Another study report among many such reports by Reformed and Presbyterian denominations on the federal vision—the heretical movement that for more than ten years has plagued Reformed and Presbyterian churches— has arrived on the ecclesiastical scene. This sixty-page document is courtesy of the United Reformed Churches (URC).
At her 2007 Synod Schererville the URC appointed a fourteen-member committee to study the issue of the federal vision and report to Synod 2010.
That Synod 2007 appoint a study committee to examine by the Word of God and our Confessions the teachings of the so-called Federal Vision and other like teachings on the doctrine of justification; and present a clear statement on these matters to the next synod for the benefit of the churches and the consistories.¹
At its 2010 Synod London, the URC received the report of its study committee on the federal vision and adopted the fifteen statements recommended by the committee.²
The committee fulfilled its specific mandate to examine the federal vision on the doctrine of justification. Its explanation of the federal vision’s doctrine of justification and defense of the creedal doctrine of justification by faith alone should be read by all those interested in the federal vision controversy. For those who are still ignorant of the federal vision, the report can profitably be read for its brief but detailed history of the development of the federal vision, naming of significant theologians connected with the movement, and numerous citations and quotations from prominent federal vision authors.
The report’s summary and critique of a number of the more egregious errors of the federal vision on such issues as paedocommunion, the church, the sacraments, and the preservation of the saints are also of some interest.
The URC report also frankly states the situation in the Reformed church world with regard to the federal vision:
The published writings of FV authors contain reformulations of the doctrine of justification and other related teachings that have not only created considerable controversy and confusion within the family of confessionally Reformed churches in North America, but continue to exercise influence in these churches, including the URCNA. When there is uncertainty within the Reformed churches regarding the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone, it is the duty of every confessionally Reformed officebearer to exert himself in propagating the truth of the gospel and opposing error of every kind (437).
And the report speaks of
the widespread controversy regarding the FV among the confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America. This controversy has not only taken place outside of the URCNA, but within the URCNA as well (440).
Through ten or more years of development, the federal vision has created “considerable controversy and confusion” and is “widespread.” It is the duty of every Reformed officebearer to exert himself in “opposing error of every kind.” Presumably, in light of the report, officebearers should exert themselves to oppose the federal vision.
Predictably, the report with its recommendations also has been criticized by some in the URC and Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) for being extra-confessional binding. In the same agenda in which the report appears, there is an overture from Classis Western Canada (Leduc 2010) to reduce the recommendations to thirteen and to place them innocuously in the body of the report.
Placing the (now 13) points in the body of the paper without requesting synod to officially “affirm” them would avoid the danger of extra-confessional bindings to theological formulations (Agenda 43).
In answer to requests from “several friends,” former URC and now CanRC minister Rev. Bill DeJong gave the report a searing review. About the report’s criticism of certain men by name, he says that, “the names and reputations of godly pastors were dragged through the mud.”
Who are these godly pastors dragged through the proverbial mud, we ask Rev. DeJong?
The names of John Barach, Steve Wilkins, Douglas Wilson, Peter Leithart and others are all mentioned in the report…. The men mentioned above are my friends. I know them well, some better than others. They are people with sensitive hearts and souls. They are godly husbands and fathers, with loving wives and children. They are Reformed pastors in the church of Christ whose hearts beat for the gospel. They are co-laborers in the kingdom of Christ.³
DeJong also warns that the fifteen recommendations of the report are extra-confessional binding:
A message is sent to the Can Ref that their constant warnings about adopting extra-confessional pronouncements are worthless. This point cannot be minimized. The URCNA was warned about the nine points. The nine points were re-affirmed and more points were added.
One can apparently deny the confessional doctrine of election, teach the falling away of saints, promote justification by faith and the works of faith, and send those that believe that to eternal condemnation, and be considered a good friend and colleague of Rev. De Jong, but receiving a report on a serious heresy that has infected Reformed churches gets one censured for what seems to be the only censurable sin: extra-confessional binding.
