaches us enough to be able to know that he is infinitely other than we are and at the same time inseparably one with us—the object of our awe was as well as our assurance (p. 242).

The Reformed want to affirm both the mystery of God’s hiddenness and the utterly reliability of his self-revelation. The Reformed theological method has never been dialectical. Read the classical Reformed writers. They don’t affirm divine simplicity and then deny it. There is no perspective from which God may be said to be complex. He is either simple or he is not. The God whom we worship is not simple and complex. He just is.

So, should you buy this volume? It depends on how you intend to use it. If you are looking for a reliable, careful, modern summary of the historic Reformed faith, then this does not appear to be such a volume. Fortunately, that volume already exists. If you’re looking for a speculative, dialectical, and idiosyncratic account of the Christian faith, then this volume will fill the bill quite nicely.

In this review I have used the word buy in two senses. At this point I am most interested in the second sense of subscribe or to agree. Should the reader accept the ideas that the author and those commending the book are selling? Publishers have included “blurbs” (which my dictionary defines as a “short description of a book, movie, or other product written for promotional purposes and appearing on the cover of a book….”) in their products for a long time. In recent years, however, I have noticed the tendency to blitz the reader with a enormous volume of blurbs. Such is the case with this volume. As I noted in an earlier post, at least a few of the blurbs are a little surprising. The endorsement of this volume by leading proponents of the so-called and self-described Federal Vision theology should give orthodox Reformed and evangelical readers pause. Would you trust a systematic theology endorsed by Jacob Arminius, Simon Episcopius, Richard Baxter, and Laelio Sozzini?5 The larger question is why would orthodox Reformed and evangelical folk endorse a volume that seeks to rehabilitate a modern-day Richard Baxter?

Shepherd in effect reinvented the neonomianism of Richard Baxter in the 17th century, and from the same motive—recoil from the practical antinomianism that surrounded him, and desire so to state the gospel as to make perfectly obvious that persevering holiness is enjoined all who hope to be welcomed by Christ the Lord on the day of judgment. Like Baxter, he never understood why he was constantly being accused of reintroducing legalism into Reformed soteriology when his purpose of promoting holiness among Reformed people was so demonstrably right.

—J. I. Packer, Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology
Regent College (1992)

I have my disagreements with Packer but he knows a latter-day Baxter when he sees one. He did his DPhil. thesis on Baxter in the 1950s at Oxford.6 Packer was not alone in his assessment. Dozens of orthodox Reformed theologians and pastors condemned Shepherd’s doctrine of justification as contrary to the Scriptures, the Reformation, and the Reformed confessions. Among them were: R. C. Sproul, D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, , W. Robert Godfrey, O. Palmer Robertson, Roger Nicole, Robert Reymond, George Knight III, W Stanford Reid, Morton Smith, William Hendrickson, Philip E. Hughes.7

Lloyd-Jones wrote about Shepherd’s doctrine of justification:

Another big defect is his misunderstanding of and misuse of the Westminster Confession and the Catechisms. They were concerned as James was to warn against mere intellectual assent or what the Puritans called temporary professors. They rightly emphasized works as regards church membership and admission to the Lord’s Supper, etc., but Shepherd constantly applies this to justification. He does not realize that the purpose of works is: 1) to test profession, 2) to glorify God and to please Him and show our gratitude to Him, 3) to help in the matter of assurance, 4) to prepare us for heaven (1 John 3:3).

His teaching is contrary to that of the evangelicals of the last 400 years and he seems to rejoice in this!

It seems to have been forgotten that, by the time Shepherd was dismissed from WTS/PA, even though only a minority of the faculty then opposed his doctrine of justification, virtually the rest of the Reformed world had rejected it. At the time of his dismissal, Shepherd was facing renewed charges against his doctrine in the Philadelphia presbytery of the OPC but his request for dismissal to the Christian Reformed Church was taken up before the charges could be laid against him. He mostly disappeared from broader public view until after his retirement when he began speaking at conferences, where he continue to advocate the same views that merited (pun intended) his dismissal. When that book, The Call of Grace was published, it was roundly criticized. In his review Cornel Venema wrote:

Fourth, these features of Shepherd’s reformulation of the doctrine of the covenant raise questions regarding his understanding of the doctrine of justification. Though Shepherd studiously avoids any explicit formulation of the doctrine of justification in this study, the trajectory of his position clearly points in the direction of a revision of the historic Reformation position. Just as Adam was obliged to meet the conditions of the covenant that God graciously established with him, so believers are obliged to meet the conditions of the covenant of grace in order to inherit eternal life. Just as Christ was obliged to live in covenantal loyalty and faithfulness to God, Shepherd maintains, “so his followers must be faithful in order to inherit the blessing” (p. 19). As we have noted, Shepherd is even willing to speak of Christ’s obedient faith being “credited to him as righteousness” in a manner parallel to the way Abraham’s (and every believer’s) obedient faith is credited to him for righteousness.

But this kind of parallel between Christ’s faith and ours would mean that the believer’s inheritance in the covenant of grace finally depends upon his following Christ’s example. Salvation and blessing are the (non-meritorious, though earned?) reward of the covenant for those who keep the covenant’s conditions and stipulations. Missing from Shepherd’s discussion at this juncture are several key features of the historic Reformed view of salvation. Shepherd does not make it clear, for example, that the believer can only obtain eternal life upon the basis of the perfect obedience, satisfaction and righteousness of Christ alone received by faith alone (compare the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 23 & 24). Nor does he make it clear (indeed, on page 62 he seems to deny it) that the believer’s imperfect obedience, which Christ by his Spirit graciously works in him, adds nothing to the work of Christ in respect to his standing before God and right to eternal life. Rather, Shepherd argues that the traditional Reformed view, which insists that the (sinfully imperfect) good works of believers provide no basis for their acceptance before God, fails to do justice to the genuine obedience of believers (p. 62). By this argument he fails to appreciate the classic Reformed conviction that Christ’s work as Mediator of the covenant of grace constitutes the only ground for the believer’s justification (and sanctification!) before God.

There have been numerous assessments of his doctrine of justification that reach the similar conclusions. According to David VanDrunen,

the evidence points to the conclusion that Shepherd indeed prefers an understanding of faith that makes good works not merely the fruit of faith, but an element of faith itself.

In Shepherd’s definition, “faith has been turned from the extraspective trust in the obedience of another into an act in which the believer himself offers obedience.” When “Shepherd says that we are saved by a living and obedient faith he means a different kind of faith from that of the Reformed tradition.” 8

We should not be surprised that Frame is seeking to rehabilitate his mentor. He has indicated his intellectual debt to and support for Shepherd for many years. In this volume he is only re-stating what he published 10 years ago and what he wrote to the faculty during the original controversy, in which he was among those who defended Shepherd. What should surprise us, however, is that so many orthodox Reformed folk would commend a volume that defends the teaching of Norman Shepherd on the doctrine of justification. Remember, we’re not talking about the logical order of the decrees, the nature of the creation days, the nature of the Mosaic covenant, or even the imputation of active obedience (which Shepherd rejects). There have been orthodox Reformed folk on both sides of those questions, even at our most important ecclesiastical assemblies (e.g., the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Assembly). No, we are talking about justification sola gratiasola fide, the article of the standing or falling of the church.

Consider this: Frame presents Shepherd’s doctrine of justification as though it is patently orthodox to anyone with a modicum of sense and ability to read English. Yet the evidence in the documents from the original controversy, from Shepherd’s own published writings, and from the assessment of at least three different synodical or General Assembly committees is that Shepherd’s doctrine of justification is incompatible with Scriptures as confessed by the Reformed churches.

I am utterly convinced that the critics are correct: Norman Shepherd’s doctrine of justification is contrary to Scripture and a corruption of the gospel.  Nevertheless, for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that Frame is correct, that all this time (39 years!) Shepherd has been articulating nothing but an orthodox Reformed doctrine of justification. What does this say about all of those who have read, considered, and rejected his theology? What does this say about Shepherd’s competence? What does it say about someone who supports his teaching?  If a minister and professor of theology has not been able make totally clear his views on the article of the standing or falling of the church for 39 years, is that person a reliable guide to the Christian faith? Yes, we’re only discussing a few pages in a very large volume but riddle me this Batman: how large are cancer cells?

Perhaps the fact that Frame has found a way to justify (pun intended) Shepherd’s doctrine of justification says something about his theological method? In Frame’s hands, there is a perspective from which anything (except Reformed confessionalism) can be appreciated and synthesized with Reformed theology and if anything (except Reformed confessionalism) can be synthesized with Reformed theology, then nothing (except Reformed confessionalism) is excluded. Do you really want to live in that house? Is that what we want for the future of Reformed theology, piety, and practice? As Allen Iverson says, “we’re talking about practice; not a game, not a game, not a game. We’re talking about practice.”


  1. Kevin DeYoung recently registered some discomfort (though he did not describe it as dialectical) with Frame’s method in his brief review.
  2. Van Til first taught this in his syllabus in Systematic Theology. This view has also been defended by Lane Tipton in “The Function Of Perichoresis And The Divine Incomprehensibility ” in WTJ 64 (2002). None of the catholic creeds countenance this way of speaking. The catholic way of speaking is to say that God is personal or tri-personal. He is one in three persons. This is the doctrine of the Athanasian Creed. None of the classic Reformed theologians or Reformed churches, in their confessions and catechisms, even hint at the possibility of saying that God is one person. Claims to contrary not withstanding, neither Charles Hodge (1797–1878) nor B. B. Warfield (1851–1921) taught that God is one person. They taught that God is personal but that adjective cannot be equated with the expression “one person.”
  3. Here is an archive of primary source documents. I have read most of the more important documents and can say without hesitation that Frame’s characterization of Shepherd’s teaching (pp. 974–75) is without warrant in the primary documents. Read for yourself the board’s grounds for dismissing Shepherd, who along with three other leading Federal Visionists, have offered ringing endorsements of this volume.
  4. He says that, e.g., Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til did not disagree as much as has been thought. In contrast, I have argued that debate was about a basic Reformed distinction that Clark and others rejected. On this see RRC and the chapter on this debate in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine. This is the nature of a dialectical theological method. There is always a perspective from which to reconcile opposites. Disagreement (except with confessionalist Reformed theology) is always only apparent.
  5. In reverse order: Lelio Sozzini (1525–1562) was an early proponent of the theological method known as biblicism. Sozzini’s writing raised questions about his orthodoxy. He was a rationalist (as biblicists almost invariably are) who seemed to doubt and to challenge the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity on the ground that the theological language used by the catholic (universal) church wasn’t in the Bible. As a consequence of his method and his ambiguity Calvin distrusted him but Bullinger accepted him as orthodox. He was associated with the Italian anti-Trinitarian movement that later produced outright and unequivocal denials of the deity of Christ, the atonement, and the Trinity among other things, led by his nephew, Faustus Socinus (1539–1604). Baxter was a notorious moralist (who taught justification through obedience), to whom John Owen replied at length in volume 5 of his works. Episcopius was Arminius’ successor and the leader of the Remonstrants at Dort and after. Arminius founded a movement to subvert the Protestant, evangelical Reformed doctrines of grace, to whom the Synod of Dort answered in 1618–19.
  6. Published as The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter.
  7. For a clear, accurate account of the 1974–81 controversy at WTS/PA see A. Donald MacLeod, W. Stanford Reid: An Evangelical Calvinist in the Academy, ch. 15. For an excellent longitudinal survey of Shepherd’s theology from 1963–2006, see the chapter by Guy Prentiss Waters on Shepherd in Robert L. Penny, ed. The Hope Fulfilled: Essays in Honor of O. Palmer Robertson (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).
  8. Here are other critiques of Shepherd’s doctrine of salvation:

Cuando las Buenas Nuevas se Vuelven Malas

(publicado primero en Evangelium, Vol. 2, Número 2, Mar/Abr 2004)

Traducción de Donald Herrera Teran


La palabra “Evangelio” es tan familiar y se usa tan frecuentemente que es posible perder de vista su significado genuino, “buenas nuevas.” Este asunto es vital a medida que enfrentamos una serie de movimientos en nuestras iglesias que buscan redefinir el significado del Evangelio. En cada caso se nos está ofreciendo “otro Evangelio” (Gál. 1:6). Las Buenas Nuevas de Cristo enfrentan una amenaza del mismo nivel de trascendencia de aquella enfrentada por los cristianos en Galacia.

¿Qué les Sucedió a estas Buenas Nuevas?

Los padres de la iglesia primitiva hablaron del Evangelio, pero sus puntos de interés tendían a enfocarse en la apologética, la Trinidad, la Cristología, el canon de la Escritura y la iglesia. No era frecuente que el mensaje del “Evangelio” entre los primeros padres fuese que Cristo había venido y que la salvación estaba disponible para aquellos que confiaban en Cristo y se comportaran apropiadamente. Estas no eran buenas nuevas para los pecadores.

Para el siglo trece el Evangelio de la gracia se entendía como una transformación progresiva de la vida moral de una persona. El evangelio equivalía a santificación. Se pensaba que la gente era moralmente enferma y necesitaba la inyección de una sustancia médica llamada gracia. En este esquema, uno es tanto justificado como santificado, y la santificación llega al cooperar con esta medicina (gracia) recibida en los sacramentos. Su Evangelio exclamaba: “la salvación está disponible para aquellos que cooperan con la gracia y obedecen la Ley.” Estas eran más malas nuevas para los pecadores. En lugar de la justicia perfecta de Cristo obtenida para nosotros, nos quedamos con una justicia parcial obrada en nosotros.

La Reforma de las Buenas Nuevas

En contraste, Martín Lutero y Juan Calvino creían que la Biblia contenía “dos palabras”: Ley y Evangelio.[1] “Ley” describe cualquier cosa en la Escritura que dice, “Haz esto y vivirás” (Lucas 10:28), mientras que “Evangelio” describe cualquier cosa que dice, “Consumado es” (Juan 19:30).

“Haz Esto y Vivirás”

La Ley es la firme voluntad moral de Dios. Esta es la razón por la cual la Confesión de Fe de Westminster (CFW) 19.1 nos recuerda que la Ley de Dios requiere “una obediencia personal, total, exacta y perpetua” antes y después de la caída. Esta fue exactamente la doctrina de Moisés en Deuteronomio 27:26 y de Pablo en Gálatas 3:10: “Maldito sea el que no permanezca en todas las cosas escritas en el libro de la Ley, para cumplirlas.”

Los Reformadores pensaban que Dios le reveló su Ley a Adán en términos de un pacto de obras, “el día que de él comieres ciertamente morirás” (Gén 2:17). La promesa implícita a Adán de la bendición eterna estaba condicionada a su obediencia como representante de toda la humanidad.[2] En su pecado, Adán quebrantó el pacto de obras y toda la humanidad cayó con él.[3] Como resultado, con respecto a la justificación, la Ley es malas nuevas para los pecadores, acusándonos “de haber pecado gravemente contra todos los mandamientos de Dios, no habiendo guardado jamás ninguno de ellos, y estando siempre inclinados a todo mal” (Catecismo de Heidelberg [CH], 60).

“Consumado Es”

Sin embargo, las Buenas Nuevas son otra cosa. Es el anuncio de que, por su acto único de obediencia, Cristo, el Segundo Adán, ha guardado la Ley, observado el pacto de obras, y hecho un “nuevo pacto” en su sangre para los pecadores.[4] El Salvador y Rey Prometido ha venido con su reino y su pacto de gracia.[5] Mientras que la Ley dice, “haz,” el Evangelio dice, “¡está hecho!” Mientras que el pacto de obras dice, “trabaja,” el pacto de gracia dice, “¡reposa!” Esta es la razón por la cual el Evangelio son las “buenas nuevas,” puesto que tiene que ver con nuestra justificación obtenida para nosotros por Cristo y que nos es ofrecida gratuitamente.[6]

Según el Catecismo de Heidelberg 21, la fe verdadera cree que “Dios otorga la remisión de pecados, la justicia y la vida eterna, y eso de pura gracia y solamente por los méritos de Jesucristo.” Donde la Ley demanda mi obediencia perfecta, las Buenas Nuevas anuncian y prometen que Cristo ha cumplido la Ley por mí, ha cancelado la deuda en mi contra y “me imputa y da la perfecta satisfacción, justicia y santidad de Cristo como si no hubiera yo tenido, ni cometido algún pecado, antes bien como si yo mismo hubiera cumplido aquella obediencia que Cristo cumplió por mí, con tal que yo abrace estas gracias y beneficios con verdadera fe” (CH 60).[7]

Esto es lo que Escritura quiere dar a entender con las Buenas Nuevas. En muchos lugares el nombre para “Buenas Nuevas” se refiere a algo que ha ocurrido por fuera de mí y que me beneficia.[8] En otros lugares hemos “proclamar diariamente las Buenas Nuevas” de la salvación de Dios.[9] El más famoso de todos los pasajes del Antiguo Testamento es Isaías 52:7, que dice, “¡Cuán hermosos son sobre los montes los pies del que trae alegres nuevas, del que anuncia la paz, del que trae nuevas del bien, del que publica salvación, del que dice a Sión: «¡Tu Dios reina!»!” (RV95).

Lo que fue prefigurado en las Escrituras hebreas se muestra con total claridad en el Nuevo Testamento. El Evangelio es la realización de la salvación del pueblo de Dios en la vida obediente, muerte, resurrección y ascensión de nuestro Señor Jesucristo.[10] En ninguna parte se hace esto más claro que en 1 Corintios 15:1-5. El Evangelio declara que “Cristo murió por nuestros pecados, conforme a las Escrituras; y que fue sepultado, y que resucitó al tercer día, conforme a las Escrituras…” Es este mensaje de “locura” (1 Cor 1:18) el que es “poder de Dios para salvación para todo aquel que cree” (Rom 1:16). El Evangelio no es que podríamos ser justificados si somos buenos, sino que soy justificado porque Cristo fue bueno. ¡Esta es la razón por la cual el Evangelio son buenas nuevas para los pecadores!

