Federal Vision for the average Joe
By Luke A. Nieuwsma
A lot of you out there have probably heard concerned Christians talking about the Federal Vision, and you may have heard words and phrases like 'heresy,' 'justification by works,' 'baptismal regeneration,' and 'Doug Wilson theology' bouncing around in the same conversations. And yet you might still not have a clear idea of what 'Federal Vision' really means. So I, a layman who has been around Federal Vision theologian-type people for 14 years, am taking a shot at explaining (in terms that we laymen use) just what having a federal vision means.
I hope this little essay blesses you and enables you to get a better idea of whether all this 'stuff' is indeed heresy. And hopefully it will whet your appetite to consider if the Federal Vision really is contrary to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and above all, whether it is consistent with Scripture, or contrary to the heart of the gospel.
First, I'll lay out what the Federal Vision is. Next, I'll consider what the Federal Vision is not. Not all Federal Vision theologians think exactly alike, let me warn you; but for now, I hope you won't mind that I paint with a broad brush. There will always be more details which can be filled in, and it won't be difficult for you to gain a deeper understanding of the issues than what I offer here. And I hope you do.
I. What Federal Vision Theology Is
- an emphasis on biblical definitions
- an emphasis on the external Covenant: a different definition of “Christian”
- an emphasis on strong church authority
- an emphasis on the sacraments, particularly baptism
- another aspect to the church: a global ecclesiology
- another aspect to election
II. What Federal Vision is NOT:
- salvation by works
- justification by works
- baptismal regeneration
- a denial of assurance of salvation
- The New Perspective on Paul
- a denial of classic Reformed theology as found in the Westminster or Heidelberg
- a denial of the imputation of Christ's righteousness
- heresy taught by men who have been tried in an ecclesiastical court
I. What the Federal Vision is
An emphasis on Biblical definitions
First of all, you'll want to understand the interpretive assumption that these Federal Vision chaps are basing all of their thoughts off of. The Federal Vision is an attempt to describe doctrine and theology and dirt and wind and everything in terms of biblical categories, not necessarily 'theological' categories. In other words, theologians have come up with ways of saying things and defining things (which is a good thing), but being sons of Adam, these theologians are capable of screwing up, of missing nuances of Scripture and making plain old mistakes just like any other believer.
So keep in mind that the Federal Vision is taught and believed by men who want sola scriptura to affect every idea they pull from the Bible. Whatever you end up concluding, these men ultimately appeal not to Frame, Calvin, Huss, or various Dutch theologians of great weight, but to Scripture itself (see the Joint Federal Vision Profession pg. 2, "Scripture Cannot Be Broken"). And this mindset has led these theologians to reconsider and re-define certain ideas.
An emphasis on the external Covenant: a different definition of Christian
When you ask someone whether his friend is a Christian, what do you mean? “Well,” you might say, “he believes in Jesus Christ and I think he's going to heaven, so I would say he's a Christian.” That seems to be the most common definition of Christian today: has this person repented of his sins, accepted Christ into his heart, and is he going to heaven when he dies?
But there's a couple problems with this definition: one, how do you know who really is going to heaven when they die? and two, what do you do with people who seem to be walking with God, but fall away into sin and die as an apparent unbeliever?
This definition is a subjective view of Christian, which means that your Christianity is rooted in your mind, rather than in the external world. Put another way, whether you are a Christian is defined by the state of your heart, which no man can really know; all we can do is guess if you're a Christian by the fruit that we see. And so if you live a good life, raise children, love your wife, and then spin wildly out of control and become an atheist-Bhuddist homosexual, then we say, “Oh, I guess he wasn't a Christian after all.”
By the common definition of Christian, you cannot truly know who your Christian brothers and sisters are; that is, in more theological language, you have no way of knowing who is a member of the invisible church. We know that some people out there, just like us, believe in Christ and rest on Him alone for our salvation, we just have no idea who they really are.
The Federal Vision theologians use a different definition of Christian. Whoa! Careful, now. They don't use a different definition of salvation; they believe that salvation comes through the death and resurrection of Christ, the incarnate God, and through His blood alone. Federal vision theologians would clearly state that we are saved by grace through faith alone, and that not of ourselves in any way whatsoever – it is the gift of God to be saved from your sins and given eternal life in the last day. It is not merited or earned in any way (see the Joint Federal Vision Profession or JFVP pg.4, "Reformed Catholicity").