This reaction to the report by a minister in the CanRC is an indication how pervasive the error of the federal vision has become. The theology of the federal vision is not only, as some of their theologians contend, a nonissue in the CanRC, but also CanRC ministers are actively promoting this theology and its theologians.4
The report, therefore, has some value. It has added to the awareness of the threat of the federal vision, has elicited discussion on the federal vision, and has exposed some of the federal vision’s more obvious errors.
The federal vision is the seminal issue that faces Reformed churches today. It is an issue about which Reformed church members may not be ignorant and on which Reformed ministers may not be silent. Silence at this point in time is culpable.
The report is flawed.
The fatal flaw is the seemingly studied refusal to deal with the root of the federal vision controversy, while at the same time vigorously objecting to the federal vision’s doctrine of justification that is the obvious fruit of that root.
The report contends that the central error of the federal vision is the error of justification by faith and good works.
The central point of doctrine in the present controversy regarding the FV and related views is, undoubtedly, the doctrine of justification. Were it not for the way various writers within the orbit of the FV have reformulated this doctrine, it is hard to imagine that the FV would have provoked as much concern as it has. Since the grace of free justification is a principal theme of the gospel of Jesus Christ, uncertainty regarding what this grace entails must be a matter of grave concern to any Reformed believer or church (469).
First, this demonstrates that the main intention of the report was to deal with the federal vision at its perceived heart and to comment on the peripheral issues only insofar as they affect the central issue.
Second, this isolates the “doctrine of justification” as “the central point” in the federal vision controversy.
Third, the report makes the startling admission—in light of the massive scope of the federal vision errors— that were it not for their denial of justification, “it is hard to imagine that the FV would have provoked as much concern as it has.” It is necessary for the federal vision to deny the heart of the gospel before anyone will take any notice.
The report’s analysis that “the central point” of the federal vision controversy is its doctrine of justification is the fatal flaw of the report. The candid admission that were it not for the error on justification the federal vision would probably not have stirred up much controversy indicates the URC’s unwillingness to grapple with what is the heart of the federal vision’s error, its covenant doctrine.
Serious as the denial of justification by faith alone is, to identify that error as the “central issue” leaves untouched the federal vision’s doctrine of the covenant of God that has allowed the errant doctrine of justification to be taught.
It is not that the report does not recognize the importance of the covenant in the theology of the federal vision. The disturbing aspect of the report is that the committee stares the federal vision’s doctrine of the covenant in the face, admits that it is central to the controversy, but does not criticize it in the light of the creeds.
The FV movement, as its name indicates, focuses primarily upon the doctrine of the covenant [emphasis mine—NJL]. In this respect, it is a movement that must be of special interest to the Reformed churches, which have always viewed the relationship between the Triune God and His people, whether before or after the fall into sin, as a covenantal relationship (441).
And virtually contradicting its own assessment that the central issue is justification, the report later says,
These revisions [of the doctrine of justification—NJL] are the consequence of a number of key themes in the FV reformulation of the doctrine of the covenant [emphasis mine—NJL], particularly the obligation of obedience to the law of God in the pre-Fall covenant between the Triune God and Adam, the representative head of the human race (475-476).
The federal vision’s error on justification is not, and never has been, “the central point.” In this controversy the Synod of Dordt should be a pattern. It can be argued that the Remonstrants at the Synod of Dordt denied justification by faith alone as surely as the Roman Catholic Church. The synod pointed this out and easily refuted them by rejecting the errors of those who taught that the covenant of grace consisted
in the fact that God, having revoked the demand of perfect obedience of the law, regards faith itself and the obedience of faith, although imperfect, as the perfect obedience of the law, and does esteem it worthy of the reward of eternal life through grace…. For these contradict the Scriptures: Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, Rom. 3:24, 25. And these proclaim, as did the wicked Socinus, a new and strange justification of man before God, against the consensus of the whole church.5
Dordt refuted the Arminians’ new and strange doctrine of justification, but that was not its main criticism of the Arminians. The synod recognized that this errant doctrine was the fruit of the Arminians’ doctrine of the covenant and of salvation that taught conditional election; universal atonement; the freedom of the will; universal, conditional grace; and the falling away of saints.
