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Rev. Kleyn is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan.

OCRC Responds Officially to Federal Vision

In the April 12, 2006 issue of Christian Renewal(p. 8), we read the following:

A special synod of the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches was held on March 2 in Cambridge, Ontario. The meeting was called to address concerns raised in response to what has come to be known as the ‘Federal Vision.’

The Federal Vision ties together the teaching of a conditional covenant and the teaching of justification by faith. The work and obedience of faith becomes the condition to justification, so that a man’s work of faith is seen to be the condition he fulfills to become righteous before God.

This meeting of the synod of the OCRC was called in response to overtures coming to synod beginning in 2004. One congregation had given its tacit approval to the “Federal Vision,” and several others reacted to this by bringing the matter to synod.

In the end, this special meeting of synod adopted the following,

We deny and reject any teaching or doctrine being taught under the name ‘Federal Vision’ which contradicts the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt or Holy Scripture.

This is further explained by synod in its rejection of the Federal Vision teaching in three specific areas. The three are justification, imputation of Christ’s obedience, and the sacraments. Synod summarized each of these errors and then gave its grounds for rejecting each teaching.

With regard to justification, synod rejected the following:

1. The works which are excluded from justification are restricted to those ‘works of meritorious self-righteousness that only serve to mask gross sin and disobedience.’ Other works are included. Man is justified forensically not only by faith, but he is also justified forensically by all those ‘works done in faith, according to the law of God and for the glory of God.’ In justification, faith is equated with works done by faith.

The grounds given for rejecting this teaching were:

a) The teaching strikes at the heart of the gospel and is a rejection of a central tenet of Reformational truth because it undermines justification by faith alone. b) This teaching is being taught under the Federal Vision banner. c) This teaching is clearly contrary to our confessions.

With regard to the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, synod rejected the following:

2. There is no such notion of anyone ‘meriting’ or earning anything in Scripture. Therefore Christ’s perfect moral obedience to the law did not ‘earn’ or ‘merit’ anything for God’s people. Therefore there is no imputation of Christ’s active obedience. Only Christ’s passive obedience—namely, what He did in going to the cross and suffering the penalty of our guilt and sin—is imputed to us, rendering us forgiven and guilt-free.

The grounds for rejecting this teaching were:

a) It is clearly contrary to our confessions, the historical Reformed faith, and Scripture which speak of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience and of His ‘merits’ on our behalf. b) It is being taught under the banner of the Federal Vision.

With regard to the doctrine of the sacrament, synod rejected the following:

3. Reformed Theology has undermined the importance, place and efficacy of the sacraments. The sacraments are equal in importance with the Word. Neither are the sacraments to be considered ‘means of grace.’ They are ‘saving grace.’ A covenant member who is a recipient of such ‘saving grace’ and who is a believer (possessing true faith and its fruit) may completely apostatize and be a reprobate.

The synod’s grounds for rejecting this position on the sacraments were:

a) Our Reformed confessions distinguish the sign from the reality that is signified thereby. They also see the sacraments’ role not in the ‘working’ of faith but in the assurance and strengthening of faith. b) A form of sacramentalism is being taught by some under the Federal Vision banner. c) This sacramentalism fails to uphold the importance of the exercise of faith and repentance as essential factors in personally appropriating and receiving forever the reality that is pictured by the sacraments. It is often united to the doctrine of paedocommunion and is hesitant to recognize the Scriptural distinction between ‘saving’ faith and other ‘faith.’ d) The result is a teaching which affirms that even a believer who has exercised true faith and borne the fruits of sanctification may completely apostatize. This results in a covenantal understanding that undermines the covenantal comfort of Lord’s Day 1, Q&A 1 and 54 of the Heidelberg Catechism and is in opposition to the doctrine of the ‘perseverance of the saints.’

It is heartening to see that some denominations are recognizing these errors and dealing with them as they surface in their circles. It is notable that this denomination (the OCRC) is small. Till now, the larger conservative Reformed denominations (URC, OPC, PCA, CanRC), which are also known to house sympathizers with the Federal Vision, have not spoken so clearly against these errors.

The three areas of error identified by the OCRC are important. It is easy to see, when you string the three together, that the Federal Vision is heading, essentially, back to some of the fundamental errors of the Roman Catholic Church, errors that were opposed by the Reformers.

Let me demonstrate that.

If the errors of the Federal Vision are correctly summarized by the OCRC in the three points above (and I believe they are), then in the first error having to do with justification the Federal Vision is teaching that the sinner’s justification (his standing before God as innocent) is dependent on his good works. Those good works are defined as 1) the good work of faith, and 2) any other good works that are free of self-righteous pride. When the sinner asks the question, “How do I become righteous before God?” the Federal Vision answers, “You must do two things: 1) believe and 2) live a life of good works to the Lord.”