¿Qué les Sucedió a las Buenas Nuevas?

Igual que en el tiempo de Pablo, no todos están satisfechos con el Evangelio de la libre gracia en Cristo en la actualidad. La iglesia primitiva estuvo tentada a añadir condiciones al pacto de gracia.[11] Dijeron, “confía en Cristo por supuesto, pero hay más para estar en la debida relación con Dios que sólo confiar en Cristo.” Los oponentes del Evangelio querían redefinir la fe como “confiar y obedecer.” De modo que Pablo declaró… sabiendo que el hombre no es justificado por las obras de la ley, sino por la fe de Jesucristo, nosotros también hemos creído en Jesucristo, para ser justificados por la fe de Cristo y no por las obras de la ley, por cuanto por las obras de la ley nadie será justificado (Gál 2:16).

Los Reformadores aplicaron de manera correcta este pasaje a su controversia con la iglesia romana. Roma enseñaba un Evangelio de cooperación con la gracia. Su definición del Evangelio hace que nuestras obras se vuelvan parte del proceso de llegar a ser justos para con Dios, lo cual degrada la obra terminada de Cristo. En contraste, el Apóstol Pablo argumentó que las Buenas Nuevas declaran que los creyentes son justificados ahora y que “ahora, pues, ninguna condenación hay para los que están en Cristo Jesús” (Rom 8:1).[12]

Malas Interpretaciones Comunes

Igual que Roma, aquellos que ofrecen un falso “Evangelio” de justificación por la gracia por medio de la fe y la obediencia argumentan que Gálatas 5:6, “la fe que obra por el amor,” enseña que la verdadera fe existe solo en la medida en que existe el amor, de modo que uno es tan justificado como es de santificado. También apelan a Santiago 2:24, “Vosotros veis, pues, que el hombre es justificado por las obras, y no solamente por la fe.”

Leído en contexto ha sido claro para los Protestantes desde principios del siglo dieciséis que Gálatas 5:6 habla no acerca de la justificación, sino de la santificación o de la vida cristiana. Juan Calvino escribió, “… ese pasaje es introducido de forma irrelevante con respecto a la justificación, puesto que Pablo no está considerando allí en qué sentido la fe o la caridad sirven para justificar al hombre, sino qué es la perfección cristiana…” Interpretar este pasaje diciendo que enseña la justificación por la fe y la obediencia es colocarnos de regreso bajo la Ley. De la misma manera, Santiago 2:24 debe ser leído a la luz de Santiago 2:14. Santiago escribe sobre el fruto o evidencia de la fe verdadera. Si uno “dice” que tiene fe verdadera, pero no tiene evidencia, esa clase de fe no es genuina. El punto de interés para Santiago no es cómo somos justos para con Dios sino la evidencia de la fe verdadera. “Justificado” en Santiago 2:24 no significa “declarado justo para con Dios,” sino que significa que la existencia de la fe verdadera es “vindicada.”

Confundiendo el Evangelio con la Membresía de la Iglesia

Algunos argumentan que el Evangelio no es que hemos sido declarados justos delante de Dios, sino que somos miembros de la iglesia. Sostienen que el papel de la fe en la justificación no es simplemente recibir a Cristo y descansar en Su justicia, sino cooperar activamente con la gracia para mantener lo que ya se nos ha dado en el bautismo. Argumentan que la Biblia enseña una justificación que puede perderse si no guardamos la ley.

La teología de la Reforma ha sido siempre pactal, pero este enfoque convierte el pacto de gracia en un pacto de obras al confundir la Ley con el Evangelio. En el pacto de gracia somos justificados por la “fe aparte de las obras de la ley” (Rom 3:28). Si la salvación debe ser retenida por las obras, ¿cómo es que es de gracia? ¿Cómo pueden los pecadores cooperar lo suficientemente bien?

Es verdad que la salvación sucede en el contexto de la iglesia visible, de modo que no hay razón para yuxtaponer lo colectivo y lo personal, pero la Escritura no habla en ninguna parte de la justificación en términos puramente colectivos. No todos en la iglesia visible son necesariamente parte de los elegidos. Muchos en la congregación israelita no se beneficiaron del pacto de gracia porque no creyeron.[13] Aunque Esaú era un miembro externo del pacto de gracia, no era un miembro interno porque no era elegido. No todo miembro de la congregación visible se halla en realidad unido a Cristo en proporción de uno a uno, como dicen. Tal perspectiva haría de Esaú un elegido hasta que perdiera el derecho.[14]

Confundiendo el Evangelio con la Ley

Finalmente, algunos arguyen que puesto que la Ley hace promesas y que el Evangelio requiere que los pecadores “obedezcan,” no existe una diferencia real entre la Ley y el Evangelio.

Es verdad que tanto la Ley como el Evangelio hacen promesas y demandas. Romanos 2:16 enseña que, de acuerdo al “Evangelio” de Pablo, Dios “juzga los secretos de los hombres por medio de Jesucristo” y Romanos 10:16 dice que no todos han “obedecido” el Evangelio. Sin embargo, en el último caso, el verbo “obedecer” es definido en el mismo verso como “creer.” En Romanos 2:16, es evidente que, como en otras partes, Pablo usa “Evangelio” para referirse en sentido amplio a todo su mensaje de pecado y salvación, en el que el regreso de Cristo y el juicio final se hallan apropiadamente incluidos.[15] Es importante notar que el juicio al que Pablo se refiere en Romanos 2:16 no está condicionado a mi obediencia perfecta y perpetua a la Ley de Dios sino que se refiere más bien al pecado de incredulidad.

Aunque ambos, la Ley y el Evangelio, tienen mandamientos y promesas, la Ley y el Evangelio tienen condiciones diferentes. La condición de la Ley (el pacto de obras) es la obediencia perfecta y perpetua. La condición del Evangelio (el pacto de gracia) es la fe que confía, i.e., descansa en la obra finalizada de Cristo y la recibe. La “obra de Dios” es “creer en aquel a quien Él ha enviado” (Juan 6:29).


Las Buenas Nuevas es que Cristo ha obedecido la Ley, ha satisfecho la justa ira de Dios y su justicia me es libremente acreditada y recibida sólo por la fe. La Escritura es clara acerca del Evangelio y nos advierte crudamente acerca del peligro de corromperlo.[16] Sin embargo, por mucho de la historia cristiana, ha habido confusión con respecto a las buenas nuevas. Estas se han convertido en las malas nuevas, de modo que debe ser guardado con cuidado.[17] Hemos de ser cuidadosos de no dejar que nadie nos lleve “cautivos por medio de filosofías y huecas sutilezas basadas en las tradiciones de los hombres, conforme a elementos del mundo” (Col. 2:8) especialmente en lo que respecto a las Buenas Nuevas de la obra de Cristo por los pecadores.

© 2005, Seminario Westminster California
Todos los Derechos Reservados

Permisos: Se le permite reproducir y distribuir este material en cualquier formato siempre y cuando NO se altere la redacción de ninguna manera y no haga cobro alguno más allá del costo de reproducción. Para su publicación en la web se prefiere un vínculo hacia este documento o hacia nuestro website. Cualquier copia distribuida debe contener la siguiente declaración: Por R. Scott Clark, © 2004, Seminario Westminster California. Sitio web: E-mail: Teléfono: 760-480-8474.

[1] Juan 1:17; Rom 6:14; 11:6; 2 Cor 3:6; Gál 2:21; 5:4.
[2] Catecismo de Heidelberg (CH) 9; CFW 7.2; Gál 3:12; Oseas 6:7.
[3] CH 6, 9; CFW 7.2; 19.1.
[4] Rom 5:18; Lucas 22:20.
[5] Isa 52:7; Mat 4:23; Mar 1:15; CH 19.
[6] Rom 10:6.
[7] Rom 10:4; Col 2:14.
[8] E.g. 2 Sam 4:10; 18:20, 22, 25, 27; 2 Reyes 7:9
[9] E.g. Salmo 96:2
[10] Rom 16:25
[11] Gál 1:16; Col 2:4.
[12] Rom 5:1.
[13] 1 Cor 10; Heb 3-4.
[14] Rom 9:11-13.
[15] E.g., Rom 11:28; 1 Cor 4:15.
[16] Gál 1:9.
[17] 1 Tim. 6:20.

More Resources on the Federal Vision

Rick Phillips (PCA/Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals) on the FV.

David VanDrunen (WSC) on Norm Shepherd.

My theses on covenant theology (touching both NPP and FV)

The history of covenant theology.

Lectures from the January 2006 conference on the sacraments are available from the WSC bookstore.

Kim Riddlebarger’s Lectures on the NPP
N.T. Wright’s Perspective on Paul

N. T. Wright and James Dunn

A Response to the NPP (pt 1)

A Response to the NPP (pt 2)

Why a NPP? What’s Wrong with the Old Perspective?

On Krister Stendahl

On E. P. Sanders

On James Dunn

Carl Trueman (WTS/PA) on the NPP’s handling of Luther.

Chuck Hill (RTS/Orlando) on N T Wright’s (NPP) definition of justification.

Some witnesses to historic covenant theology here.

The Mississippi Valley Presbytery (PCA) report  (PDF) on the FV and NPP.

Mid-America Reformed Seminary’s response (PDF) to FV and NPP.

Sinclair Ferguson reviews Norman Shepherd on baptismal union with Christ.

Cornel Venema reviews Norman Shepherd’s The Call of Grace.

OPC Study Committee Report presented to the 73rd General Assembly.

Guy Waters: The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology

Guy Waters: Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul.

Rick Phillips’ paper presented to the So. Florida presbytery, PCA, Oct. 2004.

Paul’s Perspective: A Collection of Primary Sources on the FV/NPP Controversy.

New Horizons issue on justification and the Federal Vision

PCA GA Ad Interim Committee Report (PD).

The Federal Vision and the Reformed Hermeneutic

One of the most frequent claims made in defense of the self-described Federal Vision (hereafter FV) is the claim that they are “only following the Bible.” A corollary of that is the claim that Reformed confessionalists “have already decided in advance what the Bible can say.” This is an important discussion because it gets not only to exegetical points and doctrinal conclusions but to the way that we should read and interpret Scripture (hermeneutics).

One aspect of the FV approach to Scripture is how much their principles of interpretation (hermeneutics) seems so much like not only that made by the Anabaptists, the early Socinians, and the Remonstrants but also how much it sounds like the pietists and the liberals. They all claimed, at different times, to be more faithful to Scripture than the confessional Protestants.

Almost invariably, when I compare the biblical exegesis offered by the alternatives to Protestant orthodoxy, I find the biblical exegesis of the confessional Reformed churches more satisfying not because it agrees with conclusions I’ve already reached but because it gives the best explanation of the widest range of biblical passages. I did not become a confessional Reformed Christian because I decided things ahead of time. I followed the Bible. I left broad evangelicalism because I found its explanation of Scripture to be inadequate.

I have been somewhat critical of aspects of of contemporary Reformed theology, piety, and practice. It is not a question of whether the critics of the FV are following Scripture. Rather the question is whether the FV is following the Reformed understanding of Scripture. Virtually the entire confessional Reformed world has considered the FV doctrine and rejected it. The United Reformed Churches, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Reformed Church in the United States, the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches, Westminster Seminary California, and a couple other seminaries have all rejected the FV as unbiblical.

Perhaps the chief passage to which the FV movement appels is John 15. They claim that when Jesus said, “I am the true vine” and “Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes” it means means that, in baptism, every Christian is conditionally united to Christ, elect, regenerated, adopted, justified etc. We’re told that the point of the discourse is that Christians have been so graced must do their part to retain all that they have been given in baptism or else they will be pruned.

Of course, this passage and others like it (e.g., Hebrews 6 and 10) have been addressed repeatedly in this controversy. The FV interpretation consistently ignores the the distinction (which they regard as evidence of our Procrustean bed—whereby we conveniently ignore difficult passages—we use to understand such passages. The Reformed understanding of this passage and others like it is that it assumes that there are two ways of being in the one covenant of grace. This is exactly what Paul teaches in Rom 2:28. This explains Paul’s address to visible congregations as “saints.” When he used that language, he was not implying that every one of the recipients of an epistle was necessarily elect and he was certainly not saying that they were all conditionally united to Christ etc. Paul was simply addressing the entire congregation according to their profession of faith.

In John 15 and in the other cases to which the FV advocates appeal, Scripture speaks to the church as a visible assembly. It always assumes the truth of Romans 2:28 or what Witsius called the “double mode of communion” in the covenant of grace. Remember, in 14:22 Jesus rebuked Judas. He knew he was speaking to a mixed communion, as it were. The cross was before him and our Lord was preparing his disciples for what lay ahead. The FV interpretation would have us think that Judas was united to Jesus. This is just false. One of the great points of the discourses in chapters 14–15 is to show that Judas was never united to Christ. How do we know? He never loved Jesus. Remember, the same Apostle John who gave us these chapters also warned us in his Epistles (1 John 2:9) about folks claiming to be Christians but who denied the humanity of our Lord. “They went out from us because they were not of us.” They were members of the visible assembly but they ultimately showed what they really were. They never were “of” us. They never were “in Jesus” or truly “in” the vine. They were externally members of the covenant of grace, but never actually united to Christ. Scripture knows nothing of a temporary, conditional, historical, union with Christ or election or justification or adoption.

Jesus says in John 16:1 that he warned the disciples about all these things (in ch. 15) to keep them from falling away. The FV says, “Aha, there it is! He wouldn’t have said “fall away” if it wasn’t a real possibility and only those who are united can fall away.” Not so fast. Yes, falling away is a real possibility to those in the visible assembly. That’s why such warnings are issued here and in Hebrews 6 and 10. This is the distinction between the administration of the covenant of grace and its substance. We all participate in the administration but we don’t all participate in its substance. The warnings are part of the administration of the covenant of grace.

When our Lord spoke he knew who and what Judas was. He knew that they too would be sorely tempted to fall away, but the Spirit uses means, he uses the Gospel to strengthen his people in times of tempation, to enable them to resist.

The beauty of the confessional Reformed understanding of these discourses is that it reads them in the light of passages such as Romans 2:28 and Romans 9 and 1 John 2:9 We know that reprobates (e.g. Judas) may be part of the covenant of grace outwardly but never inwardly. We know that Esau was never elect, never united to Christ, and never adopted, even though he was an outward member of the covenant of grace.

Now, the FV advocates have a completely different explanation of this passage and the others like it. Whose explanation of John 15 do they follow? Is it the Reformed explanation? No.The FV understanding of these passages is much closer to that of the Jesuit counter-Reformation theologian Cornelius a Lapide (1567–1637).

That the FV movement agrees with a Romanist exegete doesn’t ipso facto make them wrong. I have agreed often with Roman exegetes (e.g., Raymond Brown and Rudolf Schnackenburg) on John. It is interesting, however, to see how, when it comes to a fundamental issue, the FV reading of Scripture is at odds with the Reformed reading of Scripture.

This is not a matter of simply tweaking the interpretation of a passage here or there. There is certainly room for disagreement over the interpretation of this passage or that. What is afoot here, however, is that the FV folks are proposing an alternate system of theology under the guise of simply “following the bible.”

A system of theology is unavoidable. No one reads the bible without attempting to relate one passage to another and one topic of biblical teaching to another. The moment one does this, one has a system be it small or large. Every new movement promises to show us all the real or even the hidden message of Scripture. That’s why the Reformed churches confess their understanding of Scripture in formal, ecclesiastical documents.

It is not we have not considered the point of view proposed by the FV. We have. We considered it in dealing with the medieval Roman church, the Counter-Reformation Roman church, and the Remonstrants, and in certain respects, confessional Lutheranism post 1570. We have considered it again in the FV controversy. We have considered the possibility that baptism places one “in” univocally until one is “out” univocally and We have rejected it. It doesn’t mean that we have not faced up to the challenge of relating passages with one another but it means that We have done and come to different conclusions.

After the Federal Vision: The Return of Moralism

August, 2008 (rev 2012)


The Federal Vision is a self-named, proposed, radical, revision of the Reformed covenant theology, doctrine of salvation, and doctrine of the church. In place of the biblical doctrine of unconditional election, it proposes to add a second, historical, conditional election on the basis of grace and cooperation with grace. According to the so-called Federal Vision theology (hereafter FV), one is not only initiated into the covenant of grace through baptism but one is also conditionally united to Christ, conditionally justified, conditionally elected and adopted through baptism. One is said to keep these benefits through cooperating with grace and persevering. Ultimately, in the FV, the two elections collapse into one, conditional election. In that sense it is a sort of covenantal Arminianism.

On the doctrine of justification, most advocates of the the FV theology, teach justification (acceptance with God) on the basis of faith (trusting) and obedience or faithfulness. Thus, the FV rejects the Reformation doctrine of justification through faith alone (sola fide). Where Scripture and Reformed theology has good works as evidence and fruit of justification, the FV movement makes our good works a part of the instrument (faith) and thus a part of the ground (basis) of our justification. Some proponents (e.g., Douglas Wilson) profess to hold to the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, a historic Reformed doctrine, but when they define faith as “faithfulness” they effectively nullify the imputation of active obedience making it rhetorical dressing, having a form of piety but denying its power (2 Tim 2:5).

