As previous contributors to this rubric have documented, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) exonerated teaching elder and Federal Vision (FV) advocate, Dr. Peter J. Leithart.1 Leithart remains a member and a minister in the PCA.
Let me remind you of the case: By his advocacy of the FV, Leithart was accused of teaching views that are not in accordance with the Westminster Standards, the confessions of the PCA. The presbytery of Pacific North West exonerated him. When the presbytery’s decision was challenged, the presbytery rejected the complaint and referred it to the Standing Judicial Committee (SJC) of the PCA, which concurred with the decision of the Presbytery. Thus, the highest judicial body in the PCA found that Leithart’s views are not at odds with the Westminster Standards. Leithart’s differences with the Standards, according to the SJC, “amounted to semantic differences,” that is, differences in wording, not in substance. Since then, the chief prosecutor, Jason Stellman, has defected to Rome, something so irregular that some have labelled it a mistrial, and have moved for a retrial, which is unlikely ever to take place.
Leithart, free from ecclesiastical censure, continues to promote the FV. On November 14, 2014, he wrote an article entitled “No Sacraments, No Protestantism.” In it Leithart argues for “sacramental efficacy,” concluding with this provocative statement: “No baptism, no justification.”2
No baptism, no justification!
Defenders of Leithart might like to argue that, perhaps, Leithart is referring not to water baptism, but to the spiritual reality of baptism, the work of the Holy Spirit. Not so, for Leithart neglects to—indeed, refuses to—distinguish the sign of baptism (water baptism) from the reality (the salvation that baptism with water signifies). Moreover, Leithart insists that all baptized persons, elect and reprobate alike, receive the spiritual blessings of salvation, although they may lose those blessings, if they do not fulfil the conditions of faith and works. All of this is classic FV theology.
Moreover, this is not the first time Leithart has linked baptism with justification. The substance of his November 2014 blog post appeared on First Things, an ecumenical website (with a strong Romish influence), in April, 2005, with the title “Baptism and Justification.”3
In both articles, Leithart links baptism and(“…but ye are washed”). He wants to do this, because “ye are justified” appears in the same verse. In the 2005 article, he even writes, “They have become different folk by being baptized…. Sanctification and justification are two implications of the event of baptism. The pagan Corinthians have been washed-sanctified-justified by their baptism.” In 2014, he writes, “The shift from what the Corinthians ‘were’ to what they ‘are’ is marked by their baptismal washing, which is both a sanctification and a justification.” Arguing from , he adds, “Through baptism, we die to Adam and are brought to life in society with Jesus. Paul calls that transition from the reign of Death to the reign of Life a ‘justification,’ and it happens at baptism.”
Readers should notice Leithart’s deception—I say “deception” and not mere “confusion,” because Leithart, an experienced theologian, knows better. Leithart knows that sometimes the Bible uses the word “baptism” for the sign of [water] baptism (; ); and he knows that at other times Scripture uses the word “baptism” for the spiritual reality of baptism ( ; ; ). He also knows that these two are so closely related that the Bible speaks of one in terms of the other. Moreover, Leithart knows that it is an error to confuse or (in his case) deliberately to identify the sign and reality.
Catechumens, ages 12-14, know that, for they are taught it in Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 26!
Leithart seeks to escape the charge that he teaches justification by works; but it is telling that he never uses the phrase “justification by faith alone.” Of course, he doesn’t. He is an advocate of the Federal Vision. “Baptism is an act of God,” he insists. Of course, Rome would agree. Baptism, he adds, personalizes God’s general “offer” [sic!] of grace: “baptism declares God’s favor to me. Baptism wraps the gift of forgiveness and justification and puts my name on the package.”
That sounds good, but what do I have to do to receive— and, more importantly, to retain—this “gift”? The answer, as we have come to expect, is: believe, produce the works of faith, and endure to the end. If not, “I cannot expect baptism to rescue me at the end.” No, indeed, but can I expect Christ by His perfect obedience and substitutionary atonement to rescue me in the end?
All of this sounds like Liberated conditional covenant theology—grace for everyone, a promise to all the baptized, and the need to fulfil the conditions of faith and obedience. Only a robust doctrine of the unconditional covenant of grace with the elect alone can destroy Leithart’s heresy.
Ostensibly, Leithart is concerned about assurance. How can I have assurance that I am justified without faith in the efficacy of baptism?
