The gospel of salvation by grace alone is in mortal danger in virtually every reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denomination in North America.

The threat is a doctrinal movement described variously by its proponents as the “Auburn Avenue theology” (from a Presbyterian church in Louisiana that is a center of the movement), the “federal vision” (because the movement claims to be developing the doctrine of the covenant—”federal” means ‘covenant’), and “objective covenant theology” (because of the movement’s peculiar stress on the objectivity of the covenant).

The essence of the movement is the teaching that the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ within the sphere of the covenant is universal. Every baptized child is object and recipient of the grace of God. Indeed, every one who is validly baptized with water in the name of the triune God receives the saving grace of God, those who eventually are lost as well as those who finally are saved.

The Reformed faith rejects the teaching of universal grace as a heresy. It is a fundamental departure from the gospel to teach that God is gracious in Christ to every human without exception. The movement now threatening the gospel in almost all Reformed churches in North America introduces the heresy of universal grace into the sphere of the covenant.

The right name for the movement is “covenantal universalism.” By this name, I will refer to the movement in this and following editorials, in which I examine this latest threat to the gospel of grace in the Reformed community.

The movement is radical apostasy from the Reformed faith, that is, from biblical, Protestant Christianity. The movement of covenantal universalism rejects the doctrine of justification by faith alone, teaching that the sinner is justified by faith and by the good works of faith. At the same time, it denies all the doctrines of sovereign grace confessed by the Reformed churches in the Canons of Dordt. The movement denies the “five points of Calvinism.” It denies the doctrines of grace in a remarkably open and bold manner.

Nevertheless, covenantal universalism poses a real threat to the Reformed churches. This is evident from the fact that virtually all the supposedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America are knowingly harboring in their bosom officebearers who teach, promote, and defend the heresy. Two of these denominations have already officially sanctioned the error by decision of their broader assemblies in 2003.

The reason why a movement denying all the doctrines of sovereign grace is a threat to these Reformed churches is that the movement is the natural, logical development of the doctrine of the covenant that the churches embrace.

I do not intend in these editorials to repeat what I wrote about this new development of covenant doctrine in an earlier series of editorials under the heading, “The Unconditional Covenant in Contemporary Debate” (Standard Bearer, Jan. 1 — April 1, 2003). Those editorials exposed the new development of the doctrine of the covenant as denial of the truth of justification by faith alone.

In these editorials, I will show that covenantal universalism deliberately, systematically, and openly denies all the doctrines of sovereign grace. More importantly, these editorials will trace this denial of the gospel of sovereign grace to the erroneous doctrine of the covenant out of which the denial arises. Most importantly, the present series of editorials will demonstrate that there is one doctrine of the covenant, and one doctrine only, that safeguards the gospel of salvation by the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ.

The Men of the Movement

The main interest of this and following editorials is not at all the names of persons, churches, and seminaries, but the doctrine. Nevertheless, it is both right and necessary that readers of this magazine know who the leading teachers of covenantal universalism are and where this contemporary development of covenant doctrine finds a home.

The chief source of covenantal universalism in conservative Reformed circles is the Presbyterian theologian Norman Shepherd. Shepherd taught systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia for almost twenty years. After seven years of struggle, on account of Shepherd’s teaching justification by faith and works, the Board of Westminster Seminary “removed” him from the faculty in 1982. Shepherd then joined the Christian Reformed Church, where he served as a pastor until he retired. Rev. Shepherd continues to influence many in virtually all the reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America by his recent book, The Call of Grace (P&R, 2000), and by his speeches. A more detailed account of the controversy at Westminster over Shepherd and his teaching is found elsewhere in this issue of the Standard Bearer in the review article, “The Account of a Fallen Seminary and a ‘Falling’ Church.”

Vocal, public proponents and defenders of the new development of the covenant are found in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and the United Reformed Churches (URC). Shepherd, of course, is a member of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).

Among those who publicly espouse and teach covenantal universalism, or vigorously defend and promote it, are, in addition to Rev. Shepherd, who has great influence in the PCA and in the OPC, Prof. John Frame of the PCA; Rev. Steve Wilkins, also of the PCA; Dr. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., of the OPC; Rev. John Baruch, of the URC; and the independents, Rev. Douglas Wilson and Rev. Steve Schlissel. Wilson and Schlissel have influence in the URC.

