Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: July 2007, p. 419.
As I noted earlier, the Federal Vision has its roots in the heresy of a conditional covenant. It emphasizes that it is a doctrine that has to do with the covenant, has its roots in covenant theology not only, but defines the nature and essence of the covenant.
No matter what view of the covenant one may take, the doctrine of the covenant has to do with the doctrine of salvation. If the covenant is conditional in its very nature, salvation itself is conditional. This obvious fact is carried to its extreme by those who promote the Federal Vision.
If the covenant is conditional, it is conditional because it is established with more people than are actually saved. And this is what the promoters of the Federal Vision maintain. They take hold of the old covenant conception of William Heyns, developed and promoted by Dr. Klaas Schilder, and carry it to its logical extreme. Prof. Heyns and Dr. Schilder taught that baptism was a sign and seal of the covenant, and that God established His covenant, therefore, with every baptized child. Thus every child of believers is included in the covenant, fully, and in such a way that all the blessings of the covenant are his.
Dr. Schilder and his followers today do not believe that election ought to be the controlling principle that determines membership in the covenant. They are adamant about separating God’s electing determination of His people from the covenant. Dr. Schilder maintains that all born in covenant lines belong to the covenant. The men of the Federal Vision diverge from Schilder on this one point. Here they go beyond Schilder. They take the position that all born within covenant lines are elect, really, fully, completely. They are all elect from eternity, written in the Lamb’s book of life, destined for eternal glory, and the objects of God’s electing love.
And, because all are elect, all receive in fact, really, fully, and completely, all the blessings of the covenant—which is to say that they receive all the blessings of salvation. They are regenerated, converted, justified, and sanctified, and are objects of saving grace.
But, because all are not saved, the covenant, with all its blessedness, is conditional. That is, all these blessings will continue to belong to the children of the covenant as long as they fulfill the conditions of the covenant. Should they fail to fulfill the conditions, namely, walk in obedience to God, they will lose their election, their conversion, their sanctification, their justification. A conditional covenant results in a conditional salvation.
This conditional salvation is applied especially to the doctrine of justification. When applied to the doctrine of justification, the result is a doctrine of justification by faith and works. And so we are back where the church was in 1517, for we are back to Roman Catholic theology.
One may object that such a position vindicates the Roman Catholic Church. And so it does. One formerly Protestant author has justified his return to the Roman Catholic Church by an appeal to Shepherd’s doctrine of justification by faith and works. One may object that the Reformers unanimously repudiated Rome’s heresy and agreed that justification was by faith alone. The promoters of the Federal Vision are not deterred by an appeal to the Reformers.
One may object that Luther called the truth of justification alone the standing or falling of the church. It makes no difference. One promoter of this heresy simply wrote Luther off as wrong.
One may object that our Reformed confessions and the Westminster Confessions are all agreed that justification is by faith alone. That too makes no difference. The confessions are dismissed as being wrong or, at best, being inadequate on this point.
With a cavalier wave of the hand, the entire tradition of the Reformation is dismissed.
One may object that Scripture is clear, especially Paul in his epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, but this too is argued away.
But here we come to another aspect of the heresy of the Federal Vision. Paul is clear, unmistakably clear, that justification is by faith alone. Something must be done about Paul. And so what is called “A New Perspective on Paul” is promoted. The leading figure in this effort to get rid of Paul is a British theologian by the name of N. T. Wright. He has invented the novel theory that Paul was not writing against justification by faith and works, but was rather combating a Jewish heresy that sought salvation in the works of the law. Paul’s fierce denunciation of justification by faith and works, as well as his repeated insistence that justification is by faith alone, was simply a refutation of Jewish legalism. James in his epistle sets the balance right when James tells us that both Abraham and Rahab were justified by works.
This is, admittedly, a brief summary of the teachings of the Federal Vision, but it is sufficient to give us an idea of the extent of the heresy.
The Wrong of the Federal Vision
The church of Jesus Christ is, with the rise of this heresy, confronted with a vicious and unprincipled attack against the truth of sovereign and particular grace, which rivals in danger anything the church has yet confronted in her entire history. This assessment is legitimate in light of the fact that it has come under the guise of the Reformed faith, and in this disguise has deceived many within Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
The so-called new perspective on Paul is born out of a higher critical view of Scripture that is destructive of God’s Word and insidiously deceptive. But this “new perspective” is so critical to the whole system, that should it be proved to be wrong, the whole system crumbles in pieces. Paul has to be reinterpreted by some sort of exegetical legerdemain in order to give credence to the view.
We reject its higher critical view of Scripture as heresy.
The true children of the Reformation will be appalled at the arrogant dismissal of the teachings of all the Reformers. In such a dismissal of these men whom God used to reform the church, there is a pride and conceit that staggers the imagination. Theological pygmies stand in the shadows of the giants of the sixteenth century and criticize them for being so tall.
But worse: the way is paved for a return to Rome, something many Protestants have already done. If justification is not by faith alone, then the church can find no reason not to apologize to Rome for the sins of the sixteenth century and to rush back into the embrace of the pope. But let it not be forgotten: along the way back to Rome, one will have to pass by the graves of countless martyrs who died excruciatingly painful deaths in their commitment to the truth of sovereign grace. These graves will be the silent accusers of all who repudiate their glorious heritage.
To adopt the views of the Federal Vision is to repudiate every one of the five points of Calvinism, points laid down carefully by the great Synod of Dordt. For a particular, sovereign, and efficacious decree of election, the defenders of the heresy of the Federal Theology opt for the damnable Arminian doctrine of a universal and conditional election. For the doctrine of total depravity, the Federal Vision people teach that man has a free will and can do works by his own power and the power of a free will. For particular redemption, we are now confronted with the age-old heresy of a universal atonement. If all baptized children have salvation in fact, this is because Christ died for them all. The church has fought for a particular atonement in vain if these views are accepted. Instead of irresistible grace, we are told that grace is resistible, for all baptized children receive grace, but some successfully resist it. And no longer can the believer find refuge in the doctrine of the preservation of the saints, for he may once have been elect, once regenerated, once justified; but he has no guarantee that he shall remain such. All hangs on his own obedience and good works.
God’s everlasting covenant of grace, the one unifying truth of the gospel and the over-arching doctrine of salvation, becomes a mere conditional agreement dependent on our faithfulness and willingness to fulfill the conditions of it.
Why do so many want such poison pap instead of the rich and nourishing foods of God’s sovereign and particular grace? The only answer can be that they are enemies of the gospel. Let the righteous beware, and let them thank God every day for the truth of His own everlasting covenant of grace.