If baptism is not a public declaration of justification, where and when does that public declaration take place? Is it ever heard on earth? Is it ever spoken to me in particular? Can I hear it anywhere except in my heart? If I only hear the declaration of justification in my heart, how can I be sure I’m not hearing things? To be sure we’re right with God, we need some sign from Him, and it has to be a sign to me.
A good question, but one to which Leithart has no assuring answer, his “baptismal efficacy” notwithstanding.
Baptism is a means of assurance only to believers. Neither Esau nor Absalom were assured by their circumcision. And neither Ananias nor Sapphira were assured by their baptism. We know this because they were reprobates. Reprobates never have assurance, for they never have faith. We are assured by faith, which is the activity of trusting in the promises of God’s Word, centered in Christ Jesus and Him crucified. Faith, by definition, looks away from itself to its object, namely, Jesus. If a believer has difficultly believing that his sins could be washed away, he must remember what the Word says and what the sacraments teach us. Baptism reminds us that, as water washes away the filth of the body, so the blood of Christ washes away sin. However, baptism cannot give any assurance without the Word. The sacraments are added to the Word, but are meaningless without it.
Moreover, one who does not believe the gospel can have no assurance whatsoever. And one who promotes a false gospel, as Leithart does, leads the people further from Christ, further from true assurance, and encourages them to trust in the baptism of water, to the damnation of their souls. One trusting in water baptism or in any other work except the work of Christ will perish.
Justification by grace through faith cannot be sustained, either in theology or in our experience, without confidence that God works in the sacraments. We cannot get assurance unless we’re convinced that God declares me His beloved child in the water of baptism. Which means, No baptism, No justification. And that implies, No sacraments, No Protestantism.
This is, however, vain and empty deceit, for earlier Leithart admitted that one could be baptized (with water) and still perish. All that Leithart can assure anyone of is that he was a beloved child in the water on the day of his baptism; but he cannot assure anyone that he will remain a beloved, justified child of God on the day of his death, and on the Day of Judgment. Something could very well separate someone from this “love” of God (contra.). It is very possible, teaches Leithart—and it has happened frequently according to the FV doctrines of apostasy, resistible grace and losable salvation—that such a “beloved, justified child of God” could be plunged into the fires of hell! Where’s the assurance now, Dr. Leithart?
Why does Leithart not swim across the Tiber into the waiting arms of Rome? That is what Jason Stellman, the man who was prosecuting Leithart at his trial, did. Leithart answers that in another blog post on First Things.4 He begins with pragmatic reasons: he would have to make new friends and lose other friends (that’s the cost of apostasy from the truth). But his main reasons are theological, for first, he does not know where the church of the future might be (so he might as well stay put); and, of course, he has some “objections” to Romanism:
For all my profound admiration for Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and for all the vibrant renewal in those churches, I continue to have standard, biblically grounded Protestant objections to Purgatory, to Marian doctrines, the Papacy, and icons, as well as lingering puzzlement about ambiguities concerning justification and the role of tradition.
“Profound admiration” for Rome? “Vibrant renewal” at the Vatican? “Standard, biblically grounded objections”? Perhaps, for now, Leithart knows on which side his bread is buttered. And maybe, just maybe, if the PCA had actually removed Leithart from the denomination as a heretic and denied him the possibility to teach in the PCA, Leithart could have taken his FV “nuances” with him, and could have overcome the “ambiguities” of Rome.
Many have managed it in the past. After all, an open enemy in the false church is less dangerous than a treacherous serpent in the true.
1 The last report on the Peter Leithart case was in Standard Bearer, vol. 90, issue 1, 10 (October 1, 2013).
2 “No Sacraments, No Protestantism,” in The Evangelical Pulpit, November 14, 2014, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evangelicalpulpit/2014/11/no-sacraments-no-protestantism/ (accessed, February 16, 2015).
3 “Baptism and Justification,” in First Things, April 20, 2005, http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2005/04/baptismand-justification/ (accessed, February 16, 2015). According to their own website, “First Things is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and educational 501(c)(3) organization. The Institute was founded in 1990 by Richard John Neuhaus and his colleagues to confront the ideology of secularism” (http://www.firstthings.com/about/). Neuhaus (1936-2009) was a Lutheran pastor who defected to Rome in 1990. He and Charles Colson (1931-2012) were leading architects of the compromising document Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994).
4 “Staying Put in the Presbyterian Church,” in First Things, http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/05/staying-put (accessed February 16, 2015).