Previous article in this series: December 1, 2010, p. 108.
In the first article, I introduced an analysis of the recent synodical report of the United Reformed Churches (URC) on the federal vision heresy. The 2010 Synod of the URC received the report for information and adopted the fifteen doctrinal recommendations of the report.¹
I said that the report is fatally flawed and dangerous because, while the report declares certain federal vision teachings to be contrary to the Reformed creeds, it leaves untouched the vicious root of that heresy in the federal vision’s doctrine of the covenant.
What the report actually says about the federal vision’s doctrine of the covenant is a clumsy dance around the issues.
In this dance the federal vision is described as a movement that defines the covenant as “salvation,” denies that the covenant is merely “a means whereby God accomplishes… salvation,” emphasizes “the saving significance of the covenant,” and teaches that “all covenant members without exception” receive the promise.
At the same time the federal vision is described as teaching that every baptized child is savingly united to Christ, and that many fall away from the covenant and are not saved.
In this dance the covenant doctrine of the federal vision, which the report identified as the cause of its error with regard to justification, is not actually condemned, but only cautiously described.
The URC report describes the federal vision’s definition of the covenant and its emphasis on the “saving significance of the covenant”:
In the writings of proponents of the FV, the saving significance of the covenant that God establishes with His people is strongly emphasized. The covenant relationship, especially the covenant of grace that God initiates between Himself and believers and their children, is not simply a means whereby God accomplishes the salvation of fallen sinners. The covenant relationship itself is a saving relationship, which unites believers and their children in true communion and fellowship with God through Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the covenant of grace. The covenant relationship is salvation, and all who are members of the covenant people of God—believers together with their children and all whom God calls into membership in the church of Jesus Christ—enjoy all the benefits of saving union with Christ.
According to the report, then, the definition of the covenant as a “saving relationship, which unites believers and their children in true communion and fellowship with God through Jesus Christ” is evidently problematic because the definition is closely tied with the federal vision’s “strongly” emphasizing the “saving significance of the covenant.”
But the emphasis on the saving significance of the covenant is not the problem. The truth of the covenant is that it is not “simply a means whereby God accomplishes the salvation of fallen sinners,” but that “the covenant itself is a saving relationship, which unites believers and their children in true communion and fellowship with God through Jesus Christ.”
The covenant is salvation itself.
The logical conclusion of this definition of the covenant is that the saving significance of this covenant must, therefore, be strongly emphasized. All those who are joined to that covenant are saved—certainly saved.
The Scriptures emphasize the saving significance of the covenant: “And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins” (Rom. 11:26-27).
The creeds emphasize the saving significance of the covenant: “The synod rejects the errors of those…who teach that the new covenant of grace…does not herein consist that we by faith…are justified before God and saved.”²
The Reformed form for baptism emphasizes the saving significance of the covenant: “God the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us that He doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for His children and heirs, and therefore will provide us with every good thing, and avert all evil or turn it to our profit.”³
The definition of the covenant as “salvation” is not the error of the federal vision, nor is the federal vision error that such a definition would logically demand that the saving significance of the covenant be emphasized.
The error of the federal vision heresy is that, while defining the covenant as communion with God in Jesus Christ, it does not teach noremphasize the saving significance of that covenant, but emphasizes the conditionality of that covenantal relationship.
The federal vision teaches that every single baptized child receives the promise of the covenant, is incorporated into Jesus Christ, and is a member of his covenant.
We affirm that God formally unites a person to Christ and to His covenant people through baptism into the triune Name, and that this baptism obligates such a one to lifelong covenant loyalty to the triune God, each baptized person repenting of his sins and trusting in Christ alone for his salvation.4
By baptism God “formally unites” a person to Christ and to His covenantal people. Every single baptized child is a covenantal child, has received the promise of the covenant, and is a member of the covenant.
Because of that general, conditional promise, the federal vision teaches a conditional covenant. The federal vision makes no secret of the fact that it teaches a conditional covenant. Indeed, in defense of their various heresies on justification, the sacraments, and the church, the proponents of the federal vision simply retreat to the protection of the conditional covenant, which is the covenantal doctrine also of many of its critics, as Douglas Wilson, a popular proponent of the federal vision, has said.5
Logically, then, the federal vision emphasizes the conditionality of that covenantal promise and of that covenantal relationship, and that many who are baptized and are members of the covenant can fall away.
We affirm that apostasy is a terrifying reality for many baptized Christians. All who are baptized into the triune Name are united with Christ in His covenantal life, and so those who fall from that position of grace are indeed falling from grace. The branches that are cut away from Christ are genuinely cut away from someone, cut out of a living covenant body. The connection that an apostate had to Christ was notmerely external.6
All those who are baptized are united with Christ in His covenantal life. All the baptized receive grace, and when they fall away they fall away from grace and from the covenant. If all baptized children without distinction receive the promise from God, then that some stay in the covenant and are saved is because of what the children do with the promise, and that some fall away is because of what they did not do with the promise.