The role that the seminaries play in the spread of covenantal universalism is significant. The teaching of Shepherd and Gaffin has made Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia a fountainhead of the erroneous doctrine throughout reputedly conservative Reformed churches worldwide. There is reason to believe that influential men at other reputedly conservative Reformed seminaries are teaching the new development of covenant theology, or are open to the doctrine. John Frame teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.

Ominously, many seminaries remain quiet in the face of one of the gravest threats to the gospel of sovereign grace in the Reformed churches since Dordt. Reformed professors of theology, one of whose main duties according to the Church Order of Dordt is to “vindicate sound doctrine against heresies and errors” (Art. 18), fail, or refuse, to speak out, loudly and insistently, against the grievous threat to the people of God.

Every Child United to Christ

Covenantal universalism teaches that every child of believing parents without exception who is baptized, that is, sprinkled with water in the name of the triune God, is united with Jesus Christ. Every child, indeed every person who is baptized, adult as well as infant, is truly, spiritually, and savingly united with Christ. Every one receives the life and blessings that are in Christ. The teachers of covenant universalism are fond of saying that all without exception are branches united to the vine, in the language of John 15, and that the sap of the vine flows into all of them. Some of these baptized children apostatize later on. They are cut off, so that they perish everlastingly. But these were as truly united to Christ as those who abide in Christ and are saved.

In a speech at the 2002 Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference, John Baruch taught that every one who is baptized is “in Christ.” The “efficacy of baptism” results in communion with the triune God for every baptized person. “Every baptized person,” said Rev. Baruch, “is in Christ and shares in His life.”

Universal grace in the sphere of the covenant!

Belief that every baptized child is in saving union with Christ is one reason why many of these theologians teach and practice “paedo (child)-communion.” Speaking at the 2003 Knox Theological Seminary Colloquium on the Federal Vision, Douglas Wilson told the conference of theologians that he recently administered the Lord’s Supper to his one and a half-year old grandchild.

Every Child an Elect

Not only is every baptized child of Christian parents saved, but every one is also an elect of God. The teachers of covenantal universalism do not mean merely that the members of the congregation view the children as elect with the “judgment of charity.” All the children are elect. All are chosen by God unto salvation. All alike are elect in the sense that election has in Ephesians 1:4 and in II Thessalonians 2:13. They may very well lose their election, but for the time being they are elect.

At the Colloquium on the Federal Vision at Knox Seminary in Florida last year, Baruch criticized those who distinguish election and covenant. He declared that all those in the covenant by baptism are elect. Every baptized child is an elect in the sense of II Thessalonians 2:13. All are united to Christ. All “really experience His love, but they do not respond with repentance and faith and love.” Significantly, at this point Baruch quoted the “Liberated” Reformed theologian Benne Holwerda in support of his doctrine of universal covenantal election.

Rev. Steve Wilkins also spoke at this colloquium. Referring explicitly to Ephesians 1:4 and II Thessalonians 2:13, he affirmed that every one who is baptized is elect. He went on to say that if baptized members of the congregation “later reject the Savior, they are no longer elect—they are cut off from the Elect One and thus lose their elect standing. But their falling away doesn’t negate the reality of their standing prior to their apostasy. They were really and truly the elect of God because of their relationship to Christ.”

The appeal to II Thessalonians 2:13 in support of the election of all the children shows that the movement teaches that God loves all the baptized children alike. The text teaches that God has chosen those whom He loves: “But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation.” According to covenantal universalism, God elects all the children unto salvation because He loves all the children, loves all the children with the love of His covenant in Jesus Christ.

Some of these beloved, elect children unfortunately fall away and become hated reprobates, who perish in hell, but all were originally elect.

Covenantal universalism!

The Death of Christ for Every Child

It is the teaching of covenantal universalism that Christ died for every baptized child of godly parents. This is necessarily implied by the teaching that all are savingly united to Christ and by the teaching that God loves and chooses them all. Besides, the very baptism that is supposed to signify, if it does not effect, union with Christ for all without exception is the sign and seal of washing in Jesus’ blood, that is, the cross.

The teachers of the new form of covenant theology boldly declare that Christ died for all baptized children, indeed for every baptized member of the covenant community. John Baruch told his audience at the 2002 Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference that “Jesus died for every baptized member of the congregation, head for head.” He denied that this was merely a judgment of charity.

Universal covenantal atonement!

