Federal Vision: Heresy at the Root, by David J. Engelsma. Jenison, Michigan: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2012. 252 pages. Hardback. [Reviewed by Martyn Mc Geown.]
This reviewer grew up in a Presbyterian denomination in Ireland. Although the church was not very doctrinal, one thing sticks in my head even now. It concerns baptism. At every occasion of baptism, the minister said (whether this was an official baptismal form I do not know), “Baptism is a testimony to the divine initiative, that God takes the first step in our salvation . . . .” I often wondered what that meant, but since there was no teaching on the covenant in that church I never did find out. Now, I thank God for my ignorance because it meant that, when I did learn about the covenant, it was the pure teaching of an unconditional covenant as developed in the Protestant Reformed Churches without the distressing detour of a conditional covenant dependent on the faith (and faithfulness and obedience of faith) of the sinner Engelsma has written extensively on the covenant of grace in other books, but here he attacks head-on the fundamental covenantal heresy of our day, the federal vision (FV). It is refreshing to read a critique that pulls no punches; that calls heresy what it is; that names and shames leading proponents and supporters of the heresy; and that blasts the trumpet loudly and clearly to warn God’s people. Engelsma will not win many friends this way, but that does not trouble a soldier of Christ when the truth is at stake.
Other writers, while “interacting” with the FV, do so in a detached, scholarly, and therefore, quite frankly, boring manner. They commend the “valuable contribution” that the FV makes to ongoing theological dialogue; they welcome a renewed emphasis on the covenant occasioned by the FV, but many of them studiously avoid calling the FV a heresy. They might caution against its “theological imbalance” or its “misplaced emphases.” Engelsma is, refreshingly, different. He writes, “The federal vision is a heresy. It is a stubborn, persistent, deliberate departure from and denial of a cardinal truth of Scripture, as this truth is rightly and authoritatively summarized and systematized in the Reformed creeds” (18). “The federal vision is the enemy of the Reformation. It is the enemy of the Reformation within the gates and therefore the most dangerous enemy of all” (64). And how will Engelsma deal with this heresy? Will he interact in a scholarly and detached way with it? Will he welcome it, and praise its valuable contribution to modern theological dialogue? Listen! “I expose the root of the federal vision. I intend to destroy it” (23).
The book itself is made up of two parts. The first section (15-73) is a greatly expanded transcript of a speech that Engelsma delivered in various parts of the US and is a setting forth of what the FV is; who its main proponents and defenders are; its history and development; and an impassioned warning to all to flee from the FV to the perfect righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer and received by faith alone. The second section (79-216) is a lengthy response to questions, criticisms, and challenges to the original speech. The book ends with a critical review of a book supportive of the FV.
Let me list what I see as the commendable features of this book. First, the book is clear. A critic of the book might disagree with Engelsma’s conclusions—in light of Scripture and the Reformed confessions, which Engelsma ably explains, I cannot see how—but he cannot complain that Engelsma is unclear. Engelsma carefully, painstakingly, and repeatedly defines his terms. He defines covenant; he defines conditional covenant; he defines unconditional covenant; he defines condition; he defines promise; he defines and traces the root of the FV. The root is, of course, the conditional covenant, out of which the FV has developed conditional justification, or justification by faith and works. Engelsma also repeatedly defines “condition” and concludes that the word, although used by Reformed theologians of the past as “necessary means,” is best avoided today. Faith is not a condition but the necessary means and the gracious gift of God to the elect (). Grace, covenant grace, is never wider than election.
Second, Engelsma is faithful in exposing the heresy and heretics—he is not afraid to name the important names of influential theologians (Shepherd, Frame, Gaffin, Wilson, etc).
Third, Engelsma’s approach, when dealing with objections and offering counsel, is not abstract, but practical, warm, pastoral, and comforting. The sections on assurance of salvation and on the place of covenant children are especially good in view of the devastating religion of doubt that is the FV. Writes Engelsma,
If I have faith, no matter how weak, if I believe the gospel of grace from the heart, I am sure of my final salvation. The reason is not that I am sure that I will perform conditions upon which this final salvation depends. Of this I am not sure at all. But I am sure that God will perfect what he has begun in me. I am sure that God is faithful. The Reformed faith is a gospel of fearlessness. The federal vision is a religion of terror. And this is a reason we oppose the federal vision (170).
Compare this with the FV:
Despite all the loud trumpetings of the men of the federal vision that their doctrine gives absolute certainty concerning the salvation of every baptized infant, their affirmation of the salvation of every baptized child is meaningless, deceiving, heretical and false. Their trumpetings are mere, loud noise. For according to the theology of the federal vision, the child—every child—can lose his salvation and perish everlastingly” (166-167).
With the FV’s attack on justification by faith alone and on all five points of Calvinism, all certainty and assurance are lost.
Engelsma does what he promises in the title and introduction—he exposes and destroys the root (and therefore the branches) of the FV. Others leave the root untouched. About the root others are silent. Because others believe the root—a conditional covenant—they are ultimately ineffective in their critiques of the bitter fruit of the FV.
There is so much packed into this small book that it is really a handy pocket guide to the FV; and Engelsma deliberately phrased it “in the simple language of the layman rather than the characteristic language of the theologian” (80-81). If you have never heard of the FV; if you want an accurate guide to what it is; and more importantly if you want to know how to answer it, and how to protect yourself, your family, and your church from the FV, read this superb book.