In light of the federal vision, then, it should be taken for granted that in a Reformed denomination of churches the doctrine of justification by faith alone is uncontroverted. Indeed, so clear are the three forms of unity on the doctrine that any attack on it should be handled with ease, but to condemn that error without condemning the root of that error in the federal vision’s covenant doctrine is futile, indeed, dangerous.
Futile because the arguments advanced will simply be conveniently sidestepped, as the proponents of the federal vision are already doing. Douglas Wilson, noted proponent of the federal vision, has already adroitly sidestepped many of the charges and stated that the report simply does not deal with the issues.6 James Jordan noted almost immediately after the report was received that he could sign on to the recommendations with the one exception of paedocommunion.7
Dangerous because the report will lull the members of the URC into a false sense of security that the URC has dealt decisively with the federal vision and are unified in their condemnation of the federal vision, which the report virtually equates with a denial of justification by faith alone.
This was the contention of the author of “Federal Vision and Justification: Unequivocal Unanimity,” who commented on the URC’s reception of the report and noted that
some of those following certain internet discussion lists may have mistakenly thought that the Federal Vision was a ‘hot-button’ controversy within the URCNA, but Synod 2010 proved that the federation is united in its commitment to refuting the errors of the Federal Vision and to standing firm for the biblical truth of justification by faith.8
Meanwhile, the federal vision remains just as deadly because its error on the doctrine of the covenant has not been condemned and exposed.
Finally, the report is flawed—inexcusably—because it does not call the federal vision a heresy.
Ominously, nowhere, not once, in the sixty pages of the report is the federal vision condemned as heresy. This was noted as one of the strengths of the report by the chairman of the URC Synod 2010, Rev. Pontier, as reported in Christian Renewal: “He was thankful, however, that the word ‘error’ had been used instead of the ‘H’ word.”9
The word heretic has become a vulgar word at the URC synod, to be referenced in a similar way as the disgusting F-word.
The federal vision is a heresy. It is a heresy that openly denies justification by faith alone. It is a heresy that teaches people to show up in the final judgment with their works in one hand and their faith in the other, for which they will be damned. That is a soul-destroying heresy. That is another gospel.
If the federal vision were a heresy that denied only justification by faith alone, it would deserve the severest censure. It teaches a new and strange justification like the “wicked Socinus.”10
But the federal vision is much more than that. It is a heresy that boldly denies the heart of the gospel on the basis of its equally bold promotion of a conditional covenant with a conditional promise by which it boldly denies election, the perseverance of the saints, and thus by implication denies all the doctrines of grace.
It is a heresy that teaches a new and strange salvation like the “wicked” Arminians, this time in the covenant.11
It is a dangerous heresy.
It is particularly dangerous with regard to its doctrine of the covenant.
To the report’s analysis of this doctrine we turn next time.
1 Acts of Synod Schererville 2007, Article 72.2.
2 Interested persons can read the report at https://www.urcna.org/sysfiles/site_uploads/pubs/pub5243_2.pdf.
3 http://episcopos.blogspot.com/2010/08/personal-assessment- of-2010-urcna-synod_05.html.
4 Christian Renewal, March 10, 2010.
5 Canons of Dordt, 2, Rejection of Errors, 4, in The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, 165.
7 Christian Renewal, Sept. 15, 2010.
8 Christian Renewal, Aug. 18, 2010.
9 Christian Renewal, Aug. 18, 2010.
10 Canons of Dordt, 2, Rejection of Errors, 4, in Confessions, 165.