So, salvation is the same; but their definition of 'Christian' is NOT whether you go to heaven when you die; rather, to a Federal Visionary, a Christian is someone who is a member of an external covenant with the Christian church. Probably most or all Federal Visionaries (as I call them) believe that baptism is what brings you into the New Covenant, just as circumcision brought Israelites into the Old Covenant. So in other words, a Christian is someone who is baptized into Christ, and who is therefore accountable to the church and her ministers (JFVP pg. 4, "The Church, " and pg. 5, "The Sacrament of Baptism").
Now, using this definition, do all “Christians” go to heaven? No. This is because there are faithful Christians and faithless Christians. There are some people who become attached to the Christ-following church and baptized in the name of the Trinity, but who end up leading a morally degenerate lifestyle, and who will be burning in hell along with Hitler and Judas. We would call these people 'Christians,' but unfaithful Christians. This is not to say that the faithful Christian goes to heaven BECAUSE of his faithfulness, or vice versa for the faithless Christian, but that this is the fruit born in their lives. James says that faith without works is dead. Dead trees bear no fruit, but living trees, or saints with living faith, will bear fruit in their lives.
Nor is this saying that Christians can lose their salvation, or that Christ died in vain. Rather, it is the faithful Christians living a life of obedience who will reach heaven, and both the pagans and the unfaithful Christians who lead lawless lives will end up in hell. And this is not saying that the faithful Christians “earn” their salvation by leading good lives, but that faithful Christians believe and obey through the power of the Spirit alone, and are truly washed through Christ's justifying and cleansing blood. But while a baptized man is on earth, whether he obeys and believes in God and is admitted into heaven, or whether he breaks his vows to obey God's law and becomes a mass-murderer... he is still a Christian covenantally. He is still bound to obey the Triune God.
To put this whole discussion in an analogy, the relationship between the church and the Christian is rather like that of marriage. When a man marries a woman, he becomes a husband.
If a man has been married three years, and he starts lusting after the neighbor's wife or having an affair with the secretary at the office, is he still a husband? Well, he may not be acting like it, but he still has a ring on his finger, and his wife wears one on her finger. He is an unfaithful husband, but a husband nonetheless. His marriage covenant is objective – it exists outside of his mind. The husband's heart and actions do not erase the commitment he made to his wife at the wedding until they have a formal divorce (analogy borrowed from Douglas Wilson).
In the same way, if you have been brought into the new covenant, then whether or not you are leading an obedient life, you are bound to the terms of the New Covenant. Christ is your lawful Lord and King, and you are accountable to His ministers on earth whether or not you are willing to admit it. And just as only the Holy Spirit gives husbands the ability to be faithful their entire lives to their wives, He alone also gives Christians the moral ability to be faithful to the terms of the New Covenant, to the commands of Christ and His apostles. Faithful Christians who truly believe in Christ will always be faithful Christians, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit; but Christians who join the church in unbelief are totally incapable of 'climbing' to God through their works.
To have a Federal Vision is to have an objective view of Christians; you view the word Christian in terms of the covenant relationship a person has with the church. Once again, there are two kinds of Christians: A) the faithful, who are baptized people who keep God's laws and live a life of obedience ending in eternal life, and B) the unfaithful, who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, but who fall away and crucify again the Son of God and put Him to shame (Hebrews 6).
And so joining the church with an unrepentant heart is a fearful thing: you taste the Holy Spirit without truly believing in Him (just as King Saul did), and you drink judgment on yourself every time you take the Lord's supper.
And by using this definition, you aren't always asking the question, “Is John reeeeally a Christian?” You ask the question once, and check the baptismal records. And if John was baptized, then his external relationship makes him obligated to obey the Bible and follow the Church's teachings. Do we know who are the truly faithful Christians? No, only God knows the hearts. But can we know everyone who is formally tied to the church? Yes, and they are covenantally bound as Christians to obey Christ and the Church.
An Emphasis on Strong Church Authority
Something which naturally flows from viewing Christians by their covenant bonds is that you respect the church's authority. In the Old Testament, the prophets and the priests held the people accountable for their obedience to the terms of the covenant; in the New Testament, the elders of the church hold that office, and do so with true authority and honor (Hebrews 13).