Resistible Grace in a Conditional Covenant

Universal grace does not, however, mean universal salvation. The reason, according to the teachers of covenantal universalism, is that covenant grace is resistible. When the baptized children grow up, they can resist the grace of God in Christ. Resisting grace, they are cut off from Christ. Many do resist the grace of God that began a good work in them, and perish forever.

The grace of the covenant is resistible, because the covenant is conditional. As regards its initial establishment with every baptized child, the covenant is unconditional. At baptism, God brings every child into covenant union with Christ by grace alone. But for its continuance and perfection, the covenant depends upon the acts of the children themselves. These acts are faith and a life of obedience. Faith and obedience are conditions of the covenant. Since the continuance and perfection of the covenant are, in fact, the everlasting salvation of a person, the salvation of every baptized child depends upon the child’s works of believing and obeying. By not believing and obeying, a child resists grace.

Here, of course, is the point at which justification by faith and works is introduced into the theology of covenantal universalism. If universal covenant grace depends for its efficacy upon works of the child, the righteousness of the member of the covenant is by faith and works. A conditional covenant implies justification by works. Indeed, in a conditional covenant faith itself is a work of the sinner upon which righteousness and salvation depend.

Justification by faith and works on the basis of a conditional covenant is the heart and soul of Norman Shepherd’s The Call of Grace (P&R, 2000).

Virtually all forms of the heresy of universal grace necessarily teach that grace is resistible. The only exception is the universalism that holds the final salvation of all men without exception. Covenantal universalism is not an exception. Universal covenant grace is definitely resistible.

The Falling Away of Covenant Saints

It is an important teaching of the men who proclaim covenantal universalism that some who were savingly united to Christ, were elect of God, were justified, and were redeemed by the cross fall away and perish forever. In fact, the teachers of covenantal universalism like to emphasize this alarming feature of their covenant doctrine. They insist that they want to do justice to the notable warnings in Scripture against apostasy, especially Hebrews 6:4-8 and Hebrews 10:29. One can only fall away, they say, if once he was actually, savingly in Christ. Hebrews 6 and Hebrews 10, they assert, are real warnings about a real possibility for every member of the church without exception. Rev. Wilkins emphasized this in a speech on “Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation” at the colloquium at Knox Seminary.

Those who ultimately prove to be reprobate may be in covenant with God. They may enjoy for a season the blessings of the covenant, including the forgiveness of sins, adoption, possession of the kingdom, sanctification, etc., and yet apostatize and fall short of the grace of God…. The apostate doesn’t forfeit “apparent blessings” that were never his in reality, but real blessings that were his in covenant with God (emphasis, Wilkins’).

Against those who object to their doctrine of the apostasy of many who were once united to Christ, justified, and elect, they charge that we do not do justice to the warnings against falling away. Thus we contribute to the carelessness of life of many in the churches.

On the point of the possibility of the falling away of men and women who once were saved, the teachers of covenantal universalism are bold. They do not hesitate to suggest that Reformed churches must “re-think” the confessional doctrine of the perseverance of saints. What they mean is that perseverance, as taught in the fifth head of doctrine of the Canons of Dordt, does not hold in the covenant. Covenantal universalism emphatically affirms the falling away of covenant saints.

Covenantal universalism attacks every one of the truths of the gospel of sovereign grace.

Covenantal universalism attacks every one of the truths of sovereign grace as these truths apply to the covenant. In the sphere of the covenant, God elects all with a losable election. In the sphere of the covenant, Christ died for all with a death that fails to redeem many. In the sphere of the covenant, the Spirit regenerates and justifies all with a regeneration and justification that assure the salvation of none. In the sphere of the covenant, many resist grace that has actually begun to save them, and perish.

In the sphere of the covenant, God’s grace is not sovereign. In the sphere of the covenant, God is not sovereign. The question is, “For covenantal universalism, who is sovereign in the covenant?”

In the sphere of the covenant, all of us must live in the terror, day and night, that we may well fall away from Christ and salvation into perdition. Present union with Christ, present redemption, present justification, and even present assurance of election mean absolutely nothing. All may be lost, for all is conditional.

This is the doctrine that is spreading in virtually all the reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches. This is the doctrine that the reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches and learned Presbyterian divines cannot condemn. This is the doctrine that the reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches are tolerating. This is the doctrine that some of the reputedly Reformed and Presbyterian churches are now sanctioning by official ecclesiastical decision.

— DJE

(to be continued)