Thoughts On ‘The Federal Vision’
Despite the difficulties associated with such a task, I’ve decided to put down in writing a few thoughts on the recent Synod. There were those, during the meeting, who asked me why I didn’t say anything. I suppose the most truthful answer would be that I find it very difficult to speak on the floor of Synod. I get terribly nervous which makes it very difficult to gather my thoughts and speak coherently. Another reason had to do with the tone of the meeting. I went to the meeting with about a dozen questions that, in my opinion, needed to be asked, but it was soon apparent (at least it seemed apparent to me) that such questions would not be entirely welcome. We were reminded, on several occasions, that we were to discuss the Federal Vision in a general sort of way and to abstain from directing questions to specific individuals. So I did not have a lot to say at the meeting.
I’m not so sure that writing is really my forte either, but writing allows me the luxury to work slowly and carefully through my thoughts – write a little and then to reflect on what I’ve written until I’m reasonably confident that what I’ve written is an accurate reflection of my thoughts and convictions on the matter at hand. And so I will write a few words because I believe this is an issue that must be addressed; and because I believe that you, as a congregation, have a right to know where I, as your pastor, stand on this important issue.
So why all the fuss over the Federal Vision? I must confess that when I first started reading about the F.V. I had a hard time getting a fix on what these men (including Douglas Wilson, John Barach, Steve Wilkins and Steve Schlissel) were saying. On one occasion, while discussing this movement with Dr. Cornel Venema, I said that the Federal Vision reminds me of a wall that someone has blasted with a sawed off shot gun – BB holes all over the place with no apparent pattern or lines of connection. He agreed with this assessment of the material being produced by advocates of the F.V adding that he was having difficulty putting his finger on what is the driving force behind this movement. Indeed, what are these men looking for; and if there is a unifying thought that ties everything they’re saying together, what is it? It is the answer to these questions that is becoming increasingly clear to me as I continue to read and study the material being produced by the proponents of the F.V.
In a word, the Federal Vision is about the covenant! It is about the covenant as it relates to our children. It is about the covenant as that comes to expression in the language of Scripture. And it is, therefore, about the covenant as that relates to the various doctrines of salvation including the doctrines of election, justification, regeneration, forgiveness of sins, faith, sanctification, the church, the sacraments, good works, etc. And what is the F.V. saying with regard to all these things? What is the strand that ties them all together? It is this: in their earnest desire to enjoy a greater measure of assurance not only for themselves, but also (and perhaps more importantly) for their covenant children, they have placed an equal sign between all those who are in the covenant by virtue of their baptism.
All who are baptized are Christians, are elect, have had their sins washed away, have been justified, have been regenerated, are grafted into Christ, and thus, are saved. They are all, as we heard on the floor of Synod, on the ark of salvation! It is not just that all who are baptized are set apart from the children of unbelievers. It is not just that they are all members of the church which is the body of Christ. It is not just that they all enjoy the great advantages of having the Gospel preached to them, of the continual call to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and of Christian parents who raise them in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Nor is it just that all of them will have the blessed promises of the Gospel laid, as it were, in their hands and held continually before their eyes. It is not just that they will be continually reminded of the blessings enjoyed by all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ, and the curses that will fall upon those who continue in their obstinate unbelief and disobedience.
No, the greater assurance is sought in the assertion that all who are baptized into the name of the Father, and the name of the Son, and the name of the Holy Spirit
are saved! They are, in every respect, partakers of Christ and of all His benefits. They are justified and thus saved through Christ!
Now if they were to say that they (all who are baptized) are equal in terms of having set before them the covenant blessings, we would agree. If they were to say that the covenant blessings and curses come to bear upon them with equal seriousness, we would agree. If they were to say that all covenant children are to be instructed, encouraged and warned, we would agree. If they were to say that all covenant children may be assured, without the slightest hesitation, that they have every reason to be assured of their salvation when they, by the grace of God, repent of their sins, confess them to God and rest by faith in Jesus Christ as the One who alone is able to save them from their misery and restore them to God’s favor, we would agree. But, this is not what they’re saying. They say that all who are baptized are on the ark of salvation – already enjoy all the blessings of Christ.
And the problem with this approach to the covenant goes even deeper. If it is true that all those who are baptized receive, by virtue of their baptism, all the blessings of Christ, then it follows that there are many who lose their salvation for it is obvious that not all who are baptized go to heaven! Is this really what is being said, we wonder? When asked if one could lose his justification (carefully defined as forensic justification by the questioners), one advocate of the F.V. has said “yes.” No, this was not someone from a faraway church who belonged to a small federation we have never heard of. This was said on the floor of our own Synod by one of our own ministers! This is not a slanderous rumor. It is a matter of public record which can be easily verified by anyone who was there. We all heard it with our own ears!
