Previous article in this series: December 15, 2010, p. 132.
A Curious Charge
I have been examining the report on the federal vision received for information at the 2010 Synod of the URC. The report is dangerously flawed because, while it criticizes the federal vision for its heretical doctrine of justification by faith and works, it leaves the vicious root of this heresy in the federal vision’s erroneous doctrine of the conditional covenant untouched.
The federal vision teaches that every baptized child is a member of the covenant; that every baptized child receives the promise of the covenant; and that many children who are baptized, are members of the covenant, and receive the promise, fall away into perdition. The federal vision is the logical development of the doctrine of a conditional covenant in which every baptized child is a member of the covenant. It is the logical fruit of the denial that election determines membership in the covenant of grace.
The burning question in the controversy with the federal vision is, what is the right doctrine regarding membership in the covenant that harmonizes with Dordt’s doctrines of grace and specifically Dordt’s teaching of an unconditional election that is the “fountain of every saving good,” including membership in the covenant of grace?¹
In its analysis of the federal vision’s answer to the question of membership in the covenant, the report repeatedly levels the clichÃ©d charge that the federal vision identifies covenant, election, and salvation. According to the report, the federal vision exhibits “a tendency to identify covenant membership with election to salvation in Christ.”² Proponents of the federal vision also
argue for the closest possible relationship between covenant, election, and salvation. When God covenants with His people (believers and their children), He graciously elects them to a true and saving communion with Himself. All who are members of the covenant people of God may legitimately proceed from the conviction that they are “elect in Christ” and possess accordingly all the saving benefits of Christ’s work as Mediator. With respect to the doctrine of justification, this means that all covenant members enjoy all gospel benefits, including justification, by virtue of their membership in Christ and His church.³
According to the report, “the FV tendency to equate election and membership in the covenant of grace compromises the Canons of Dort’s teaching of unconditional election.”4
Furthermore, according to the URC report’s evaluation,
from the standpoint of the Confessions, this FV identification of covenant, election, and salvation is at best overstated and at worst seriously unbiblical. By identifying covenant, election, and salvation, FV proponents are unable to maintain clearly that those whom God elects in Christ will unfailingly be granted the fullness of salvation in unbreakable communion with God. Since not all those with whom God covenants in history are “elect” in the proper sense of the term, especially as election is defined in the Belgic Confession (Article 16) and the Canons of Dort, we may not assert in an unqualified manner that they are all elected unto salvation and participate in the saving benefits of Christ’s work as Mediator.5
Note well, it is not the errors of the federal vision with regard to election, covenant, and salvation that are “seriously unbiblical,” but the federal vision’s “identification of covenant, election, and salvation,” that is “seriously unbiblical.”
According to the report, this identification is the explanation for the federal vision’s inability to “maintain clearly that those whom God elects in Christ will unfailingly be granted the fullness of salvation.” This identification of covenant, election, and salvation is the cause of the federal vision’s heresy of the falling away of the saints.
Furthermore, according to the report, “not all with whom God covenants in history are elect.” Membership in the covenant must be wider than election.
What is this charge of identifying “covenant membership with election to salvation in Christ?”6 The charge does not mean that the teachers of the federal vision are such inept theologians that they are unable to differentiate between election and covenant. The charge of identifying “covenant membership with election” means that the report finds “seriously unbiblical” the teaching that election and membership in the covenant are co-extensive, that is, that membership in the covenant is as wide and as narrow as election. Rather, the report maintains that membership in the covenant is wider than election; the covenant includes more people than those whom God eternally chose to salvation in Jesus Christ and whom He will certainly save.
The charge of identifying “covenant membership with election” is a curious charge.
It is a curious charge in light of the controversy itself in which the proponents of the federal vision have repeatedly insisted on the exact opposite. They refuse to teach that the decrees “trump” the covenant.7 It can be argued that the whole controversy arose out of the federal vision’s bold denial that the decrees determine membership in the covenant.