At the heart of the FV movement is its denial of the biblical distinction between those who are only outward members of the covenant of grace and those who are also inward members by grace alone (sola gratia), i.e., by unconditional divine favor alone, through faith alone. This conflation of inward and outward contradicts the biblical teaching in Romans 2:28.

Proponents of the FV theology often also advocate paedocommunion, i.e., the administration of the Lord’s Supper to infants. This practice is a confusion of the two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. According to Scripture, as understood by the Reformed churches, baptism is the divinely-appointed sign and seal of formal entrance in to the covenant people (Gen 17; Acts 2:39). The Lord’s Supper is the divinely appointed sign and seal that the benefits promised in baptism have been received by grace alone, through faith alone. When communion is given to infants, the signs of covenant initiation and covenant renewal are confused.

Not surprisingly, there was a great controversy in the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches for most of ten years leading up to 2007, when many of those communions began formally rejecting the FV theology as contrary God’s Word. Since that time many of the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches (e.g., the URCNA (and here, the PCA, the RPCNA, and the RCUS) and some Reformed seminaries have rejected the the FV theology.

The FV movement is merely the latest version of moralism. The word “moralism” refers broadly to any doctrine that teaches or implies that justification (acceptance by God) is by grace and cooperation with grace or that justification is through sanctification. Thus, it includes the FV theology but it also includes Roman Catholicism and other versions. For more on this see the volume, Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.


It is an historical fact that moralism (the confusion of justification with sanctification) never dies, it just goes dormant periodically. The Reformation defeated 1000 years of moralism only to see forms of it re-emerge in the Protestant churches even before Luther died.

It resurfaced in the Remonstrant theology, in Richard Baxter (and in those orthodox Reformed whom he influenced), in the Scottish neonomians in the 18th century, in the Oxford (Tractarian) movement in the 19th century, in Charles Finney, and has more or less dominated American Protestantism (whether “evangelical” or liberal) for most of American history. Over the last few years in the NAPARC world and in satellite groups, the orthodox have won several strategic victories in the courts and assemblies of the Reformed churches. The following denominations or federations have rejected the Federal Vision/NPP and related forms of moralism (justification by grace and cooperation with grace) in no particular order (from memory): The United Reformed Churches The Orthodox Presbyterian Church The Presbyterian Church in America The Bible Presbyterian Church The Reformed Church in the United States The Orthodox Christian Reformed Church The Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America The Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States It isn’t over, however.

Moralism always returns. One subtle version of moralism that seems to be gaining a foothold in the wake of the FV movement is the notion that that the proper response to the Roman criticism that the Reformation doctrine of justification is not the alien (extrinsic) righteousness of Christ imputed but some form of “union with Christ” whether Osiander’s “Christ in us” model or “We in Christ.” In either case, the move is to say, “Look, we have real, intrinsic righteousness. It is not infused but it is actual. Our critics cannot say that we do not believe in Spirit-wrought, intrinsic righteousness.”

Certainly it is true that the Reformation churches believe in Spirit-wrought, personal righteousness but none of them believe that it is any part of the ground or instrument of justification. We call this Spirit-wrought righteousness “sanctification” and, as we understand Scripture and Christian truth, it is the consequence or the fruit of of justification sola gratia, sola fide. The problem arises when, in defense of the Reformed doctrine of sanctification, one begins to try to make sanctity more than fruit or evidence of justification.

Any answer to the critics of the Reformation that attempts to satisfy them on their own grounds, that accepts the premise of the critics, is no longer an answer but a capitulation. However vocally one affirms justification sola gratia, sola fide, if one seeks add to that a doctrine of acceptance with God partly on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity/righteousness one has already given up the biblical and Reformation doctrine. Here we need only one text: Romans 4:5, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness….” Note carefully the phrase, “justifies the ungodly.” By this Paul rejects any doctrine that teaches or even implies that we are justified because we are sanctified. One cannot be “ungodly” and sanctified at the same time.

Moralism, however, reverses Paul’s clear teaching. It says that God can only justify the godly, therefore we must be godly in order to be justified. How can they do this and profess allegiance to Paul’s doctrine? Pelagius, doubtless the greatest of moralists, said that, in this verse, when Paul says “ungodly” he was only referring to the inital stage of justification. He wrote one’s, “initial faith is credited as righteousness to the end that one may be absolved of the past, justified for the present, and readied for future works of faith.” By “future works of faith” Pelagius was saying that though our past is addressed through faith, our future acceptance with God is on the basis of “works of faith.” This is essentially the FV system and virtually every other system of acceptance with God by faith and works (faithfulness).

According to Paul, however, Christ’s obedience covers our past and our future. This is what our Lord meant when he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Moralism says, “It is begun.” These are two different, mutually contradictory accounts of the faith.

As sinners accepted freely by only for Christ’s sake, we ought, by grace alone, through faith alone, struggle against sin, die to it daily, and seek to to be conformed to God’s law through the power of the Spirit, in union with Christ because we have been justified. Consider, e.g., 1 Corinthians 6:20, “for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” or Galatians 5 where Paul reminds believers that they have been graciously set free and then, in v. 13, reminds them that their new freedom is not a license to sin. Should we sin that God’s free, unconditional favor might abound? No! (Rom 6:1). This is Paul’s paradigm: God’s undeserved favor toward sinners, in Christ produces new life in us and that leads to gratitude and that is lived out by grace.

However well intended, the attempt to weld the biblical, Reformation doctrine of justification to the notion of an intrinsic ground of acceptance with God is as incoherent as it is unstable. It has two competing principles at work. The doctrine of salvation and the doctrine of the Christian life cannot serve two masters: acceptance on the basis of intrinsic sanctity/righteousness (however construed and for whatever reason) and acceptance with God on the basis of extrinsic righteousness imputed. It must love the one and hate the other.

The reality is that the Reformation cannot satisfy moralism and moralism is relentless and restless. It is always seeking whom it may devour. Moralism is not satisfied with the gospel mystery of sanctification, that it is the fruit and not the root of our justification. It seems so much more reasonable to say that we are justified because we are sanctified. That may be but on such a principle how much of Christianity would stand? Nothing. After all, how “reasonable” is it to say that Christ is one person with two natures or that God is one in three persons? On the ground of “reasonableness” (as some define it) the Socinians rejected Christ’s divinity, the Trinity, and the substitutionary atonement.

Moralism will only satisfied with total victory because it is opposed to the Gospel of free grace. Moralism will not give up because it does not really believe that we all, in Adam (Rom 5:12–21), are dead in sins and trespasses (Eph 2:1–4). Rather, it begins with the assumption that though we are sinful we are not so sinful that we cannot contribute (even if just a little) to our own acceptance with God. This premise is not always made explicit. It must be mined, as it were, but it is always there. Those who know the greatness of their sin and misery in Adam would never, could never imagine that anything they do, even by grace and cooperation with grace, could contribute at all to Christ’s finished work for us.

This is why moralism will never be entirely vanquished in this life. It may go publicly, temporarily dormant for a time but it always returns. This is why we must never say to ourselves or to each other, “We all know what the gospel is, now let us go on to the Christian life.” The minute we say that we’ve lost the foundation of the house and the power of the Christian life. It is like saying, “We all know how to breathe, so let us forget about breathing and get to exercising.” People who say that have never exercised. If you want to live a Christian life, start with the declaration of the good news. How do we confront sin in our lives? We reckon with the law. How is sin defeated? By the gospel and only by the gospel. The law has no power to defeat sin. The law only has power to convict and guide. The law is like railroad tracks. To go off the tracks is destruction but the tracks do not move the train. Only God the Spirit empowers the Christian to live Christianly and he does so only through the frequent and faithful declaration of the good news to sinners.

Christian, when you stand here the moralists will call you antinomian. Do not be intimidated. Just as they redefine the gospel to become grace and cooperation with grace, so too they have redefined “antinomian” to mean, “any one who denies any form of acceptance with God on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity or righteousness.” In truth, antinomianism is denial of the third use of the law, i.e., that the moral law (e.g., Exodus 20; Matt 22:37–40) is the abiding norm of the Christian life. No Reformed Christian can deny the third use of the law and still be faithful to God’s Word and the Reformed confessions.

How should we regard those who advocate moralism? After a conflict, like the FV controversy, we might be tempted to take the position to let bygones be bygones. After all, conflict is difficult and painful and we want to make it go away. That would be a mistake. First, in some ecclesiastical bodies there are ongoing disciplinary cases concerning the FV doctrine. Even though denominations have adopted statements and received reports, the FV movement exists and is promoted in some denominations (e.g., in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches) and there are ongoing ecclesiastical cases involving the FV doctrines in others.

Consider the case of Richard Baxter (1615–91), who sponsored a crisis in the doctrine of justification. His 1649 Aphorismes of Justification taught quite clearly that faith justifies because it obeys (thesis 74). Where the orthodox (e.g., Westminster Larger Catechism, 70–73) had been explicit that only Christ’s obedience is the ground and that, in the act of justification, faith’s only virtue is that it trusts Christ’s finished work. Baxter’s revision of the doctrine of justification prompted sharp responses from John Owen, who’s 1677 treatise On the Doctrine of Justification By Faith was, in effect, an extended repudiation of Baxter (The Works of John Owen, 16 vols (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust), vol. 5).*

Despite this history, Baxter is still widely regarded as a “Reformed” theologian, if only on the basis of his widely read volume, The Reformed Pastor. Baxter’s theology, however, is better measured by the effect of his doctrine on his congregation in Kidderminster. Today, Baxter’s parish church is a Unitarian meeting house that proudly houses his pulpit and his collected works. There are logical connections between Baxter and Unitarianism. J. I. Packer has noted the effect of Baxter’s sub-Reformed doctrine of the atonement and its connection to the rise of Unitarianism. There is also a logical connection between Baxter’s moralism and Unitarianism. Both are grounded in rationalism. Because, however, we have politely papered over Baxter’s defection from the Reformation and the consequences of his errors, evangelicals today are surprised to learn the history and connection. Kidderminster should stand as a monument to the dangers of moralism. Thus, we too should resist the contemporary urge to rehabilitate the advocates of moralism, whether they be repainted as defenders of the faith against the New Atheists, or leaders of the homeschooling movement, or defenders of socio-political conservatism.

How then should we reply to moralism? The only reply is twofold: First, preach the law. Though it is counter-intuitive, the first thing that every moralist needs to hear is the law. People become moralists because they do not really believe that they are sinners and because they think, like Saul of Tarsus, that are masters of the law (rather than being mastered by the law). They need to be knocked to the ground by the holy glory of Christ (Acts 9:3). They need to become sinners (Luther), as it were, i.e., they need to realize their true condition. They also lack a true knowledge of the righteousness and holiness and wrath of God and thus they lack a proper fear of God’s holy wrath. When they have heard the thunder of the law in all it is unmitigated, holy, and just demand for perfect, perpetual, and personal righteousness, then should we announce to them the sweet gospel message.

We can no more satisfy moralism on its own grounds than Paul could satisfy the pagans at the Areopagus (Acts 17). He preached the (natural) law and the foolish (supernatural) gospel of the resurrection. Some believed, most did not. That’s all we can hope. Moralism will be back. Bank on it. The conflict between grace and moralism is not over because it can never be over until history is over.


*This paragraph taken from R. Scott Clark, ed. Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry..

Explaining the Nine Points of Synod Schereville


In 2007 the Synod the United Reformed Churches in North America adopted a statement of pastoral advice concerning the self-described “Federal Vision” theology. For more on this movement see this essay.

Interpreting Synod

One of the main matters of business at Synod Schereville was to address an overture brought by Classis Michigan regarding the Federal Vision theology. As part of dealing with that overture Synod took two actions. First it re-affirmed and strengthened the language first adopted at Synod Calgary regarding justification by faith alone (sola fide). Synod affirmed:

  1. “that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, based upon the active and passive obedience of Christ alone.”
  2. “that the Scriptures and confessions teach that faith is the sole instrument of our justification apart from all works.”and determined to
  3. “remind & encourage individuals and churches that, if there are office-bearers suspected of deviating from or obscuring the doctrine of salvation as summarized in our confessions, they are obligated to follow the procedure prescribed in Church Order Art. 29, 52, 55, 61, and 62 for addressing theological error.”

That same assembly also voted overwhelmingly against the distinctive doctrines that compose the Federal Vision movement. So there were 3 Points on sola fide and 9 Points on the Federal Vision adopted in two motions.

The question has been raised as to who can interpret these decisions by Synod. It has been suggested that only those who were actually in attendance can actually, accurately interpret the “Three Points on Sola Fide” and the “Nine Points.”

This is an odd hermeneutic. Let us test it.

It seems safe to think that neither you nor I were present during any part of the history of redemption or revelation. Only those who were present can (i.e., have the ability) to interpret the history of revelation and redemption properly.

What will our ministers preach this Lord’s Day? Of course, if they are fulfilling their vocations and their ordination vows, they will proclaim the law and the gospel. How can they do it? Scripture was given to be heard, read, and understood. It’s true that all Scriptures are not alike plain in themselves, but Scripture is clear enough, with the help of God’s Spirit, to be understood for faith and life, that even the simplest of God’s people can do it.

Let’s try this test again. Only those who were present at the Synod of Dort may interpret the Canons of Dort. You and I were not present at Dort ergo, we can’t interpret the canons properly.

The skepticism implicit in this proposed hermeneutic is plain. Let’s hope this hermeneutical skepticism doesn’t catch on or else soon we won’t be able to read the newspaper or anything else for which we weren’t personally present. This might be a good way to reduce the amount of information and we must consider and interpret, but would also seem to create a very small, solipsistic world.

Fortunately, the Reformed Churches have and should never consider that only those present at synods can actually discover the intent of the document and the intent of the body in adopting a document.

When a body adopts a document or a series of points that say, “Synod affirms…synod denies” the intent of Synod is not a mystery, is it? The question remains what exactly Synod is affirming and denying (hence the posts expositing the 9 Points) but it’s clear that Synod has taken a clear stand for some things and against others.

Further, it’s quite clear from the “Three Points on Sola Fide” that Synod intends to reject the revision of the doctrine of justification proposed by the Rev Mr Norman Shepherd and his followers (i.e., the Federal Vision). Synod’s rejection of the inclusion of works in the definiton of faith as it functions in the act of justification in straightforward. The ground of justification is also completely clear: the imputation of the active and passive obedience. Again, Synod has rejected the views propounded by the Rev Mr Shepherd and by some (not all) of his FV followers.

Why is it necessary for one to have been at Synod to know these things? For no reason at all that I can see. Whatever the skeptics might say, I’m glad that the ministers and elders delegated to Synod Schereville spoke unequivocally in favor of the gospel and against the dangers inherent in covenantal moralism.

I’m especially glad for the courageous stand taken by men (just to pick one) such as the Rev Dr Cornel Venema who spoke up in committee for the right of Synod to speak on these issues and who gave, according to reports, two stirring and decisive speeches on the floor of Synod to help the delegates understand what is at stake and the necessity of clear testimony to the gospel. God bless Dr Venema and for all the men who stood for the gospel at Synod Schereville and God bless them for creating two statements that even the simplest of God’s people, even if they weren’t present at Synod, can read and understand and apply to our circumstances. May the Lord of the Church grant the Spirit of wisdom and courage to follow through and the intent of Synod as expressed in the two statements.

I do not doubt that being present at Synod does color one’s reading of the motions. At the end of the day, what was adopted, even if it is described as pastoral advice –ultimately all actions of Synod are “pastoral advice” in a federation since any congregation that cannot submit to the decisions of Synod are free to withdraw from the Federation, is still a series of unequivocal denials of error. Those errors are clearly stated and just as clearly rejected.

The “pastoral advice” is hardly saying, “Well, we sorta, kinda, think that maybe you might think about this but if you disagree, well, that’s fine too.” No, Synod said, “Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those who….” The words “Synod rejects” are unambiguous.

As I suggested above, it was said before Synod that the body could only deal with the “Federal Vision” problem if a minister or elder was charged with error and if that case came to Synod on appeal. On that procedure there could never have been a Synod of Dort! Of course Synod can address doctrinal errors that threaten the whole Federation. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed at Synod Schereville and the delegates found a way to speak clearly to this issue.

It is clearly within the power of Synod to address matters “that pertain to the churches of the broader assembly in common” (Church Order Art 25). It is clearly within the power of Synod to make decisions that are “to be received with respect and submission, and shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved that they are in conflict with the Word of God or the Church Order.” (Art. 29). I see no place in our Church Order for “pastoral advice.” Indeed, the only usage of the noun “advice” that I see in the CO is relative to classis (a regional assembly of churches). In other words, though Synod described or characterized its actions as pastoral advice, absent any such category in the church order, it’s very hard to see how the use of those words materially changes the nature of Synod’s actions.

In the same way that those who said that Synod could only address the FV on appeal were wrong, so too are those wrong who said, “Study committees are Presbyterian, not Reformed.” Apparently Synod Schereville didn’t get the memo as Synod established not only a Federal Vision/Justification study committee but also a second to consider the prerequisites for church membership. In fact, there’s little difference in principle between a short study committee, which meets while an assembly is in session, and a decentralized study committee that meets in the interim between assemblies. Why are shorter, less well-informed, study committees preferable to ad interim committees? I don’t see it.

Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine. Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those:

This preface to the Nine Points is particularly important as it establishes a fundamental point, a foundation, and conviction that guides the points that follow. Indeed, the Nine Points are really nothing more than an elaboration of this foundational truth.