I should point out that the proponents of the F.V. are not the first to suggest that one can lose their salvation. Casey G. Vander Ploeg, reporting on a conference on justification held in Calgary, writes, “Venema noted how Arminius viewed election through the covenant, ending up with a conditional election and a conditional covenant. Arminius held this view while confessing allegiance to the Belgic Confession, but like the tendency of current revisions, it led to losable election, losable regeneration, and losable justification. In other words, we have been here before.” I agree; and I have often thought, as I read the material being written by the proponents of the F.V, that they are running into trouble with the Canons of Dort. The problem with this, however, is that many of the proponents of the F.V. believe that it is our confessions and systematic theology which is skewing and distorting our understanding of the plain meaning of Scripture!
The true seriousness of all this is clear when we ask ourselves a simple question: if it is possible to lose one’s justification, how does he or she do that? How else except by sin! But how much sin? What kind of sin? The questions are endless (taking us ultimately back to Rome with it’s hierarchy of sins), but the bottom line is that I can lose my justification by something I do! And if I can lose my justification by something I do, then it also follows that I retain my justification by what I do! But what is the standard for retaining my justification? The standard is absolute perfection – perfect obedience to God’s commandments and the perfect satisfaction of His justice when I sin. And I can do neither not even as a believer who has been regenerated and converted to God! And so, if it depends on me to hold on to or retain my justification by what I do, I am doomed forever. Those of you who attended Synod no doubt appreciated Rev. Short’s testimony in this connection.
That being said, I cannot help but conclude that the F.V. has turned everything on its head. It operates from the premise that all baptized children are justified and saved. They must, therefore, live very carefully lest they lose their salvation. This is comfort and assurance?! Please spare me this comfort! I am of the conviction therefore, and would rather give my body to the flames than to deny this, that we must begin with the fact that we, together with our children, are dead in trespasses and sins, that God graciously brings us to life spiritually, justifies us through the satisfaction and righteousness of His Son, gives us the gift of faith by which we are grafted into Him, and then calls us to obedience as a matter of thankfulness. In other words, He saves us by His grace in Jesus Christ, and once He has done so, we are forever saved! No one nor anything will ever pluck us out of our Father’s hand, and the hand of our Savior, Jesus Christ (John 10:25-30).
Yes, we speak of the necessity of good works, but as the fruit of our justification and faith in Christ (a faith working in love), and not as the means by which our justification is retained! I sincerely believe, therefore, that the proponents of the F.V. have overshot the mark. In their efforts to secure a greater assurance of the salvation of their children, they have said too much. Being in the covenant means being saved, and from this it naturally follows that one can lose his or her salvation. With this I cannot agree. If they were to speak of covenant members squandering vast and wonderful advantages, I would agree. If they were to speak of covenant children recklessly trampling the blood of Christ underfoot by their wicked unbelief I would agree. If they were to speak of covenant children enjoying many temporal and even spiritual benefits before falling away in unbelief and perishing (Hebrews 6), I would agree. If they were to speak of covenant children selling their birthright like Esau, I would have no problem with that.
And I will gladly admit that there is sometimes a tension in the covenantal language of Scripture that I have a hard time grasping. And I will gladly admit that I still have much to learn. I will gladly admit that I must still grow in my appreciation and application of the covenant (which is why I’ve tried very hard to listen carefully to what these men are saying). And if I have completely misunderstood these men, I will gladly be corrected for the sake of the unity and peace of the church which Christ has purchased with His own blood! No problem there. But with the assertion that someone for whom Christ has died can perish, I can never agree. And with the assertion that one can be forgiven of his sins, and that later, God will take His forgiveness back, I can never agree. I understand that the proponents of the LV. say that we must understand these things differently from the vantage point of covenant than we do from the vantage point of election, but I must confess that I only know of one kind of forgiveness and one kind of atonement through the suffering and death of Christ.
And with the assertion that one can be justified by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and then lose his justification I can never agree! For ‘Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ” No, none of these! Clearly the permanence of our justification lies in God who, when he justifies, defends that justification from every accusation – period! And if anyone, including a beloved child of the covenant, goes out from us, then it is evident that he, instead of losing his justification, was never of us to begin with (I John 2:19).
This is where I, as your pastor, stand on these matters. I have tried very hard to listen carefully to what these men are saying, and if I am not understanding them properly, I hope the Lord will give me the grace to understand them better. In the meantime, I dare not move from the convictions outlined above being convinced, together with many others, that they are anchored solidly in the Word of God. May Christ Himself show us mercy; and continue to guide and to lead us into the truth of His Word, and thus, in the way everlasting.
Rev. Alan Camarigg, the minister of Lynden Orthodox Christian Reformed Church, Canada.
With permission from The Trumpet, July/August 2005, of the federation of Orthodox Christian Reformed Church in North America.
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