It is a curious charge in light of the official creeds of the men who wrote the report. One would not suppose that those who have the Canons of Dordt as their official creed would find it within themselves to see a problem with the “identification” of covenant, election, and salvation.
It is also a tired charge. What if there were a denomination of faithful churches who with her sisters and allies taught that membership in the covenant is determined by election, that only the elect were members of the covenant of grace, and that only the elect received an unconditional promise of grace? Furthermore, what if because of her faithful maintenance of this doctrine this denomination of churches has been charged repeatedly with “identifying covenant membership with election?” They could be forgiven for being offended—and somewhat bemused— by the charge that the federal vision “identifies covenant membership with election to salvation in Christ.”
No Error of the Federal Vision
Of committing this “seriously unbiblical error” of “identifying” covenant, election, and salvation that “compromises” Dordt’s teaching of unconditional election the federal vision is not guilty. They have never done this.
The federal vision denies—boldly, clearly, unmistakably— that the eternal decree of election determines membership in the covenant of grace.
In its war on the creedal truth of election as the “fountain of every saving good,”8 including membership in the covenant of grace, the federal vision rejects “the tendency to privilege the confessional and/or scholastic use of words and phrases over the way the same words and phrases are used in the Bible itself.”9 Having thoroughly trampled on the creeds, the federal vision insists on a new “covenantal” definition of the creedal terms.10
We deny that the unchangeable nature of these decrees prevents us from using the same language in covenantal ways as we describe our salvation from within that covenant. We further deny this covenantal usage is “pretend” language, even where the language and terminology sometimes overlap with the language of the decrees. The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children, that we may keep the words of this law.
Specifically, in order to make covenant membership wider than the eternal decree of election, the federal vision has redefined election as a historical choice of God, a conditional choice, and a losable choice, entirely different from election as defined in the Canons of Dordt. God’s eternal election, which is the only election that the creeds teach, the federal vision relegates to the hidden things of God and only grudgingly trots it out from the dusty corners of the theological stable when forced to admit that all the elect will be saved.
But as far as election’s determination of membership in the covenant, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.”11 For the federal vision, election is one thing, and membership in the covenant is another, until everything is worked out at the judgment seat of Jesus Christ—on the basis of men’s works!
The error of the federal vision is not the identification of covenant, election, and salvation. The federal vision’s error is the redefinition of election as a historical, conditional, and losable choice and a denial that the eternal decree of election determines membership in the covenant.
Because the federal vision redefines election as a historical, conditional choice of God, the federal vision teaches that membership in the covenant includes every baptized child. Baptism incorporates every child into the covenant. If every baptized child is in the covenant, then necessarily every child receives a general, conditional promise in the covenant. If every baptized child is incorporated into the covenant, and receives the promise, then the difference—whether the children are saved or not— between the children cannot be from God. The children make themselves to differ. God’s will does not determine covenantal membership and covenantal salvation, but the will and work of the children determine covenantal membership and covenantal salvation.
Because of this redefinition of election, and the refusal to let the eternal decree determine membership in the covenant and the objects of God’s promise, the federal vision teaches that God’s promise fails and many baptized, covenantal children fall away.
This doctrine of the federal vision is the logical implication of every form of the teaching of a conditional covenant. The federal vision has simply taken the doctrine of a conditional covenant and drawn out its implications so that all may see clearly where a conditional covenant—a covenant whose membership is wider than election— leads. It leads to the teaching of justification by works, the falling away of saints, and a full-scale denial of Dordt’s doctrines of grace.
The Burning Question
The burning question in the federal vision controversy is: who are the members of the covenant? To whom does God give the promise of the covenant? Who are those whom God certainly preserves to eternal salvation?