Reformed theology is covenantal. Yes, Reformed theology may be expressed in dogmatic or systematic terms, indeed it must be. It may and must be expressed in catechetical terms also, but covenant theology is the Reformed account of the history of redemption and it is substantially identical to what we confess in our Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism and to what we teach in our systematics/dogmatics texts.

Because “covenant theology” is the shorthand way of saying, “the Reformed account of redemptive history” and it is that stuff that informs and controls what we teach in dogmatics/systematics and what we confess as churches, to change our account of the history of salvation is to change our faith. “Covenant theology” is inextricably bound up with our confession considered narrowly as ecclesiastical documents and considered broadly as the Reformed understanding of Christianity.

All this is to say that, though there is room for difference of opinion and variety, the Reformed understanding of Redemptive history is not endlessly elastic. It is not possible, e.g., to postulate that Adam was not the head of humanity or if he was he was only an example and that nothing he did does anything more than set a bad example, and call oneself “Reformed.” Pelagian yes, Reformed, no. There’s a boundary on which I trust we’re all agreed.

It’s not possible to say that God established for national Israel one way of being accepted by God as righteous and being delivered from sin and judgment, and that God established another way of acceptance with God and deliverance from sin and judgment for the New Testament church. So there’s another boundary on which we can agree.

Now I’ve been told for the last seven years that there was enormous variety among the classic Reformed theologians on “covenant theology.” I’ve been told that there were great differences of opinion of the Reformed of the 16th and 17th centuries regarding their understanding of the history of redemption. As a result, I’ve been told, we really can’t set up any firm boundary markers today as to what one can say about “covenant theology.”

Well, I’ve done a little bit of reading (and writing) on the history of Reformed covenant theology and I’m still waiting for the documentary evidence for this claim of enormous elasticity in classic Reformed covenant theology. What I’ve found are some variations in the language about how the covenant of works/nature/life are described and some variations in how the covenant of redemption is described and, of course, differences of opinion about the exact role of works in the Mosaic covenant, but on the whole I’ve found a remarkable consensus about the mainlines of covenant theology.

It has been asserted repeatedly over the last seven years that the “covenant of works” is a “Presbyterian” doctrine or “Westminster Confession” doctrine but that it’s not a “Dutch Reformed” doctrine. This claim is baseless. The doctrine of the covenant of works was just as widely held among the Dutch as it was among the British Reformed theologians and churches and it was denied or modified by both groups just about as often. There were British Reformed theologians who rejected a strictly legal covenant of works, but they were a minority. There may have been Dutch Reformed theologians who rejected a strictly legal covenant of works in the 17th century, though I’m not aware of them.

I am aware, however, of a number of Dutch Reformed theologians from the 17th century, who taught the covenant of works with every bit as much fervor as any British theologian. Witness 1, Herman Witsius (1636–1708):

In the covenant of works there was no mediator: in that of grace, there is the mediator,
Christ Jesus….In the covenant of works, the condition of perfect obedience was required, to be performed by man himself, who had consented to it. In that of grace, the same condition is proposed, as to be, or as already performed by a mediator. And this substitution of the person, consists the principal and essential difference of the covenants (The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, 1677, 2 vols. 1.49).

Witness 2, Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635–1711):

Acquaintance with this covenant is of the greatest importance, for whoever errs here or denies the existence of the covenant of works will not understand the covenant of grace, and will readily err concerning the mediatorship of the Lord Jesus. Such a person will very readily deny that Christ by His active obedience has merited a right to eternal life for the elect. This is to be observed with several parties who, because they err concerning the covenant of grace, also deny the covenant of works. Conversely, whoever denies the covenant of works, must rightly be suspected to be in error concerning the covenant of grace as well (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 1700; 1.355).

Witsius and Brakel were not exceptional. These two were mainstream Reformed theologians and entirely representative of Reformed orthodoxy across Europe and Britain. Further, we should not accept the premise that there was a distinctively “Dutch” Reformed theology. I find no evidence for such a claim. Scholars of Reformed orthodoxy have known for many years that Reformed theology was an international phenomenon. The British Reformed theologians were reading the Europeans and the latter were reading the former.

From where do these ideas, that there was a distinctively “Dutch” Reformed theology, and that there was endless variety to Reformed covenant theology, come? They are forms of special pleading generated by particular ecclesiastical arguments from the 1940s. The Schiderites/Schilderians, in reaction to what they perceived to be persecution by the Kuyperians, in the midst of a nasty theological and political fight, made the argument that they were the true heirs of the Afscheiding theology (the 1834 “Separating” by conservative and confessional Reformed folk from the national Dutch Reformed Church). In so doing, they cast their Kuyperian opponents as “scholastics.” This rhetorical move signaled to folks in their movement that the “scholastics” (i.e., the mainstream of 16th and 17th century Reformed theology!) were somehow tainted and not to be trusted. As a consequence of such moves (e.g., “Calvin v the Calvinists”), much of the Reformed world in the 20th century lost contact with the sources of classical Reformed (covenant) theology.

In other words, the ground for these two claims is not historical, not grounded in the actual documentary history of Reformed theology, but in polemics that were fueled by an important but heated argument about covenant theology and the nature of the church and related questions.

Folk also seem to get the idea that there is such diversity from reading the variety of idiosyncratic accounts of covenant theology that developed in the 20th century, during which time the orthodox/confessional view became the minority report, back into the tradition. I see this all the time. I’ve done it myself on occasion. The reasoning goes this way: “I’m Reformed. I think/have been taught x. Ergo, x must be what we’ve always believed.”

Of course this reasoning is completely fallacious but that doesn’t mean that it’s not widespread. It is widespread. A great lot of folk seem to think that whatever they’ve been taught by their pastor or prof must be whatever has always been believed and often in the 20th century, that connection just hasn’t existed.

Some of our writers such as John Murray, who revised the covenant of works, were quite plain about the revisions they were proposing. Others, however, have either not been aware of the fact that they were proposing a major revision or haven’t let on that they were.

In any case, with a couple of notable exceptions, covenant theology in the 20th century has been a mess and is not a reliable guide to the Reformed tradition.

Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine. Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those:

Reformed theology is covenantal. Not all “covenant” theologies are Reformed, however. There are lots of “covenant” theologies. The early and medieval churches had an account of the history of revelation and redemption that contained truths but also contained significant errors. Many of the fathers and virtually all the medieval theologians thought of Bible as containing two kinds of law, the old and the new. When these writers said “gospel,” they meant “new law.” According to the medieval church, the difference between old law and new law is the greater degree of grace available (via the Roman sacerdotal system) under the new law enabling Christians to obey the law toward final justification.

The Reformation formulated a significantly different account of the history of revelation and redemption. The magisterial Protestants all agreed the Bible reveals that God entered into a legal relationship with Adam as the first head of humanity and, after the fall, he entered into a gracious relationship with sinners, in Christ. The Protestants confessed that, after the fall, God revealed progressively one story of salvation, by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone. Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, and Calvin (to name but a few) taught explicitly that the Bible has two ways of speaking to sinners throughout the Scripture: “do” (imperative, law) and “done” (indicative, gospel). Thus, the relationship (covenant) that God made with Adam was fundamentally legal: “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” The relationship (covenant) into which God entered and the promises that he made to all those who would believe was fundamentally gracious.

This distinction between law and gospel was a fundamental structure to the Protestant account of redemptive history, i.e., the story of the covenants in Scripture. Another fundamental structure was the idea of the covenant of grace whereby God made promises in types and shadows (by illustration and foreshadowing) to save his people by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

The 16th- and 17th-century Protestants who developed this covenant theology, this way of reading the history of redemption, also wrote our catechisms and confessions. Those 16th- and 17th-century Protestants did not see any tension between their reading of redemptive history and revelation and their systematic reading of Scripture and their catechisms and confessions. They saw the types of teaching as closely inter-related and as reciprocal. In other words, they said what they did about systematics and they confessed what they did because of the way they read the history of redemption (covenant theology).

What distinguished the Reformed from the earlier Protestants is that they developed a covenant theology more intentionally and thoroughly, but it’s important to understand that, in the history of Reformed theology, covenant theology wasn’t some highly specialized, technical, or mystical discipline that only a few illuminati could understand. Covenant theology was simply our way of talking about the history of redemption and revelation and our covenant theology wasn’t terribly complicated.

This is important because, in the modern period, there has been a concerted attempt to drive a large wedge between “systematic” theology, our confessions, and what has come to be known as “biblical” or “redemptive-historical” (i.e., covenant) theology. Prior to the 19th century, however, there was no great dichotomy between these ways of doing theology. In the 16th century, one of the authors of our catechism, Caspar Olevianus wrote both kinds of books as well. About the time of the Synod of Dort, one of the more important handbooks of systematic theology was written by an Old Testament professor, Johannes Wollebius. In the 17th century, the great theologian Johannes Cocceius (Koch) wrote books on both the history of redemption and on systematic theology.

Beginning in the 19th century, however, both liberals (i.e., those who don’t really believe the historic Christian faith but who wish to be considered “Christians” nonetheless) and pietists (i.e., those who think that religious experience is more important than the confession of faith) began to set covenant theology against systematic theology. They argued that covenant theology arose as a way of alleviating the problems created by systematics. These moves and claims have been widely influential, even among orthodox Reformed people who should know better.

Thus, there developed in Germany a specialized field of study known as “Biblical Theology.” Since the development of this field, there has been a tendency among pietists (who may or may not be orthodox), liberals, and conservatives to treat “Biblical Theology” as a “scientific,” or “neutral” enterprise under which rubric one may say whatever one will without any regard to what Reformed systematic theology teaches or what the Reformed Churches confess.

This approach to Biblical or covenant theology has created serious tensions, in some cases, in the “covenant theology” held by Reformed folk and the confession of the churches and the historic Reformed theology. Some folk have seemed quite happy to let this tension continue to lie unresolved. As a consequence of this tension, one may hear a “redemptive-historical” (i.e., covenant theology) sermon in the morning service saying one thing, e.g., that the covenant of grace is a matter of getting in by grace (i.e., baptism) and staying in by faith and works and in the evening sermon one might hear a perfectly orthodox sounding sermon from Heidelberg Catechism Q. 21 on true faith.

Even more unhappily, however, for the last 30 years, some folk (now known as the Federal Vision) have been resolving this tension between their “covenant theology” and their systematic theology in favor of their covenant theology. This move has led them to re-define key words and ideas of the Reformed faith according to the new covenant theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this new covenant theology, there is said to be no difference between faith and works. Faith implies works and works imply faith, even in the doctrine of justification. Faith in the act of justification is said to be “trusting and obeying” or “faithfulness” or even sometimes, “faith and works.” Why? Because this is how the Federal Vision movement has come to read the history of redemption, as is the story of “covenant faithfulness” from beginning to end.

Of course not every practitioner of Biblical Theology has made this mistake. Geerhardus Vos, who taught in the early days of what became Calvin Theological Seminary, and more famously at Princeton Theological Seminary, set out to show that it was possible to do Biblical Theology AND systematic theology without setting one against the other. As he worked on this project he found himself in conflict not only with the liberals, who wanted to reconstruct Christianity in their own image, but also some conservatives from various branches of the Dutch Reformed churches who were developing an idiosyncratic covenant theology that could not be reconciled with the Reformed confessions and which was quite out of accord with the mainstream of Reformed covenant theology from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Vos published his work in several volumes. His lectures on Biblical Theology were later published in a volume by that title. Since Vos, however, practitioners of Biblical Theology in the Netherlands, Britain, Australia, and in the USA have continued to set Biblical Theology against systematics and the confessions as if they were in tension. In other words, folk have not always written and taught their account of the history of redemption and revelation with an eye to the confessions, catechisms, and systematic theologies.

In the recent controversies over covenant and justification, when queried about this method, these “covenant theologians” have replied, “We’re just following the Bible.” What they mean, however, is that they are trying to read the Bible as if no one has ever done it before. When folk try to read the Bible as if no one has ever done it before, we call that “biblicism.” This approach to Scripture is very influential among American evangelicals and surprisingly, among liberals. Indeed, the earliest “liberals,” in the 16th and 17th centuries, were known as Socinians. They rejected the Protestant faith because, they said, it wasn’t biblical enough. They said “We’re just following the Bible” as they denied the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, justification sola gratia, sola fide, and eventually, the Trinity. This biblicism has affected the Reformed churches. Some of the Remonstrants (Arminians) in the 17th century, rejected at the Synod of Dort, also argued that they were “just following the Bible.” Eventually, the Socinians and some of the Remonstrants coalesced and formed the basis for the modern Unitarian movement.

So, we should be alert and wary when folk say, “I’m just following the Bible.” Indeed, frequently in our contemporary discussions, when criticized, the FV folk will reply, “I’m just following the Bible.” Well, that’s fine, but the Reformed Churches have also read the Bible and we’ve reached different conclusions.

In fact, no one “just” reads the Bible. Everyone reads the Bible in a place, i.e., in a cultural, historical, and theological context. Further, after Adam, as it were, no one who reads the Bible is the first to read it. The church has been reading and meditating on Scripture for a very long time, but it is common among evangelical and liberal biblical scholars to write and speak as if they can read the Bible in splendid isolation. This way of doing business is bound to create tension between the confessions of the churches and this sort of “biblical theology.”

The Reformed Churches have never taken such a “biblicist” approach to Scripture. We have always related our confessions very closely to our reading of redemptive history (covenant theology) and vice-versa. We’ve always related our systematic theology very closely to our covenant theology and vice-versa.

In the preface to the Nine Points, the United Reformed Churches are saying, in effect, we reject the premise that one can develop a “biblical” or “covenant” theology which in substance contradicts what we confess. In this preface, the URCs are also saying, in effect, we reject not only the creation of the tension between covenant and confessional theology but also the resolution of that tension by the FV whereby our confessions are substantially revised to mean something other than what they have historically meant.

Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine. Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those:

The last point to be made about the preface to the Nine Points is closely related to the first, and it is this: what one says about covenant theology (the history of redemption) necessarily colors what one says about the doctrine of justification. The Reformed doctrine of justification exists within the environment of covenant theology. The latter is the womb or matrix of the doctrine of justification. Whatever a pregnant woman eats or swallows touches her unborn child. So it is with covenant theology and the doctrine of justification in Reformed theology. Thus, the changes to covenant theology in the 19th and 20th centuries have not been without consequences for the doctrine of justification. As Karl Barth radically revised Reformed covenant theology by jettisoning the covenant of works (more on that later) he also radically reversed the Reformed hermeneutic (i.e., way of reading Scripture). Instead of law and gospel (see ch. 12 in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry on law and gospel in Reformed theology) Barth proposed “gospel and law.” This move was followed by some “evangelical” theologians, most notably Daniel Fuller and Norman Shepherd. This reversal of law and gospel (and the accompanying claim that Reformed theology rejects the distinction between law and gospel) is mainstay of the Federal Vision program. They, and the so-called New Perspective(s) on Paul, have us “in by grace” (i.e., united to Christ, head for head, in baptism in an “all or nothing” covenant) and we “stay in” by “faith and works” or “covenantal faithfulness.” Thus, this reversal, especially in the hands of the “covenant moralists” sets the Reformed faith upside down! Instead of the Christian life flowing out of grace and gratitude, lived in union with Christ in the covenant community, we would be, if it were possible, according to the Federal Visionists, back under the law and in constant jeopardy of apostasy if we do not keep “our part” of the covenant.

All of these revisions flow from the revisions in Reformed covenant theology, parts of which were first proposed in the 17th century and which have been proposed and rejected repeatedly since, that took hold in the 19th and 20th centuries.

If, for example, the covenants of works and grace are not distinguished clearly, then the ground of righteousness before God and definitions of faith are bound to change. This is precisely what has happened in the so-called Federal Vision. Having put us under a legal/gracious covenant before the fall, they have us under a gracious/legal covenant after the fall. In this scheme, the terms of “the covenant” (as the FV writers like to say) are and always have been “faith and works” or “faithfulness.” Though he is not clear about most things, Norman Shepherd is quite clear about his claim that we and Adam are on the same footing. Adam owed faith and obedience. Jesus owed faith and obedience and we too owe faith and obedience. Christians who know the greatness of their sin and misery realize that Shepherd has done them no favors, as it were, by placing us on the same footing as Adam and our Lord! Nor has he done them any favors by making the Christ into the first Christian, in the same way as the 19th-century German liberals. In such a revised covenant theology, Christianity always becomes just another scheme for religious experience and moral improvement.

Again, such radical revisions turn Reformed theology on its head. The Reformed faith is a doctrine of divine revelation and salvation, not religious experience and self-improvement (even if that self-improvement is cast in terms of “grace and cooperation with grace”).

Grace is God’s favor to sinners. Adam wasn’t a sinner until he sinned. We, as Adam’s children, are sinners and therefore we sin. We are corrupt in all our faculties:

  • In our intellect — we think corruptly;
  • In our affections — we love corruptly;
  • In our wills — we choose corruptly;

Therefore, “grace” which isn’t really grace at all, “grace” which is thought to be merely divine assistance to those who must “do their part” isn’t really grace but a recipe for damnation. God doesn’t help those who help themselves. He saves those who can’t and won’t save themselves. Grace is Christ’s salvation of those who would voluntarily choose hell over heaven, who come to trust Christ and love God and hate sin only because the Holy Spirit makes them alive, gives them faith, and unites them to Christ. The story of the covenant of grace is the story of God’s free favor/grace to those who by nature hate him.

So it is with the instrument of the covenant of grace: faith. By definition, faith is and has nothing to do with our “doing.” One critic of Synod Schereville said to me that the language adopted by Synod is imprecise because it uses the verb “to be.” It says “faith is the sole instrument of our justification apart from all works.” If this language is “imprecise” then tell it to the Belgic Confession and all the Reformed Churches since 1561 since this is the very language we have confessed since then! In Art. 22 we confess:

faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness.