That is an emphasis on the conditionality of the covenant. That is an emphasis on the general promise for all the baptized children. That is an emphasis on the ineffectiveness of the promise of God. That is an emphasis that makes the word of God—His promise—of none effect. It is an emphasis on the hopelessness of salvation in the covenant because it depends upon the child’s fulfilling conditions.
But that is not an emphasis on the “saving significance of the covenant.”
The matter of a general promise in the covenant to every baptized child is exactly the issue in the federal vision controversy. If the promise is to every baptized child, there is no “saving significance of the covenant” to emphasize, because the covenant is dependent on the child. If one teaches that the promise of the covenant is to every baptized child—offered or otherwise—the logical conclusion of that doctrine of the covenant is the heresy of the federal vision.
Regardless of how the federal vision defines the covenant, the federal vision denies all of the doctrines of grace, because it teaches that every baptized child receives the promise of the covenant and is a member of the covenant. All this heresy comes from the rotten root of the conditional covenant.
The report, though, does not condemn the federal vision’s teaching of a conditional covenant with a conditional promise.
Though FV writers maintain that all covenant members are elect in Christ, they also want to stress the conditionality of the covenant relationship. If those with whom God covenants do not meet the conditions of the covenant, namely, persevering faith and repentance, they can lose their salvation and become subject to God’s covenant wrath. Since the covenant obliges believers and their children to embrace the promise of the gospel in the way of a living faith, it is possible that some covenant members can lose the grace of communion with God in Christ that was once theirs. The problem with the FV formulation at this point is not that it emphasizes the “conditionality” of the covenant relationship. It is undoubtedly true that the covenant promise demands the response of faith and repentance. The Reformed Confessions consistently maintain that believers and their children are ordinarily saved in Christ in the way of faith and repentance.
It is no problem in the URC report that the federal vision emphasizes the conditionality of the covenantal relationship. In fact they maintain that the Reformed confessions teach this conditionality, which the URC report identifies as being “saved in Christ in the way of faith and repentance.”
But herein is the problem. Conditions in the covenant are not the same as “in the way of ” and being saved “in the way of faith and repentance.”
The federal vision’s use of the word conditionsought to make the term itself suspect, as the Arminians’ use of the term conditions made it suspect for the fathers at Dordt. Dordt used the term to describe the Arminian error and condemned that error.7
The federal vision, as the Arminians, teaches that we are saved because of our faith and because of the works that faith produces. This is what the men of the federal vision mean by conditions. Salvation is not “in the way of ” but “because of.”
Teaching a conditional covenant and emphasizing conditions is not laudable, but censurable. It is essentially importing Arminianism into the covenant of grace and denying what Dordt taught about salvation.
The report comes close to the heart of the federal vision error when it exposes the federal vision as teaching that “all covenant members” receive the promise because they reject the historical Reformed distinction between those “under the administration of the covenant” and those who enjoy “communion of life.”
We have had occasion at several points to observe the claim of FV authors that allcovenant members without exception—believers and their children who are recipients of the covenant promise and the accompanying sacrament of covenant incorporation, baptism—enjoy a full and saving union with Christ. Though Reformed theologians have historically distinguished between those who are “under the administration” of the covenant of grace and those who truly enjoy the saving “communion of life” that the covenant communicates, we have had occasion to see how FV proponents often reject as inappropriate any such distinction between covenant members.
Regardless of what one calls the distinction, there must be a distinction made whenever one is talking about the covenant of grace.
The report, however, fails to reckon accurately with the federal vision’s denial of the crucial, historical Reformed distinction between being “under the administration of the covenant,” and enjoying “communion of life,” a distinction that is more clearly stated as being “in the sphere of the covenant,” and being “in the covenant.”
The historical Reformed distinction is not between “covenant members,” as the report indicates: “FV proponents often reject as inappropriate any such distinction between covenant members.” This definition of the distinction leaves its proponents in an odd position. Would they say that there are “covenant members” who do not receive the promise? What else could it possibly mean to be a member of God’s covenant than to receive the promise?
Rather, the Reformed distinction is between baptized children of believers. There are baptized children of believers who are in the covenant and thus members of the covenant. There are also baptized children of believers who are not in the covenant and thus not members of the covenant, but only in the sphere of the covenant.
The federal vision denies this. The federal vision teaches that every single baptized child receives the promise, is incorporated into Jesus Christ, and is a member of His covenant.
The issue is not whether “all covenant members without exception” receive the promise. The issue is not whether “all covenant members…enjoy full and saving union with Christ.”
The issue is who are “covenant members”? Who are the “covenant members” that “without exception” receive the promise and “enjoy a full and saving union with Jesus Christ”?
The federal vision teaches that every baptized child is a member of the covenant. Logically, all who teach a universal, conditional promise in the covenant must teach that every baptized child is a member of the covenant. Logically, too, they must teach that perseverance in the covenant is the work of the baptized child, and that many who receive the promise of the covenant fall away into perdition.
The choice in the controversy with the federal vision is between every baptized child being a member of the covenant and the elect alone being members.
But in the URC report, saying “the elect alone” are members of the covenant seems to be a problem.
To that we turn next time.