If Reformed churches, when answering these questions, would “identify” membership in the covenant with election instead of treating this “identification” as a contagious and deadly theological disease; if Reformed churches, having “identified” covenantal membership with election would say that the elect alone are members of the covenant; if they would teach that every member of the covenant of grace receives the gracious, unconditional promise; if they would teach that every member who receives that promise is saved by that promise, for the word of God cannot fail and His promise cannot be without effect—if only they would say these things, then they would have laid hold on the federal vision error at its root, for the good of those churches and the people of God. If they would only say this, they would decisively refute the deadly covenantal heresy of the federal vision with its conditional covenant divorced from election, its general, conditional promise, and, consequently, its deadly errors of justification by faith and obedience, the falling away of saints, and the denial of all the doctrines of grace so gloriously set forth in the Reformed creeds.
Contrary to the URC report, when refuting the federal vision heresy, these three—election, covenant, and salvation— must be held in the closest possible connection.
Contrary to the URC report, membership in the covenant cannot be wider than election. If God covenants with more than the elect, as according to the URC report He does, then the promise of the covenant that all members of the covenant receive is necessarily wider than election, and God’s promise to those who are not saved necessarily falls to the ground. That covenantal doctrine will lead to the federal vision’s bold denial of the doctrines of grace. The federal vision has demonstrated that.
A Covenant Determined by Election
Membership in the covenant is determined by election, as is the reception of the promise of the covenant. Is this any different from what the Canons of Dordt teach?
This elect number…God hath decreed to give to Christ, to be saved by Him, and effectually to call and draw them to His communion [covenant—NJL] by His Word and Spirit, to bestow upon them true faith, justification, and sanctification; and having powerfully preserved them in the fellowship of His Son, finally to glorify them for the demonstration of His mercy and for the praise of His glorious grace.12
It was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should bestow upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death.13
Are the Canons guilty of “identifying” election, covenant, and salvation?
In answer to the question of covenantal membership raised in the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) over fifty years ago in a controversy that painfully tested her, tore her apart, and yet strengthened her by God’s grace, the PRC adopted theDeclaration of Principles that clearly states what doctrine of the covenant harmonizes with the Reformed creeds.14
The Declaration demonstrates that the creeds teach the glorious doctrine of an unconditional covenant of grace flowing from God’s eternal “fountain of every saving good”—election—and a covenant whose membership is determined by that same decree.
That Declaration should be read by every Reformed church member who is concerned about the federal vision.
The Declaration should be highly prized by the PRC because what it teaches about the creedal doctrine of the covenant is the inoculation of those churches against the pestilential heresy of the federal vision that by its doctrine of the covenant shamelessly denies all of the doctrines of grace.
1 Canons of Dordt, 1.7, in The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches(Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), 156.
2 https://www.urcna.org/sysfiles/site_uploads/pubs/pub5243_2. pdf, 8.
3 https://www.urcna.org/sysfiles/site_uploads/pubs/pub5243_2. pdf, 23.
4 https://www.urcna.org/sysfiles/site_uploads/pubs/pub5243_2. pdf, 25.
5 https://www.urcna.org/sysfiles/site_uploads/pubs/pub5243_2. pdf, 23.
6 https://www.urcna.org/sysfiles/site_uploads/pubs/pub5243_2. pdf, 8.
7 http://www.federal-vision.com/resources/joint_FV_Statement. pdf, 4.
8 Canons of Dordt, 1.9, in Confessions, 157.
9 http://www.federal-vision.com/resources/joint_FV_Statement. pdf, 3.
10 http://www.federal-vision.com/resources/joint_FV_Statement. pdf, 3.
11 Rudyard Kipling, Ballad of East and West, in Stedman, Edmund Clarence, ed. A Victorian Anthology, 1837—1895. (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1895).
12 Canons of Dordt, 1.7, in Confessions, 156.
13 Canons of Dordt, 2.8, in Confessions, 163—64.
14 The Declaration can be found in Confessions, 412—431. I will gladly send a copy of this document to anyone who requests one.