We say: “faith is.” We do not say: “the exercise of faith is” (as was suggested by the critic). Why not? We should not speak this way because even the turn to the verb “to exercise” changes the nature of the verb. Faith does what it does, i.e., receives, rests, leans, trusts, and knows, because of the power of its object. Faith has no power in and of itself. That’s why the Reformed have often described faith, in the act of justification (which is what we’re about here) as an “empty vessel” or, in Calvin’s case, an empty hand.

Faith does not justify because it does anything. That is why Synod was quite right to adopt the three points reaffirming and strengthening our stand on justification by faith alone “apart from all works.” The very point of the Belgic Confession is to exclude our “doing” from the definition of faith in the act (declaration) of justification. To turn faith into any more than this receptive instrument is to make something or someone other than Christ into a Savior. That, the Belgic says,

is a most enormous blasphemy against God–for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified “by faith alone” or by faith “apart from works.”

Covenant theology is not some innocent enterprise. What a minister or teacher or writer says about covenant theology will, even if he himself doesn’t intend or realize it, necessarily have consequences for the definitions of grace and faith and justification, and it is upon these articles that the church stands or falls.

Point 1

Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those: 1. who deny or modify the teaching that “God created man good and after His own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness,”” able to perform “the commandment of life” as the representative of mankind (HC 6, 9; BC 14);

One of the more important moves by those who have spent the last 30 years attempting to revise the Reformed doctrine of justification and Reformed covenant theology is to change our perception of the difference between our state before the fall and after.

What I mean is that, among those who teach the so-called Federal Vision of covenant theology, an antipathy to the doctrine of the covenant of works/nature/life (historically the prelapsarian covenant has been described with all three designations). To be sure, there are folk who are orthodox on justification who nevertheless deny the covenant of works/life/nature.

Those who reject the covenant of works/life/nature typically do so because they think it is “legalistic,” i.e., they think it is unseemly to speak of God entering into legal relations with Adam before the fall. They assume that if God has a legal relation to Adam he cannot also have a filial relation.

This assumption needs to be queried and rejected. Of course Adam can have both filial and legal relations to God simultaneously. It happens all the time. Of course any example to which I appeal now comes from the postlapsarian world, but in principle, there’s no reason why such conditions are inherent to a postlapsarian world. Take marriage for example. My marriage is relational, personal, AND legal. My good relationship with my wife, our personal interaction and mutual regard for one another is premised to no small degree on our legal relations. These two facts complement each other and intertwined.

Others reject the covenant of works/life/nature because they reject the idea that Adam could have “earned” anything from God. Again, this problem is grounded, at least partly, in misunderstanding. No one is saying that Adam, outside of a covenant, could have earned anything from God. The question is whether God is free to establish a covenant whereby he promises to reward Adam’s obedience? Of course he may! Did he? Reformed theology says: Yes, he did.

That covenant has been described in a variety of ways. It has been described as a covenant of works, which focuses on the condition of the covenant. The prohibition: “you shall not eat…” implied a positive command, just as “you shall not steal” implied a positive command to seek the welfare of our neighbor. So, Reformed theologians have, since the 16th century, spoken of a covenant of works. This language was made confessional in the Westminster Standards but when they did so it was quite uncontroversial. This same aspect of the covenant with Adam is also captured in phrase used by several sixteenth-century Reformed writers, “the covenant of law.”

The same covenant can also be and has been described as a covenant of nature. In this case the focus is on the situation in which the covenant was made. Adam was, to use later language, “in a state of nature.” This is a shorthand way of saying that Adam was created good, righteous, and holy, i.e., without defect. Adam was made able to obey. Adam wasn’t a sinner or sinful until he sinned.

The third way of describing the prelapsarian covenant is to speak of the promised reward: life. Here the noun “life” stands not just for bare existence, because Adam already had that, but rather it stands for “consummate existence” or the state of glorification. Adam was sinless, holy, and righteous but he wasn’t glorified. Since the earliest church fathers it has been recognized in Christian theology that Adam was in a probationary state. This state has not always been described as a covenant of works, but this idea of a probation is of the essence of Reformed, confessional covenant theology and it is a truly catholic idea. It has been recognized for the whole Christian period, i.e., for the entirety of Christian history that Adam was the federal representative all humanity and that implicit in the Tree of Life was an offer of glorified existence for him and for us in him.

It is true that some of our modern theologians (e.g., John Murray) preferred to speak of the “covenant of life.” Fine, but it entails all the allegedly objectionable features of the covenant of works and nature and law, so it doesn’t really change anything fundamentally to speak of a covenant of life.

Here’s the problem. The Federal Visionists want to eliminate the fundamental difference between the prelapsarian covenant and the postlapsarian covenant. This is a very serious matter.

In the history of Christian theology, the attempt to flatten out the difference between our state and ability and the conditions of glorification before and after the fall has been known as Pelagianism. Pelagius was a British monk who lived about the same time as St Augustine. Pelagius was offended by Augustine’s doctrine of divine sovereignty. He argued that it would lead to bad behavior as it reduced the incentive to good behavior. The whole Western church rejected Pelagius doctrine that we’re all just like Adam and that we become sinners when we sin as heresy.

Now the FV isn’t Pelagian exactly but it wants to put us on the same highway. They might not even intend to put on the road toward Pelagianism, but that’s not really very important. What matters is the consequence of what they are saying.

There are others, who, speaking strictly, are not Federal Visionists, but who also reject any great difference between the covenant of works/nature/law/life and the covenant of grace. They speak of a “so-called covenant of works” (e.g., K. Schilder and his followers). They speak of a “covenant of favor” before the fall and a covenant of grace after the fall.

Well, from the perspective of the history of doctrine this a most unhelpful way of speaking. Historically “favor” is a synonym for “grace” and to say a “covenant of favor” before the fall is tantamount to saying “a covenant of grace” before the fall. To speak of a “covenant of grace” before and after the fall necessarily flattens out the great difference between Adam’s state (and ours in him) before the fall and after.

The phrase “covenant of favor” as a way of describing the pre-fall relations between God and man is profoundly ambiguous. It could possibly mean, “Adam was in a state of divine approval so long as he obeyed.” If that is what is intended by the phrase “covenant of favor,” then all is well. It is, however, a poor choice of words. Do those who speak this way intend to say “Adam was in a state divine approval so long as he obeyed.” If that is what those writers means, why do they not use one of the older expressions such as “covenant of works,” “covenant of life,” or “covenant of nature”? Those who speak of a “covenant of favor” this way seem to deny the confessional, historic, Reformed covenant theology in favor of one of the modern revisions.

Some writers, (e.g., Norman Shepherd), have been quite plain in following the consequences of this way of speaking. They say that Adam would have been glorified had he persisted in trusting and obeying. Jesus was accepted and glorified because he trusted and obeyed and we will be accepted if we trust and obey. Sometimes they even move directly from Adam to us!

There are at least two huge problems here. First, to move from Adam to us, skipping Christ, is just Pelagian. It ignores sin and it downplays the great difference between the pre-fall and post-fall condition of man. Second, it treats us as if we had the same ability as Adam before the fall. Third, it skips Christ. How can an allegedly Christian theology either omit Christ or make him a mere example of how to be good? At best, this approach does what the 19th- and 20th-century liberals did: it makes Jesus into the first Christian. He wasn’t a Christian. He was and is the Christ.

Finally speaking of the pre-fall covenant as a “covenant of favor” tends either to eliminate Adam’s legal obligations or it tends to confuse grace and law and to speak of grace and law before the fall and grace and law after the fall tends to put us on the same footing as Adam. There is nothing Pauline or Calvinist about this at all.

We’re not at all on the same footing as Adam before the fall. We are dead in sins and trespasses. In Adam’s fall sinned we all. Christ obeyed, died, and was raised for the justification of sinners!

Most fundamentally of all, as I’ve already suggested, by minimizing the difference between Adam and us before and after the fall tends to confuse grace and works. Paul was very clear about this:

“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom 11:6)

These are two competing principles relative to justification. They can never be confused. To say “grace” is to say is to say “gift” as Paul does in Rom 4:4: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due” and Rom 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” These are competing categories. Before the fall Adam had no need of “gifts” or “grace,” in the sense in which Paul used the word in these verses. Before the fall, Adam was not corrupt or corrupted in any way. Before the fall, he wasn’t wicked. His will was right, his mind clear, and his heart pure. That is why we confess in the Belgic Confession that he had the power to perform “the commandment of life.” After the fall, of course, the commandment of life continues but now we are sinful, corrupt, and vitiated in all our faculties. After the fall we are no longer able to fulfill the commandment of life. We need another to perform that commandment for us and God graciously sent one, in the fullness of time: Jesus the Christ, the Savior of helpless sinners.

Did Adam have “gifts” in another sense? Sure. His very existence may said to have been a gift. All his endowments may be said to have been a gift. Fine, but that’s not what is at issue here. What is at issue is the way God related to us and we to him in the pre-fall state and in the post-fall state.

Is there any useful way of speaking about “grace” relative to Adam’s state or the covenant of works/nature/life/law before the fall? Well, God may be said to have made the covenant graciously. Please note the adverb. The adverb “graciously” describes the way God acted in making a covenant at all but it does not characterize the nature of the covenant itself. Adam was not under grace but under law and, because he was created in righteousness and true holiness, he was not a sinner or lawbreaker until he sinned by breaking the law.

The Westminster Divines might have said that God graciously made the pre-fall covenant, but they did not. Instead, they chose to say that God made the covenant of works/nature/life/law by “voluntary condescension.” This was a deliberate choice of words. They focused on the freedom of the divine will. God was not obligated to a covenant with Adam but chose to do. Why did the divines speak so? They used this language and not the alternative expressions because they wanted to avoid the very problem that the Federal Visionists and others have created by speaking of a gracious covenant or a covenant of favor before the fall.

I am grateful that Synod spoke as they did. I understand that Synod chose its words very carefully and avoided requiring anyone to say “covenant of works” or even “covenant of life” but the phrase “commandment of life” is confessional. Whatever quibbles one might have with the traditional phrases it’s necessary to affirm a strong and clear difference between the condition of glorification before the fall (no need for justification before the fall) and the condition and instrument of justification and glorification after the fall; after the fall we need to be justified before we can be glorified).

All this gets back to the basic principle of the prologue: Reformed folk are not allowed to say one thing under the heading “biblical theology” or “covenant theology” and another under “confessional” theology. What we confess must permeate and inform our reading of redemptive history.

Point 2

Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those2. who, in any way and for any reason, confuse the “commandment of life” given before the fall with the gospel announced after the fall (BC 14, 17, 18; HC 19, 21, 56, 60)

This is striking language. Not only did Synod recognize as an error the implicit or explicit denial of the “commandment of life,” but Synod also rejected as an error any confusion of the principles between the prelapsarian and postlapsarian states. The second point is closely related to the first and every bit as important if not more important.

Adam was under the “commandment of life” before the fall. The principle of the “commandment of life” was “do this and live.” After the fall, the “commandment of life” continues to demand, in the language of the Westminster Confession (7.2) “perfect and personal obedience.” The law must be obeyed and it must be obeyed perfectly. Of course, this is exactly what our catechism says:

9. Does not God then do injustice to man by requiring of him in His Law that which he cannot perform?

No, for God so made man that he could perform it, but man, through the instigation of the devil, by willful disobedience deprived himself and all his posterity of those divine gifts.

We were made to “perform” the law. Because we were created to perform the law, and the law is just, the obligation continues even after the fall. At issue here is the divine justice. Those who would elide the difference between the covenant of works/nature/law/life and the covenant of grace would also fail to account for the necessity of satisfying justice. Grace doesn’t have to be satisfied, but justice does. The covenant of works was about “wages.” The covenant of grace is about gifts.

Also at stake here is the nature of grace and the gospel. Those who confuse or conflate the covenants of works and grace also confuse the law with the gospel. Grace, in its nature, is free, unconditional, and undeserved. The revisionists want to make the pre-fall and post-fall covenants partly legal and partly gracious. Of course, for sinners, a partly legal post-fall covenant is not good news.

In this point Synod recognized that there are two fundamental principles by which human beings relate to God: law and gospel. Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83), the primary author of our Heidelberg Catechism and the authorized (by Frederick III, the Elector Palatinate who commissioned the catechism) expositor of it in the 16th century, explained the difference this way:

Q.36 What distinguishes law and gospel?

A: The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake (Larger Catechism, Q. 36).

The other primary author and editor of our catechism, Caspar Olevian (1536-87) said,

For this reason the distinction between law and Gospel is retained. The law does not promise freely, but under the condition that you keep it completely. And if someone should transgress it once, the law or legal covenant does not have the promise of the remission of sins. On the other hand, the Gospel promises freely the remission of sins and life, not if we keep the law, but for the sake of the Son of God, through faith (Ad Romanos Notae, 148; Geneva, 1579).

John Calvin’s colleague and successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza (1534-1605) wrote,

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558)


Though tragically many Reformed folk have come to think of this distinction as “Lutheran,” nothing could be further from the truth. Our Reformed theologians and churches were, until the modern period, every bit as committed to this distinction  as were the Lutherans.  None of these writers was confessionally or ecclesiastically Lutheran.  This distinction was absolutely fundamental and essential to the Protestant Reformation. For  much of the period before the Reformation the church read Scripture as if it were all law. The medieval church and Rome today distinguishes between the “old law” (Moses) and the “new law” (Christ) but it’s all law. According to the medievals and Rome, “Do and live” is law and “For God so loved the world” is also law. For Rome, the law is the gospel and the gospel is the law. So it is for the covenant moralists in the current controversy.

Synod said: Enough. This is a basic, non-negotiable distinction. This distinction is not some boutique idea but as basic to being Reformed as air is to human beings.

This distinction was not meant to be an abstraction. According to Ursinus, these principles came to expression in two distinct covenants.

What does the divine law teach?

The sort of covenant which God began with man, in creation; by which man should have carried himself in serving God; and what God would require from him after beginning with him a new covenant of grace; that is, how and for what [end] man was created by God; and to what state he might be restored; and by which covenant one who has been reconciled to God ought to arrange his life (Larger Catechism [1561] Q. 10)


The Dutch Reformed theologian, Herman Witsius, said the same thing:

 In the covenant of works there was no mediator: in that of grace, there is the mediator, Christ Jesus….In the covenant of works, the condition of perfect obedience was required, to be performed by man himself, who had consented to it. In that of grace, the same condition is proposed, as to be, or as already performed by a mediator. And this substitution of the person, consists the principal and essential difference of the covenants (The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, 1677, 2 vol;1.49).

Let us be clear here. What is at stake in the second point is the gospel. Is the gospel “Christ was born under the law,” “for God so loved the world,” “I will give you rest,” “And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,” “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” or is it, “If you do your part, I will meet you half way”? This is exactly what is being offered by the covenant moralists (e.g., Norman Shepherd, the Federal Vision, and the NPP), we are said to “get in by grace” and to “stay in by works.”

This is why Synod said, “in any way and for any reason.”  Why this language? Frequently in this discussion those who would revise the Reformed doctrine of justification and Reformed covenant theology have pled “good intentions.” With this language Synod said, “Your intentions are not the most important consideration here.” There are simply some things that cannot be said by Reformed folk and “in by grace, stay in by faithfulness” is one of those things. “The law is the gospel and the gospel is the law” is another.

Just as when we drive on the road there are boundaries that we may not cross (lines and barriers) so in our theological discourse there are limits on what Reformed ministers, elders, and members can say and remain in good standing. If we are to remain Reformed  Protestants then there are fixed boundaries that must be respected. This is no light matter. The doctrine of justification is of the “standing or falling of the church.”

Point 3

Synod rejects the errors of those:3. who confuse the ground and instrument of acceptance with God before the fall (obedience to the commandment of life) with the ground (Christ who kept the commandment of life) and instrument (faith in Christ) of acceptance with God after the fall

When Synod says “acceptance with God” with respect to Adam, they were referring to the biblical and confessional doctrine that Adam was given a law to obey as the condition of glorification.

Gen 2:16-17 says:

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Our Belgic Confession calls these words the “command of life.” His life was contingent upon obedience to this command which we, with Paul, understand as a synecdoche, i.e., a part for the whole. The law of God requires that we love God with all our faculties and our neighbor as ourselves. In this case, Adam’s immediate neighbor was Eve but, in a sense, as the federal (representative) head of all humanity, Adam was to love us also by keeping the law, which he had the power to do.

Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15 set the paradigm for our understanding of this aspect of Gen 2. In 1 Cor 15:45 Paul speaks of the “first man Adam” and he calls Christ the “last Adam.” That is, he reads the whole of redemptive history in terms of two representative men, Adam and Christ. One was disobedient and missed glorification. The other was obedient and glorified. In Rom 5, the Apostle Paul uses the same “two Adam” scheme to interpret redemptive history.

In v. 12 Paul says that it was Adam’s disobedience that brought sin into the world. Notice that it wasn’t Adam’s “fall from grace.” Adam’s sin was law breaking. That is what the Apostle John says: Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). Thus, we confess that sin is “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 14). The fundamental human problem is legal and therefore its solution must also be legal.