This teaching is nothing different than that against which Luther struggled. It is a teaching clearly condemned by the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Days 23-24. Yes, we must believe; yes, we must live in good works that are free of selfish pride—but we are not “acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of (our) faith,” and that is so because “that righteousness which can be approved before the tribunal of God must be absolutely perfect” and “our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.”

In response to the sinner’s question, “How do I become righteous before God?” the Reformed creeds do not say, “You must do …” but rather, “You must let go of all doing and depend on Christ alone.”

In the second error rejected by the OCRC there are some similarities to the Roman Catholic sacerdotal “works-righteousness” system. Rome teaches that the death of Christ pays for a man’s original sins but not his actual sins. This payment removes part of a sinner’s guilt, but the sinner, says Rome, must add to Christ’s work in order to become fully righteous and acceptable before God. The sinner must earn acceptance with God by his own good works, the good works of other saints, indulgences, etc.

Now, as to the Federal vision, it seems that the distinction between the active and passive obedience of Christ and the teaching that only the passive obedience is imputed to the sinner leads in the direction of Rome’s teaching. If Christ’s active obedience is not imputed to the sinner, then what is it that makes a sinner righteous before God in his day-to-day living? Is it his own good works? His own active obedience? And does faith in Christ’s payment for sin remove then only the guilt of original sin and not the guilt of our actual transgressions?

Again, the Heidelberg Catechism is clear on this. It is not only Christ’s death on the cross (His passive obedience—really a misnomer, since He was very active in submitting to this) that becomes the ground for our righteousness before God, but it is His whole life of active obedience. The catechism speaks of His holiness as part of the ground for our justification. “God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ” (LD 23, Q&A 60). That holiness is the suffering of His entire life. The sinner’s only ground for the knowledge of his righteousness before God is what Christ has done in His living and dying. When he prays “Forgive my debts” at the end of a day, it is Christ’s obedience that he must look to, not his own.

In the third error rejected by the OCRC, the tendency toward Rome is even more apparent. As the OCRC point out, the Reformed teaching on the Sacraments is that they are a lesser means of grace than the preaching of the gospel. The preaching of the gospel works and confirms faith, whereas the sacraments are sent to confirm a faith that already exists. Without the Word, faith is not worked.

Some proponents of the Federal Vision are also proponents of paedocommunion, which advocates the admittance of all baptized children to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. These teach a kind of “sacramental grace” to all participants. The argument is that the children have all received the grace of God in baptism, so all ought also to receive the Lord’s Supper. As the OCRC decision points out, there can also then be a falling out of grace.

These ideas are, again, very similar to the Roman Catholic teaching on the sacraments, ex opere operato—through the sacrament itself there is an operation of grace.

All of this shows us that the Federal Vision is a teaching that is very dangerous. Though there are differences on some issues among the proponents of the Federal Vision, its basic emphasis is on the works of man as the basis for justification. This emphasis undermines the important and basic Calvinistic teachings of “total depravity,” “unconditional election,” “irresistible grace,” and the “perseverance of the saints.”

Behind the Federal Vision stands the “conditional covenant” teaching of Klaas Schilder. The weakness of the OCRC synodical decisions is a failure to deal with the teaching of a conditional covenant, and to identify a connection between the Federal Vision’s teachings on justification and Schilder’s conditional covenant.

Steve Schlissel, a proponent of the Federal Vision, was asked by Christian Renewal to respond to the decisions of the OCRC. After pointing to what he sees as some flaws and misrepresentations in the decisions of the OCRC, Schlissel says,

To be brief, I would say that my views concerning covenant, justification, and obedience, are substantively identical with those of Klaas Schilder. If Schilder’s views are found distasteful, one ought not be surprised if mine provoke some response.

Now, to be fair to Schilder, we cannot say that the two (Federal Vision and Schilder) are identical. But, as Schlissel himself points out, there is a connection. And the connection is that the Federal Vision has now consistently worked out the conditional covenant view in their teaching on justification.

The result is conditional justification.

And, sadly, many in Reformed circles are not seeing this connection.

Division in the URC over Paedocommunion

Closely connected to the above story is the outworking of the Federal Vision view on the sacraments in a United Reformed congregation.

Rev. John Barach is an advocate and supporter of the Federal Vision. For the past several years he has been pastor of Grand Prairie URC in Alberta, Canada. Recently he accepted a call to a congregation outside of the URC in Oregon. But it seems that he leaves trouble in his wake as he departs.

The March 8, 2006 issue of Christian Renewalinforms us that:

the three remaining officebearers of the small 21-family congregation have announced their resignation from office and their intention to form a new church outside of the federation. 

The wedge issue is ‘paedocommuion’, the inclusion of all members, those confessing and baptized, at the Lord’s Supper table. The officebearers, minister included, support the belief from Scripture that communion is for all covenant members of the congregation. The federation’s Classis Western Canada has taken the position, backed by Synod Calgary in 2004, that the Scriptures and the federation’s confessions restrict participation in communion “to professing members only.”