This why Synod spoke of the “ground of acceptance by God.” On what basis does God accept anyone? On the basis of perfect legal righteousness and because Paul links Adam and Christ so closely and they are so closely linked in our theology and confessions, whatever we say about Adam tends to color what we say about Jesus. If we say that God would have accepted Adam’s obedience on the basis of grace (or congruent merit whereby God imputes perfection to imperfect obedience) then what of Christ’s obedience? Some defenders of the covenant moralists have said to me that God the Father accepted Jesus obedience by grace. Some of them have argued that Paul teaches this in Philippians 2. David VanDrunen and I have replied to this claim in Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry. The short answer is that this claim relies on a fallacious etymology.

In fact, as we demonstrate, Jesus earned approval from the Father by doing all that the Father gave him to do and all that he voluntarily agreed to do on our behalf. Just as the First Adam was in the covenant of works, so the Last Adam was in a covenant of works. Unlike the first, Adam, however, Christ, the last man did not fail. He resisted temptation. He rebuked the evil one with God’s Word and he underwent the penalty due to the first Adam and all his children. This is precisely what Paul continues to teach in Rom 5:14, that Adam was a “type of the one who was to come.”

According to Paul, (v. 15) “many died through one man’s trespass….” That “one man” was Adam. Again, please note that Paul here speaks of Adam’s “trespass.” This is legal language. This is the language of the courts. “To trespass” is to violate the law. Only in this case does the contrast make sense: “But the free gift is not like the trespass.” When Paul says “free gift” he is speaking of grace. We, who trust in Christ’s finished work, are the beneficiaries of the satisfaction of the law for us. Grace is premised on righteousness. Christ satisfied all righteousness (Matt 3:15).

Adam’s disobedience brought death and condemnation (vv.16, 18a). Christ’s obedience brought grace, life, and salvation to all who believe (vv.16, 17). In v. 18b Paul puts a fine point on things. He contrasts Adam’s “one trespass” with Christ’s “one [act of] righteousness” that brought “justification of life.” V. 19 says the same thing. By “the one man’s disobedience” all were constituted sinners, i.e., Adam’s sin was imputed to us all. So too, by the “the one man’s obedience” will believers be constituted as righteous. Just as Adam’s trespass is imputed to those whom he represented (all humanity), so the Second Adam’s obedience is imputed to all those whom he represented, i.e., the elect, those who believe.

In both cases, the ground of our standing before God was righteousness. In Adam’s case, it was his actual righteousness, under the terms of the covenant, until he forfeited it by sin. In Jesus’ case it was actual, inherent righteousness by virtue of his obedience for us that is imputed to us. This is the ground of our justification.

The Protestant and Reformed view of justification is not that it is a legal fiction. It is not. Christ actually fulfilled the law. That actual, perfect righteousness is credited, reckoned, imputed to all who believe. The ground of our righteousness after the fall is not inherent or intrinsic to us. It is inherent or intrinsic to Christ our righteousness.

The Federal Visionists have repeatedly either called into question the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ, either by denying the imputation of Christ’s active obedience or by quibbling about “imputation,” or by openly denying that we sinners need anyone’s righteousness imputed to us.

Thus Synod also rejected the revision of the definition of faith, in the act of justification, proposed first by the Arminians –that faith justifies because it obeys — and put forward by Norman Shepherd from 1974, i.e., that faith justifies because it trusts and obeys. Of course, it’s obvious that if faith justifies because it works then the power of faith does not rest fully in Christ and in his finished work. In the words of Belgic Confession Art. 22, if that were so, “it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified ‘by faith alone’ or by faith ‘apart from works.'”

The question about the “instrument” of justification is about the nature of faith in God’s declaration of justification. How does faith function in God’s declaration? Does God declare us righteous because true faith “embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own….” (Belgic Confession Art. 22) or does God declare us righteous because we trust and obey? This is the choice faced by the Reformation churches. This was the choice faced by the Reformed Churches at Dort and this is the choice faced by the Reformed Churches today. This is why we deny that “faith itself” justifies (BC, 22). Faith itself does not justify. Faith is not the legal basis for God’s declaration that we are righteous. Christ’s righteousness imputed justifies. Christ’s righteous imputed is the legal basis for our justification. We confess that “faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness.” (BC, 22).

This is what Synod meant by speaking of the “instrument” of acceptance with God. As you know, the Heidelberg Catechism defines true faith as a “certain knowledge and a hearty trust.” Belgic Confession Art. 23 defines faith in the act of justification (God’s declaration) is “leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified, which is ours when we believe in him.”

Because we define faith this way, it is inappropriate to speak of Adam or Jesus having faith in this sense. Did they trust their Father? Certainly! But Adam, in his state of righteousness, needed to trust no one else for justification because he was just. He needed no “mediator,” in that sense. To say that our Savior needed to trust the righteousness of another is blasphemy.

For us sinners, Christ and his obedience for us, in our place, is our righteousness. True, justifying faith leans, rests, trusts, and accepts Christ and his righteousness as one’s own. Anyone, for whatever reason, who says anything else about the ground or instrument of justification before God, is certainly not teaching the Reformed doctrine of justification.

Point 4

Synod rejects the errors of those 4. who deny that Christ earned acceptance with God and that all His merits have been imputed to believers (BC 19, 20, 22, 26; HC 11-19, 21, 36-37, 60, 84; CD I.7, RE I.3, RE II.1)

I first encountered what is today known as the “Federal Vision” in the late 90s. The movement didn’t have a name but I called them “covenantal moralists.” They seemed to think that, so long as they invoked the word “covenant,” (and affirmed divine sovereignty) they were entitled to teach anything they wanted and call it “Reformed.”

They also found a following by offering an alternative to the way some segments of broad evangelicalism and some forms of Lutheranism speak about the moral law. Some of these groups deny the “third use” of the moral law. In contrast, Reformed folk confess that the moral law (in the Ten Commandments and summarized in Matt 22) is the norm for the Christian life. Thus, when the FV fellows talked about how we have to avoid “easy believism,” (again, following Norman Shepherd) their rhetoric was plausible. Our own sloppiness gave a foothold to the covenantal moralists.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this movement, however, has been that their persistent denial of the category of “merit” altogether. They deny that Adam could have “merited” anything. They sometimes speak of Adam “maturing.” With this they begin to plunge us back into the morass of the medieval and Roman doctrine of the “super added gift” (donum super additum) which says that Adam was inherently defective by virtue of being human and thus needed this gift to enable him to obey the law.

They not only deny that sinners can merit anything, but they also deny that Jesus “merited” anything for us. Again, this move had a certain plausibility among some because of the long-standing Protestant rhetoric about “merit.” It’s easy to find Calvin or Luther or any number of dozens of Reformed theologians inveighing against “merit.” Partly we were a victim of our own rhetoric. We all know that salvation is by God’s sovereign grace and we’re “against merit.” So, when folks encountered these feature in the FV theology they were predisposed to agree with them.

In fact, if we are to believe the Reformed confessions, we are not opposed to “merit” at all! We need to make some distinctions here. Before the Reformation, the medieval church had come to speak about merit in two ways: condign (pron. “con-dine”) and congruent. By the latter, many medieval theologians taught that God accepts our best efforts toward justification and imputes perfection to them. In this way, it was theorized, we are able to “do what lies within” us toward our own justification.

Let us be clear about this: All the Protestants rejected congruent merit. The fundamental premise of congruent merit is that humans are sinful but not so sinful that they cannot cooperate with grace. This was also a basic premise of the Arminians, that God has given a kind of universal grace with which sinners can and must, if they will, cooperate toward justification.

Condign merit was said to be that which, because it is wrought by the Spirit, is inherently perfect and therefore worthy of recognition by God toward justification. Again, the Reformation rejected the idea that we can have condign merit, but we did not reject the notion of condign merit altogether.

In fact, the Reformed taught that Christ earned merit for his people. Read Calvin, read the Reformed orthodox, confessional theology from the 16th and 17th centuries. They repeatedly invoked the category of merit in this way. Most important, however, is that it was the judgment of the Reformed churches that God’s Word teaches that Jesus Christ merited acceptance with the Father for us. Perhaps you noticed the lengthy list of confessional references given as part of this point? In each of those references the Reformed churches confess that Jesus merited our justification. It is implied in Belgic Confession articles 19 and 20 and explicit in art. 22 where we confess that true faith “embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits….” Again, we confess: “Jesus Christ is our righteousness in making available to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place.” In Art. 23 we deny that we sinners could ever have any “merits” in contrast with the “sole obedience of Christ crucified.” In context here, the words “sole obedience” refer to Christ’s merits. In Art. 24 we deny that we have any merits. We do good works, “but nor for merit—for what would we merit?” You see how the Confession distinguishes between the merits of Christ and our good works. The latter are only a response to grace, the former are the ground of our justification. We speak of resting on the “merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.” Art. 35 also speaks of Christ’s merits in the same way.

The Heidelberg Catechism speaks repeatedly and exactly the same way about Christ’s merits and our lack of merit. The premise and doctrine of questions 11–18 is that where Adam failed to obey, Christ succeeded by obeying God’s law thereby meriting our justification. Question 21 makes point this explicitly. True faith believes that “forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” Question 56 speaks of the “righteousness of Christ” and question 60 is explicit that by this we mean to speak not of our “merit” but of “all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me….” Again, question 63 (and in Q. 86), our good works merit nothing, but, in Q. 84, our sins are “really forgiven …for the sake of Christ’s merits.”

The doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s merits occurs in the Canons of Dort. In the Rejection of Errors, under the First Head of Doctrine, para. 3, we confess that, under the Arminian doctrine, “the merits of Christ are made of none effect….” Under the Second Head of Doctrine, Rejection of Errors, para. 1, we confess again that Christ “merited” our redemption. We confess that the Arminian doctrine of universal atonement “tends to the despising of the wisdom of the Father and of the merits of Jesus Christ.” In RE para. 3 we explicitly condemn those who deny “Christ by His satisfaction merited neither salvation itself for anyone….” In RE 2.4 we again confess the “merits of Christ” as the ground of our justification.

If you want to read more you can see the chapter David VanDrunen and I wrote on this in Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry.

The evidence in our confessions for the doctrine of Christ’s (condign) merit is enormous, clear, and compelling to those who would be Reformed. That the Federal Visionists explicitly and implicitly deny the doctrine of the imputation of the merits of Christ and tolerate such a denial says a great deal about this movement. Their denial and toleration of those who deny the imputation of Christ’s merits tells us that this movement is patently unconfessional and therefore the movement is not Reformed.

I remember the first time I saw this denial of the category of “merit.” I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how Reformed ministers (who were, at that time, still in good standing in a Reformed federation) could do such a thing when our confessions are so plain about this. How could it happen? There are a couple of answers:

  1. The 1976 translation of the Heidelberg Catechism does not use the word “merit.” In hindsight, this was obviously a pedagogical mistake. How are we going to teach the Christian vocabulary to our children and to our congregations without using it?
  2. The FV is clearly a movement that finds its inspiration outside of the classic Reformed theologies (that informed the confessions) and the confessions and catechisms themselves. Oh they quote them when it suits them, often out of context, but they don’t have the same interests or intent as the confessions and catechisms. It is an alien theological system attempting to find a host. I’m grateful that many of the NAPARC denominations and federations have refused to give them a home.

To deny the Reformed doctrine of Christ’s merits inevitably leads to two things, the resurrection of the Roman doctrine of OUR merits and this is what is happening among some of the Federal Visionists. Having denied that Christ merited our justification they have begun to talk in openly Romanist ways about our Spirit-wrought sanctity (i.e., condign merit) being part of the ground of our acceptance with God and some of them advocate the doctrine of God’s imputing perfection to our best efforts (i.e., congruent merit) toward acceptance with God.

There really are two systems at work here: the confessional and the moralist. The choice for Reformed folk is clear.

Points 5 and 6

Synod rejects the errors of those

5. who teach that a person can be historically, conditionally elect, regenerated, savingly united to Christ, justified, and adopted by virtue of participation in the outward administration of the covenant of grace but may lose these benefits through lack of covenantal faithfulness (CD, I, V);

6. who teach that all baptized persons are in the covenant of grace in precisely the same way such that there is no distinction between those who have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace by baptism and those who are united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone (HC 21, 60; BC 29)

With these points Synod struck at what is perhaps the fundamental error of the Federal Vision, 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, that, like a drawing of two lines that converge in perspective down the line. They begin distinct 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 the covenant of grace 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., an 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.

All this, they say, is the result of their biblical theology. They say they just want to be faithful to the narrative of Scripture and they don’t want dogmatic or systematic theology to flatten out the biblical story. They say that they continue to affirm (most) of the traditional and confessional Reformed theology of election and union. There is, we’re told, a covenantal account and a systematic or confessional account. They say that they don’t want to let the doctrine of election unduly color or ruin the story of covenant and redemption.

In this series I have already sketched some of the difficulties with this approach to doing theology. First of all, it isn’t biblical. Scripture itself doesn’t have two competing accounts of the faith that are in tension with each other. Scripture tells the story of the history of redemption and the draws theological conclusions from it. Imagine in the Apostle Paul followed the theological method of the FV! The book of Romans would look rather different. 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 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 reprobate.

The FV simply cannot say this and that is perhaps the most damning fact about the FV. They’ve set up a 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.

There is much more to be said about this problem than can or should be said in the space of a blog post. I have addressed this issue at length in two places and in two formats.

You can read online, for free, part of the essay: Baptism and the Benefits of Christ. This essay has been available for more than year and, with one exception, I’ve seen little evidence that the FV movement has taken account of it. You can order a copy of volume 2 of the Confessional Presbyterian Journal in which it appeared here. I hope to republish the whole essay in a revised form in a collection of essays.

Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace is a popular booklet that covers many of the same issues as the essay in the Confessional Presbyterian Journal but without the same documentation (footnotes, lengthy quotations etc).

The answer to the problem created by the FV theology is to make a distinction which 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. All baptized Christians are in the covenant of grace. As Calvin said, to deny that is virtually blasphemy. It doesn’t help the problem to do as some have been tempted to do, i.e., to deny that unbelievers or reprobates have any relation to the covenant whatever. At the same time, it’s just as 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 that one covenant of grace. 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). Though Jacob and Esau were both in they covenant of grace, they did not have, ultimately, the same relation to the one covenant of grace. They were both “in” the covenant of grace, but they weren’t both “of” the covenant of grace.

Why not? Paul says it was a matter of election.

With this understanding, we avoid another great FV error (one which 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. More on this next time.

Consider this statement:

That 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 all the hallmarks of a FV statement. In fact it quite resembles the recent FV Statement that has been discussed here and on several other blogs (e.g., Green Baggins and Reformed Musings). It says things that are true. It speaks of being incorporated into Christ by “true faith,” just as the Reformed did, but it also contains much error. It suggests that believers become partakers of the Spirit by virtue of faith. Of course, unless the Spirit has worked through the Gospel to make one alive, he could never believe. Yet it goes on to say rightly that the Spirit gives believers power to fight against sin, the flesh, and the devil, that God gives his people assisting grace in sanctification with which they must cooperate, but again it seems as if we must take the first step. There are certainly shadows of error across the statement even as there real truths in it. If we cooperate, they wrote, we cannot be plucked out of Christ’s hand.  You see how this statement makes our perseverance contingent ultimately on our cooperation with grace or our “covenantal faithfulness.” It’s possible, the statement says, for those who have “true faith” to 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….” There is ambiguity here, however. The statement recognizes that this doctrine is difficult and its final formulation has yet to be “more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full confidence of our mind.”

Right down to the closing ambiguity and feigned expression of humility this brief statement has Federal Vision written all over it. Who wrote it? Wilson? (after all it has affirmations of important orthodox points even as it undermines them at the same time – classic Wilson) or Wilkins, Leithart, or Barach –the ambiguity at the end seems to come from his keyboard. Is this a part of the recent FV statement that was lost on the cutting room floor?

No. It’s none of these things.

This statement was published in 1610 by a group known then as the Remonstrants. You know them as the Arminians. In 1609, their leader, who spent most of twenty years denying that he was teaching these things, died. Not long afterward, the Arminians or Remonstrants published their Five Articles. It was to these five articles that the Synod of Dort replied.

If you know the Canons of Dort (1619), then you know that the Reformed Churches replied to this article in the Fifth Head of Doctrine. Under this head 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). CD 5.4 says 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 doesn’t mean that they actually fall away, i.e., that they become reprobate. By this language the Reformed described the subjective experience of the elect not their objective state. One of the great problems of the FV doctrine is that they do not make this distinction.

Thus, believers are urged to “continually watch and pray, lest they should be led into temptation.” When they are careless,  “they may be not only be carried away by the flesh, the world, and Satan into great and heinous sins….” If this occurs, as it did with King David, it is by “the righteous permission of God.” This isn’t 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.

Like the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2, so in the Canons of God 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 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.”  From those whom God has elected, God never withdraws his Spirit. They never lose God’s grace. They never lose their adoption or justification.

In 5.7, we confess that God has placed, within his elect, an incorruptible seed of regeneration. Therefore the elect can never fall away, they can never be “totally lost.” In 5.8 this is attributed entirely to the mercy and grace of God. This has nothing to do with our 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 (exchangeability). Our God cannot be changed. His decree (counsel) cannot be changed.  Neither can the “or 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), we can have assurance without “any peculiar revelation contrary to or independent of the Word of God” that we belong to Christ and that his elect will never fall away. 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….”

Yes, in this life we will doubt (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 suffer 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.”

No, this doesn’t lead to immorality. Grace produces gratitude and sanctity; not all at once but gradually (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’s 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’s no secret really, we’ve been doing it for centuries! — is to preach Christ’s faithfulness in the history of redemption. These are the things that produce piety in Christ’s people.

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, isn’t going to work, neither will it work (contrary to the expectations of Francis Beckwith, who recently converted to Rome, partly because he felt he had not enough incentive to be good) 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.

Finally, 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 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’m 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, practically ends up in very similar place. This is remarkable for ministers who call themselves Reformed and who say they subscribe the Canons of Dort. Have these fellows read the Rejection of Errors?

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 FV. Do we believe in “conditions” in the covenant of grace? Sure we do, but not the sort that the Arminians attached — whereby salvation becomes merely possible for those who do their part or that the FV attach whereby salvation becomes merely possible for those who do their part.

The Synod calls the idea that God preserves those who do their part  “outspoken Pelagianism….” It might make men “free,” or it might make it seem that they’re free, but it robs God of his honor.

Thus we reject the idea that the elect can ever actually fall away or commit the sin against the Holy Spirit (RE 5.3-4). We can know that we are elect, not by asking, “Am I elect?” but by asking, “Do I believe the gospel of Christ?” Only the elect believe and if one believes, then one is elect. It’s that simple. If anyone tries to make it more complicated — well, I think we know what to do with such tempters.

We don’t need a special revelation to have assurance of faith (CD RE 5.5). We trust the promises of God. To require special revelation for assurance is to reintroduce the “doubts of the papist” into the Reformed Churches.

In 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.” Isn’t this exactly what the FV says about the common state of all the baptized? Isn’t 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.

Not according to the Canons of Dort. Full stop.

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” (Lk 22:32).”

This is a grave matter. Either perseverance is by grace alone, through faith alone, grounded in the sole obedience of Christ for his people, and in the preserving grace of the Spirit, behind all of which is the unconditional decree of election, or it is not. The FV cannot have it both ways. They cannot tell us that they believe in an unconditional decree of election but then refuse to bring it to bear on our understanding of the way the covenant plays out in history. By doing so they make the decree theoretical and become practical Arminians. They don’t like this accusation but it stings because it is true.

We don’t 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 don’t understand this problem (as evidenced by their July 2007 Statement – released after the PCA GA and the URCNA Synod rejected their distinctive views) suggests that this no mere “experiment” (as they have sometimes said). This is a conviction for them which places them at odds with our confession. They are not “of us.” They don’t want us to think or say that because to recognize their theology as alien to Reformed theology, piety, and practice means excluding the Federal Visionists from our churches. They like living in our midst, benefiting from the orthodox but they don’t want to confess our faith.

Just as they can’t have two versions of the doctrine of election (covenantal and decretal) so they can’t have two relations to our confession (to affirm and deny).

Now it’s up to the orthodox to see if we really are orthodox and if we’ll make the decisions of the GAs and Synods stick in the courts and assemblies of the churches or whether we’ll allow these quasi-Remonstrants to continue to subvert the faith from within and create the sort of havoc they’ve been doing.

Point 7

Synod rejects the errors of those who: 7. who teach that Spirit-wrought sanctity, human works, or cooperation with grace is any part either of the ground of our righteousness before God or any part of faith, that is, the “instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness” (BC 22-24; HC 21, 60, 86)

One of the great misconceptions about the Western church before the Reformation and therefore about the Reformation reaction is that the medieval church taught “salvation by works” or, more precisely, “justification by works” whereas the Reformation taught “salvation by grace” or, more precisely, “justification by grace.” There are a couple of reasons why this way of speaking is misleading or problematic.

First, the claim that the medieval and the Tridentine (and post-Tridentine) Roman Church (even today!) teaches justification by works is a true conclusion and a powerful slogan but a misleading because one will not find many medieval or counter-Reformation or post-Reformation Roman theologians or Councils or Papal decrees saying “justified by works.” Because the debate was (and is) rather more nuanced, sometimes Protestants are surprised to find the medieval and Roman theologians speaking so often and so effusively about grace.

Indeed, the Roman system of salvation (and justification) is positively infused (pun intended) with grace. Remember through the course of medieval history the Western church developed an elaborate sacramental system designed to impart grace to the sinner at every turn. So, a medieval or Roman theologian, when accused baldly of teaching justification by works could quite rightly reply, “What do you mean? There’s never been such a gracious system of salvation!”

Here’s the problem, and it’s a very important problem touching the New Perspective(s) on Paul, the Federal Vision, and other sorts of moralists as well as others. It is too often assumed that the only categories by which these problems, e.g., Paul and Second Temple Judaism, the Reformation reaction to the medieval church, are the categories “Pelagian” or “Anti-Pelagian.” This is a mistake. Though the Reformation often used the adjective “Pelagian” to describe the Roman soteriology, in fact it wasn’t actually Pelagian any more than the Second Temple rabbis were Pelagian (i.e., teaching that we’re not sinners until we sin and therefore don’t need grace). The Rabbis recognized that we are sinful, but they held we’re not so sinful that we cannot keep the law. They had—at least some of them—a doctrine of sin and grace and so did the medieval theologians and so did Trent and so does Vatican II.

Failure, however, to recognize that, in each of these cases, the opponents of either Paul or Luther, had a doctrine of depravity and grace, has led too many to think that so long as they acknowledge sin and grace; and especially in Calvinist circles, so long as they say “sovereign grace” that everything else they say is “covered,” as it were. No. It doesn’t work that way.

Paul’s case and in the Reformation, we said: You aren’t just a little sinful, you’re dead in sins and trespasses. All medieval theologians taught, in one way or another, the necessity of grace and cooperation with grace toward justification. The Reformation rightly understood Paul to reject this formula and certainly the Reformation rejected this formula utterly.

The Second Temple rabbis and the Roman Church weren’t baldly Pelagian. They were “semi-Pelagian.” That term didn’t come into use until later in the sixteenth century, but it’s the best way of describing the views we rejected. Semi-Pelagians, be they first-century rabbis or twenty-first-century late modern moralists, teach justification by grace and cooperation with grace. It’s the “and by cooperation with grace” part that got Paul, Luther, and Calvin so wound up.

To say “and cooperation with grace” is to change the formula completely because it attempts to synthesize two contrary principles: grace and works. When it comes to justification there is no synthesizing grace and works. Either we stand before the perfectly holy God on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Christ imputed to us sinners and received by grace alone or we do not. It is not possible to say “by grace and works.” If it is by grace, then it is not by works and if it is in the tiniest bit by our works, i.e., our cooperation with grace, then it is not by grace. This is what Paul says in Romans 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” or in 2 Tim 1:9, “not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began….”

The medieval church taught (and the Roman church today teaches) that God the Spirit sovereignly works grace within the sinner working sanctity. They called this Spirit-wrought sanctity “condign merit.” It is condign (i.e., “worthy of divine acceptance because it is perfect) because it is Spirit-wrought. Nevertheless, the sinner is obligated to cooperate with grace or there can be no merit.

Remarkably, the moralists of our day are arguing a very similar program. There are two outstanding cases that come to mind. In our own federation, a minister preached a notorious sermon, “The Lion Won’t Bite the Innocent” in which it was argued that, at the judgment, we shall stand before God not on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ but on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity by virtue of our union with Christ. This sermon caused a complaint to the minister’s consistory and the matter eventually came to Synod where our churches responded by affirming our belief in the imputation of the active obedience of Christ as the sole ground of our justification.

At the same time this was happening, in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a ruling elder was teaching and writing the same doctrine as found in the “Lion” sermon. This elder taught (and continues to teach impenitently) that, at the judgment we will stand before God on the basis of real, intrinsic, inherent righteousness infused within us by the Spirit by virtue of our union with Christ.

The medieval church and the entire Roman curia are cheering “Amen!” but Paul, Luther, and Calvin are booing louder than the loudest Yankee fans Kim Riddlebarger has ever heard! These two, the minister (who has since left the URCs) and the elder (who remains in the OPC) are teaching precisely the same thing that the entire Protestant Reformation rejected and they are teaching under the guise of being “truly Reformed.” I’m sorry, but there’s nothing “Reformed” about justification on the ground of Spirit-wrought sanctity or grace and cooperation with grace. There’s nothing Pauline about it. It is judaizing, it is medieval, it is Roman, it is moralizing, but it isn’t biblical or Reformed in the least.

There’s no doubt that the Reformed confess the necessity of Spirit-wrought sanctity and even grace and cooperation with grace but not for justification. The fundamental distinction that Paul made, and that the Reformation recovered, is the distinction between justification as the divine declaration of righteousness and the sanctification as the progressive out working of that righteousness in our lives as a consequence of justification. This is why our catechism is in three parts: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. The last section flows from the second. It is the result, the consequence of it, not the basis or even the instrument by which we stand before God now or ever.

Second, this is why the Reformation theologians and churches were so careful to use the solas, the “alones” (or, in Luther’s case, allein). This is why we say “by grace alone.” When we say “by grace alone” we are intentionally rejecting the formula of “grace and cooperation with grace.’ There is no “and” when it comes to justification. This is why we say “through faith alone.” Faith is resting in and receiving Christ and his finished work. It is leaning on Christ. It is a certain knowledge and a hearty trust in Christ and his finished work “for us” not his ongoing work “in us,” not as touching justification. Faith, in the declaration of justification, receives, it looks to another, it is an open, empty hand. It is not our doing, and its power is not anything to do with us or anything wrought in us. The power of faith in the act of justification is in its object: Christ and is finished, perfect obedience for us and imputed to us.

This is why we say “in Christ alone.” He and his righteousness for us is the object of faith in the declaration of justification. Faith does not look to or at anything or anyone else. It does not look at the believer or anything wrought in the believer by the Spirit. In this point Synod did a great service to the URCNA and to the entire confessional Reformed community. By it we send a message not only to ourselves about how we understand God’s Word and our confession but also where we stand in a fundamental issue in the current debate. One hopes that our sister churches will give special attention to this particular point.

Point 8

Therefore Synod reject the errors of those:

8. who define faith, in the act of justification, as being anything more than “leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified” or “a certain knowledge” of and “a hearty trust” in Christ and His obedience and death for the elect (BC 23; HC 21);

For a very long time before the Reformation, in an effort to get Christ’s people to behave themselves, some of the fathers and virtually all of the medieval theologians (I say virtually because I haven’t read every word that every one of them has written on faith) defined justification as sanctification and they defined sanctification as Spirit-wrought, producing condign merit, with which we must cooperate. The defined faith in this process of justification as, in effect, trusting and obeying or trusting and cooperating with grace or as trusting and being “formed by love.” These are all different ways of saying the same thing. The medieval church never denied that faith involved trusting Christ but the medieval church (and Trent following that tradition) denied that faith, in justification, is only confidence (the word used by the Council of Trent)  in or trusting in Christ  and his finished work. Faith, in the process of justification, they said, is “formed by love.” This expression “formed by love” means “can be said to exist to the degree one is sanctified.” To be “formed” in this case means “to be brought to reality.” In other words, the medieval doctrine was that one is as justified as one is intrinsically, inherently, personally sanctified. Now you can appreciate why Luther was so terrified of God. He was perfectly sane and he actually believed what the medieval church confessed!

With this background you can also appreciate why the Protestants were so clear about their re-definition of justification. It is no longer to be considered a process but rather a once-for-all declaration by God about sinners, that they really are righteous before God, not on the basis of anything done by them or wrought by the Spirit in them, but only on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Christ (who was himself intrinsically and inherently righteous) imputed to believers.

Faith, in the declaration of righteousness, necessarily can be nothing more than resting, trusting, receiving, and leaning upon Christ and his finished work. If it is anything other than these things, if it involves the least bit of our cooperation with grace, or our cooperation with Spirit-wrought sanctity, then necessarily the object of faith is no longer Christ and his finished work for us but must also include my cooperation, my Spirit-wrought sanctity. In other words, if faith is anything than what we confess it to be, then it has at least two objects. If so, then we are no longer teaching justification on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone. Christ is no longer the sole object of faith.

In case you missed it it is the conjunction AND that is the killer. In justification, if it’s faith AND anything else, then Christ is only half a Savior. If it’s “p And q And r” then he’s only 1/3 Savior. Do the math. Did Jesus obey and die and rise to make salvation possible for those who do their part or did he obey, die, and rise to accomplish salvation for his people?

At the Council of Trent, Rome rejected categorically the Protestant definitions of justification and of faith. Rome confesses:

If any one says, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favor of God; let him be anathema.

She also says:

If any one says, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.

Rome understands what we confess. Synod Calgary affirmed that we are justified on the ground of the active obedience of Christ imputed and received through faith alone. Synod Schereville re-affirmed this conviction when it declared, ““that the Scriptures and confessions … teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, based upon the active and passive obedience of Christ alone.” Synod re-affirmed our confession “that the Scriptures and confessions teach that faith is the sole instrument of our justification apart from all works.”

When we say “apart from all works”  we’re referring to Romans 3:28 and Belgic Confession Art 22. This is how we understand by faith alone (sola fide). We believe in and confess “Spirit-wrought” sanctity. We believe in and confess the logical and moral necessity of good works as the fruit and evidence of justifying faith. It is in this sense that James speaks of faith in James 2. Notice the question that James asks in 2:14  “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?”

Notice please that James says, “if someone says he has faith….”  This is the essential question. There are folk, as becomes plain through the letter, in the Jerusalem congregation, who are claiming to be Christians, who claim to believe but the life of the congregation suggests otherwise. Thus James preaches the law to them, to teach them
their sin and to drive them to Christ.

See how James continues: “Can such a faith save him?” (The way the text uses the definite article suggests that the best translation is “this faith” or “such a faith”). Clearly, for James, the question is the sort of faith that the congregation has or doesn’t. They have a “faith” that doesn’t produce fruit, it has no works. It is a dead faith. There’s no evidence that they have true faith, which unites one to Christ and consequently produces life and fruit in the believer. If there is no fruit, or if the fruit is evil, then we have a right to doubt the claim to faith.

Then James continues to give examples (vv. 15–16) of their refusal to share basic necessities with fellow Christians. Then in v. 17 he says, “This faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”  This faith is no true faith. It would be helpful if, in the English, the editors put “faith” in quotation marks to indicate James’ attitude toward their claim to faith.

This case becomes clear in v. 18. They will show their workless “faith” and James will show his faith “by” his works. Again, he reminds them of the Shema (Deut 6:4) that they recited every Sabbath in the Synagogue. It’s fine to say the Shema, “Hear O Israel…” but even the demons believe and know that God is one. v. 21: Abraham was vindicated by his works when he offered up Isaac. James asks, “Was not Abraham our father declared to be just by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” Remember the question that James is asking, about “such a faith.”  How do we know that Abraham had true faith? Because he offered up his son. He believed God’s promise. He believed in the resurrection. God did not declare Abraham righteous because or through his works or even because or through faith and works but rather James is making the point that, unlike his congregation, Abraham (whom they claimed as their father) had true faith in Christ and demonstrated it with obedience. “Justified” here clearly means “manifested” or “demonstrated.”

Notice how James proceeds in v. 22: “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;”  “Completed” makes sense if he’s speaking about vindication, about evidence of the reality of true faith, but if it means that his righteousness was not yet completed, well, then we have a difficulty with Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

James’ view of justification before God is clear in 2:23: “and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness….'”  Thus, he has a clear distinction and doctrine of justification or demonstration of faith before men: vv. 24–26: “You see that a person is justified [vindicated] by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified [i.e., her faith demonstrated] by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”

The problem with the covenant moralist revision (the Federal Vision, Norman Shepherd et al) of the definition of faith, so that it includes “works” or “Spirit-wrought sanctity” in faith, in the act of justification, is not only that it is anti-confessional and poor theology, it’s bad biblical exegesis. The book of James isn’t that difficult if we understand correctly what it is James is about. Unlike Rome and unlike the moralists, James knew the difference between law and gospel. He’s preaching the law to his congregation to teach them their need of a Savior! He’s pointing them to Christ and pointing them to clear examples of true faith. He’s calling them to genuine repentance and to true faith in Christ and his finished work. He’s not telling them that they are justified by faith and works (as Norman Shepherd said in 1974 and since revised to “faithfulness”).

HC 21 is crystal clear on this:

What is true faith?

True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

In all the years of this controversy (since 1974) I’ve yet to see one of the moralists (i.e., Norman Shepherd or the Federal Vision) reconcile their views and revisions with HC 21. Typically when they appeal to the catechism on justification it’s from the third section further strengthening the claim of the critics that the FV does not understand or accept even the basic structure of the Reformed faith: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude.

Point 9

We reject the errors of those who teach: 9. who teach that there is a separate and final justification grounded partly upon righteousness or sanctity inherent in the Christian (HC 52; BC 37).

As the medieval church accepted the premise that God can only declare one righteous if that one is actually, intrinsically, inherently, righteous (God says what he says because you are what you are) they also developed a corollary: a distinction between initial and final justification.

In the medieval and modern Roman system, one is said to be initially justified in baptism. If one survived infancy (infant mortality rates in the middle ages and through the 16th century were very high) then one was said to have an “unformed faith” until after the grace of confirmation. Following that one is now obligated to final justification based upon inherent, intrinsic, personal sanctity. This holiness was (and is) said to be the fruit of grace, it is Spirit-wrought (condign merit) and cooperation with grace. Faith is now said to be “formed by love” (i.e., grace and cooperation with grace). At the final judgment after one has achieved perfection (following purgatory in most cases; unless one had a plenary indulgence!)

The motive of this system is patently obvious: To get Christians to behave themselves. The funny thing is that it was a complete failure. It didn’t work. The church records and humanist literature from the early 16th century, from the period just before the Reformation, show that moral corruption in the church was extensive. An early 16th-century council complained that the Roman church was corrupt in head and members! When Luther traveled to Rome, his one trip away from “Germany” (there wasn’t any such thing really in the 16th century), he found corruption on a scale that he could not imagine. He expected to find the holy city, the city of God, a city shining on a hill (7 of them!) but instead he found indulgences for sale to a degree that dwarfed Tetzel’s operation in Germany. The city was rife with prostitution (the scene in the recent Luther film captures this nicely). The principal customers were pilgrims and priests.

Essentially, the medieval and Roman system (grace and cooperation with grace or “grace and works”) put the Christian on a legal footing in order to ensure obedience. The theory is that, if we want Christians to behave, we must suspend their final standing before God upon good behavior or else they have no incentive to be good. The theory is that the best incentive to behave is fear of damnation. Who could complain? After all, every Christian had been given his share of divine help and medicine (grace) and now it was up to him to do his part, to do, as some of them put it, “What lies with himself” (facientibus quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam). God will give grace to those who do their part, who fulfill their part of the covenant.

The system was a total failure. The pre-Reformation popes were mostly corrupt. Some of them were outright murderers and adulterers. It’s no surprise that the Protestants described the papacy as “Antichrist.” It was! What is utterly shocking and appalling about the turn by the Federal Vision and others such as John Kinnaird, an OPC elder who found himself, a few years back, on the floor of the OPC GA defending himself over this and who has recently re-iterated on the OPC discussion list that he still believes the things for which he was charged, and a former URC minister who has now united with the CREC, is that they have returned to this theological vomit.

After reading the FV and NPP (and related) literature, one would think that we never had a Reformation, that we never considered these matters, that this is the first time “Protestants” have ever faced a decadent culture and corrupt church and had to decide what to do.

When the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestants faced these problems they responded by distinguishing clearly between law and gospel, between justification and sanctification, and between justification and vindication. When the neo-moralists (a small number of whom have already seen the logic of their position and united with the Roman communion) face these issues they resurrect long-discredited medieval and Roman doctrines.

According to the Reformed understanding of God’s Word, there is only one justification. Full stop. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” “Having been justified.” These are Paul’s words about this subject. The judgment has already been executed upon Christ the Second Adam. Justice has been done. Punishment has been meted out. The law has been fulfilled. Our sins were imputed to Christ so that Paul could say that Christ “became sin” for us. We, who are united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, have “become the righteousness of God.”

We who are resting, receiving, leaning, and trusting only on Christ and his finished work ARE righteous right now. We ARE justified right now. There is no future justification. We are as justified now, as we’ll ever be. Jesus isn’t getting any more righteous. He accomplished all righteousness. That righteousness has been imputed. It’s done. I think Jesus said something, somewhere, to that effect.

What happens at the judgment is vindication. It is announcement of the true state of things. It is a recognition of the realities accomplished by Christ, that are true of his people, that have been clouded by sin. This is why we described ourselves, in the 16th century, as the churches under the cross. We had a theology of the cross. We didn’t expect the world to recognize us as Christ’s people, any more than the world recognized Jesus as the Christ. We knew that, at the judgment, we would be vindicated in Christ.

These are two quite distinct operations: justification and vindication. The first is the divine declaration of righteousness on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed. The second is the recognition of the first in the face of all doubt and contrary claims.

There is no reason to muck this up. There’s no reason to confuse these things. It isn’t that complicated, unless one is trying to revise the doctrine of justification or the doctrine of vindication, unless one takes up the Romanist language of initial and final justification, unless one is looking for a way to wedge in works (Spirit-wrought sanctity and cooperation with grace) as part of the ground or instrument of justification.

Initial and final justification: not good news for those trusting and obeying and hoping to be someday recognized by God as fully sanctified. As they say: Good luck with that. Justification and vindication: Good news for all those resting, leaning, trusting, receiving Christ and his finished work FOR us.

Yes, but what about sanctity? Well, the Protestants and the Reformed confessions and churches hold that the justification and vindication scheme is Christ’s way of sanctity. Yes, it’s counter-intuitive. It doesn’t seem like a very obvious or sensible way to get folk to behave themselves, but remember this is the God who thought it was a good idea to save his people by becoming incarnate and who as the God-Man suffered, obeyed, died, and was raised for our justification. In other words, the whole Christian faith is counter-intuitive. That’s why Paul calls the gospel “foolishness.” That’s why the cross is a stumbling block and rock of offense.

The gospel mystery of sanctification (to borrow a phrase) is that God the Spirit works sanctity in his people by the gospel of justification sola gratia, sola fide. Are Christ’s people morally obligated to behave themselves? Absolutely! Do they get to heaven in any way BY behaving themselves? No, for if they did, then Christ died for nothing. That’s what Paul says.

So, let the covenantal moralists, the New Perspective(s), and Federal Vision (and related folks) have their semi-Pelagian system of grace and cooperation with grace. If they want to try to stand, on the basis of grace and cooperation with grace, before the living God who destroyed whole cities by the power of his word, who sent fiery serpents among his people, who demanded such righteousness that the Son of God had to be our substitute, let them try.

Let us continue to hide unashamedly behind and trust only in our righteous Christ. We will continue to muddle through the Christian life dying to sin and living to Christ, sinning and repenting, crying out for grace and mercy, trusting our Savior to guide us safely through the valley of the shadow of death.

*I am most grateful to the Rev. Mr. David Linden for his help in proof reading this essay. Any remaining errors are solely the responsibility of the author.

Theonomy and the Federal Vision

One aspect of the self-named Federal Vision movement that is sometimes overlooked is its connection to theonomic ethics. “Federal Vision” (hereafter FV) refers to a movement with roots in the early 1970s (see below) but that developed in the 1990s. They took the name “Federal Vision” in the early 2000s. It proposes a radical revision of the Reformed doctrines of salvation, church, and sacraments that turns eternal unconditional into a temporary, conditional election and that posits baptism as the instrument through which the temporarily, conditionally elect are said to be conditionally elect, united to Christ, justified, adopted etc. The FV also teaches that faith, in justification, is more than “resting” in and “receiving” Christ and his righteousness alone for justification. It teaches that, in justification (acceptance with God) faith is trusting and obeying. They like to speak of faith as “faithfulness.” Of course, their doctrine of conditional election and justification through faithfulness contradicts the teaching of Scripture as confessed by the Reformed churches in the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) Canons of Dort (1619), and the Westminster Standards (1648).

Theonomy refers to a movement with roots in the 1950s that, like the FV, rejects the teaching of Westminster Confession of Faith (ch. 19) as it relates to what they call the “abiding validity of the [civil, Mosaic] law in exhaustive detail.” The Reformed churches confess:

1. God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.2. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man.

3. Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.

4. To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

5. The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation (WCF 19.1–5.

According to the historic Reformed understanding of Scripture, God gave a law to Adam, a covenant of works. That moral, natural law, given before the fall, continued to be in force even after the fall, not as a way of salvation but as the most basic expression of God’s moral expectations for humanity. That law was re-stated at Sinai (Ex 20; Deut 5) and by our Lord himself (Matt 22:37-40) and throughout the NT. E.g., on this, one of the major Reformed covenant theologians of the late 16th century and editors of the Heidelberg Catechism, Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) wrote:

“Indeed, there was one moral law from all times written on the hearts of men, and then consigned to letters.” (Olevianus, In Epistolam Ad Romanos Notae, Ex Gasparis Oleviani Concionibus Excerptae, 3). All humans have had “ab Adamo” (since Adam) a natural knowledge of the difference between “honest and dishonest dealings”

It is important to understand that, according to the Reformed understanding of Scripture, this law is not specifically Mosaic (strictly speaking the “Old Covenant” as Paul uses the term) nor does it belong only to the Old Testament (broadly, everything before Jesus’ incarnation). According to Paul (Rom 1-3) this law is built in to the creational order and it is normative for all persons, everywhere, at all times.

Following the ancient Christian practice, the Reformed distinguish between the abiding, moral law and the temporary ceremonial (e.g., sacrifices) and civil (e.g., criminal) law of the Mosaic, old covenant. Like the typological aspects of the ten commandments (decalogue) given at Sinai (e.g., “that your days may be long in the land” and the Saturday sabbath), the civil and ceremonial laws are said to have been fulfilled by the obedience and death of Jesus and thus abrogated, i.e., no longer in force for Christians. Their job, to point to Jesus, has been fulfilled.

In the history of the church, however, we have not always been clear or consistent about how the civil and ceremonial laws have been fulfilled. On the one hand we declared them fulfilled and abrogated and on the other we gradually reinstated them, albeit with some revisions, and treated them as if they were really fulfilled. Thus, gradually over a 1000 year period, the church became a temple, the Lord’s Table (a meal) became a sacrifice, ministers became priests. To the degree, after Constantine, the state and church became entangled and the state enforced religious orthodoxy and punished religious dissent, the old shadowy civil law may be said to have become reinstated.

The Reformed Reformation rejected the re-institution of Moses in worship (e.g., the ceremonies, the priesthood, the feast days) and, in principle, in the civil realm, by insisting on the spirituality of the church and its independence from the civil magistrate. To be sure, the Reformation abolished the reinstitution of Moses in worship more completely than in civil life. In the centuries after the Reformation, however, civil enforcement of religious orthodoxy was abolished.

Beginning in the 1950s, in response to growing secularism, a movement known sometimes as “Reconstructionism” and sometimes as Theonomy began to develop. It gained momentum particularly in the 1970s as Christianity began to be pushed to the margins of society, the old morality that relied on Christian assumptions began to crumble, and academic and popular writers began to assert the autonomy of man relative to God and his law more aggressively and openly.

The theonomists (e.g., Rousas J. Rushdoony, Gary North, and Greg Bahnsen) rejected the classical and confessional Reformed distinction between the moral, civil, and ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law. Though they did not tend to argue for the reinstitution of the ceremonial laws, and the validity of the moral law has never been in question in the Reformed churches, they argued that the civil laws should be reinstituted in civil life. They argued that the civil laws were not temporary, they were not intended only for national Israel, and that they have “abiding validity…in exhaustive detail.”

This was a novel argument in the history of Reformed theology. In time past, it had been common for Reformed writers and even confessions to say that the magistrate should enforce religious orthodoxy but even then no major writer or ecclesiastical confession called for the reinstitution of the Mosaic civil laws because they all understood, even if their practice was often inconsistent, that those laws were intended for national Israel and that they were abrogated by Christ. This is why the Westminster Divines used the word “expired” to describe the civil and ceremonial laws and there is a flat contradiction between the theonomic conviction of the “abiding validity” of the civil laws and the Reformed view that they are “expired.”

Thus, we come to the question of the relation between these two movements, theonomy and the federal vision. There is reason to think that there is some connection between the two movements. Several well-known theonomists are also proponents of the FV. One of the FV leaders recently described the current FV controversy as a renewal of the theonomy argument. Interpreters on both sides have seen connection between the two controversies and movements.

Both movements date to the mid-1970s. In the early phase of the argument, Norman Shepherd, who taught at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and was dismissed from the faculty c. 1981 for teaching that we are justified through faith and works (faithfulness) found much support among theonomists. and the FV movement today finds considerable support among theonomists.

There are ambiguities, however. There is open debate among theonomists whether two now deceased theonomists (Rushdoony and Bahnsen) would support the Federal Vision theology. Some Federal Visionists claim that he did support the basic ideas. Some point to his support for Norman Shepherd during the conflict at WTS in the 1970s as evidence and others point to his writings were he appears to contradict Shepherd. One place where Shepherd’s theology, the FV theology, and theonomy overlaps is eschatology. Most of them share a version of postmillennialism that looks forward to an earthly golden age before the return of Christ.

There are other complications. Not all theonomists are Federal Visionists nor are all Federal Visionists are theonomists. At least one theonomic denomination (the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States, not to be confused with the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America) has been highly critical of the FV.

In 2011, Wes Bredenhof observed a direct connection between the movements:

It is not a secret that many of the leading figures in the Federal Vision movement have, in the past, been associated with theonomy and Christian Reconstructionism. Men like John Barach, Randy Booth, Tim Gallant, Peter Leithart, and James Jordan have at some point or other either been advocates of theonomy or associated with it, even if today they claim to repudiate it. Other figures who share some Federal Vision distinctives and have a theonomist background include Steve Schlissel and Andrew Sandlin. To be fair, not all theonomists past or present are advocates of FV or are associated with it in a meaningful way. Nor are all FV advocates theonomists. However, a significant number are or have been.

So, what are the intellectual relations between them the FV and theonomy movements? Theonomy and the FV movements are analogues. Both movements reflect a similar pathology in the Reformed corpus. Both reflect what I call the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC). The FV does this by making the doctrines of covenant, justification, and perseverance, a little more reasonable, by making them less mysterious, by reducing the scandal of the cross and the offense of the gospel.

According to the FV, it is not really ungodly sinners that Christ justifies but those who are sanctifed, who cooperate with grace. As we have seen, in the FV, the sentence “A justified man is sanctified” becomes, “A man is justified because he is sanctified and cooperated sufficiently with grace to retain what he was given in baptism.” The elect, as it turns out, are those who have cooperated with grace. That’s just a little more sweetly reasonable than the confessional Reformed alternative.

Theonomy represents another side of the same quest. It offers a kind of civil, ethical precision and a kind of civil ethical authority that reduces the ambiguities of late-modern civil life to utter clarity and, on its premises, makes Christian ethics a little more reasonable. In contrast, non-theonomic ethics might not be quite so attractive for those seeking certainty about exactly what God wants the civil government to do in every case.

First, non-theonomists do not have the same catchy slogans. A non-theonomic civil ethic, like an amillennial (i.e., no glory age on the earth before Christ’s return) eschatology, is paradoxical. Theonomy is attractive because it flattens out the tension between what is and what shall be. For theonomy there is a strong continuum between the now and the not yet. For non-theonomic amillennialism there is a sharp disjunction between “the now” or “this age,” and the “not yet,” or “the age to come.” They are two different types of existence. The consummate state exists in heaven and is interjected into this life in small ways (e.g., in public worship, in the preaching of the gospel, and in the administration of the sacraments) but for the most part none of us seems to have a plan to bring the eschatological kingdom of God on the earth through social action.

The theonomists, however, have a plan and American evangelicals like a plan and they like the idea of a glorious age on the earth before the return of Jesus. Do most American Dispensationalists really understand the complicated eschatological charts? Perhaps not, but they do have implicit faith in their leaders that someone has figured out what the news means and what is going to happen in future. In contrast, non-theonomic, amillennial, types confess that all 613 Mosaic laws were civil, ceremonial, and moral and at the same time, that the moral law, grounded in creation, continues to obligate all creatures before, during, and after Moses. That creational law is a set of general principles (embodied in the Decalogue and in the golden rule and taught throughout Scripture and revealed in nature is not an extensive civil code. Thus, confessional Reformed folk must seek wisdom as they attempt to apply the moral/creational law to difficult civil problems, in a time and place when relatively few others n civil life share our assumptions and convictions, without the certainty that any particular application is necessarily is the correct Christian application.

Theonomy, however, under the slogan, “abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail,” seems to offer “the” Christian answer to difficult problems. Unsure about “the general equity thereof” in a given case? Theonomists have written voluminously, if not always harmoniously, about what the “abiding validity” or the “general equity” means in any particular case.

Guy Waters, in his critique of the FV movement, has noted a connection between the two movements: the way they interpret Scripture (hermeneutics):

We have seen that the hermeneutic employed by many FV proponents resonates with theonomic conceptions of covenantal continuity. For all of theonomy’s care to emphasize its espousal of the necessity of personal regeneration, of biblical preaching, and of personal piety, the published writings of theonomist writers have generally emphasized the outward, the external and the corporate. It is this emphasis that has occasioned FV proponents’ recasting of biblical religion along predominantly outward, external, and corporate lines. (Guy Prentiss Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006), 296)

According to Waters, the FV movement represents a “chastened theonomy, an attempt to reconstruct the project of theonomy to accommodate its greater goal of cultural transformation” (quoted in Bredenhof, op cit).

There are social-historical connections between the movements. That both movements came to prominence in conservative Reformed circles at the same time, during the years of post-Nixon, post-Haight-Ashbury period, the time of disco and cocaine propelled self-indulgence, during the moral “malaise” of the Carter administration, suggests that they may both reactions to the same stimuli. It is clear that neither movement was driven by the Reformed confession. Rather, when these movements were born attention to the Reformed confessions was at a nadir. In an autobiographical passage in his essay, “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism,” John Frame comments that his seminary education was not marked by sustained, focused attention to the Reformed confessions. The attitude of the period seemed to be that as long as one had a high view of Scripture and divine sovereignty, everything else about Reformed theology was negotiable.

Both Theonomy and the FV are ostensibly theologically and socially conservative. Of course, movements that reject essential aspects of the Reformed confession are not actually theologically conservative but the present themselves as conservative movements. Both movements have in common a deep concern for the collapse of the culture and our place in it. Some versions of theonomy/reconstructionism envision the culture being gradually regenerated through Christian influence and some expect a cataclysm out of which arises a Reconstructionist phoenix.

Theonomy and the Federal Vision are not identical but they are twins. The FV wants to regenerate the culture through sacerdotalism, e.g., through baptismal union with Christ whereby all baptized persons are, ex opere operato (Rich Lusk, a proponent of the FV, has spoken this way—on this see Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry), and temporarily, historically, conditionally united to Christ. Both visions are aimed at the restoration of Christendom.* One is primarily ecclesiastical and the other primarily civil. These common attitudes, interests, and approaches, however, help explain why so many theonomists have been attracted to the FV and vice-versa.


Since this essay was first posted on the web, one leading Federal Visionist, Peter Leithart, has published a defense of Christendom.