While this may not be a major emphasis of the overall Federal Vision, it naturally produces an ecclesiology of a strong church, and of strong membership ties. To the Federal Visionary, being a member of a church is not just being a member of a club that speaks Jesus-speak once a week. Rather, it is being a member of the living body of Christ, and if you do not bear fruit, you may be eventually cut off from the olive tree that you were grafted (Romans 11:17ff).
I've heard Federal Vision pastors preach about church discipline in a different vocabulary than we are used to hearing. When someone is falling into sin, hanging out with the wrong crowd, drinking too much at the bars, and starting to skip church, then the FV friends of the sliding Christian and/or the elders of the church meet with him and grab him by his baptism: “Look – you were baptized in Christ's name, and you were washed from these sins. You've been washed – stop your sin! You were baptized into Christ's flock, so you have no business doing these things!”
If the fellow doesn't turn from his sins after repeated appeals and a final trial, then he is excommunicated. Excommunicated – a nasty word to liberal ears, because it implies judgment and denouncing sins and dark and gloomy things like that. But what is the church for except to herd the sheep away from the wolves? Even if the sheep eventually wander into darkness, they still have the brand of the Christian ranch on their skin. And so you grab the stray by his baptism and tell him he belongs somewhere else.
To do this, to exercise discipline in those unpleasant times when it is needed, requires a strong church where the members realize that they are accountable to each other, to the elders, and ultimately to God. A sense of strong church authority organically springs from having a Federal vision of what it means to be Christian.
An emphasis on the sacraments, especially baptism
But this also requires that you have a high view of baptism and the Lord's supper, the 'means of grace.' And here is where things begin to get a little thick.
To a Federal Visionary, baptism and communion have deep meaning. They're not just physical washing of H20 and the digestion of bread and fruit sugars. Formal baptism actually does something: it visibly ties you to Christ, it washes you in some way and makes you part of the olive tree, a branch on the vine of Christ. Baptism isn't just a rite; it buries us with Christ (Rom. 6:4). However, it doesn't guarantee that we're saved. Rather it is an objective seal and sign upon a person, reminding them of the name they carry, and calling them to true faith and repentance, which are the only grounds for justification. If a baptized believer is given true faith, then he will be a faithful branch, and will be pruned; but if he is not given true faith, then his baptism is a sign and seal against him, and he will be are fruitless, resulting in being cut off (John 15:1-6, Romans 11:17-22). In this way we see that Baptism is an objective act of God on behalf of the baptized, while being neither Baptismal Regeneration, nor meaningless. Baptism is a powerful sacrament with a lasting effect; it is more than just a personal statement of your dedication to God. It objectively ties you to Christ: “for by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit” 1 Corinthians 12:13. (See also JFVP pg. 4, "The Church," and pg. 5, "The Sacrament of Baptism").
And in the same way, the Lord's Supper is more than just a physical meal. It does something to you when you eat of it. When you first read this, you might think that this sounds superstitious and Roman Catholic, but we all believe this to some degree or another. Every Christian knows that if you eat and drink the Supper in an unworthy manner, you're cursing yourself and sending judgment upon yourself. The other side of the coin is that if you eat and drink the Lord's Supper, you're receiving a nourishment which is deeper than physical molecules. Your soul is being fed by the body and blood of Christ in a real and tangible way. However, this is in no way an affirmation of the papist doctrine of transubstantiation (JFVP pg. 5, "The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper").
With this heavy emphasis on the power of the sacraments, most Federal Vision theologians would probably hold to paedo-baptism, baptizing children into the New Covenant shortly after birth (just as Israelite boys were circumcised into the Old Covenant on the 8th day). Also, most Federal Visionaries would likely believe in paedo-communion, giving little children their own portions of the Supper of our Lord in the covenant hope that when they are old, these children will not depart from the way they should go.
If they are indeed covenant members, as classic, Reformed doctrine has always taught (e.g. the Heidelberg Catechism), then why should little children be denied the bread and the wine? The only people whom Scripture clearly states should be denied the Supper are covenant-breakers. I Corinthians 11, the classic credo-communion text, says nothing about denying anyone the Lord's Supper, but about training the congregation to receive it reverently and in order, and to discern the Lord's body. Why should this not be part of Christian child-rearing? We allow little children to pray to God, and we know that He overlooks the heresies they mumble. He Himself told us to let the little children come to Him. If we do not, we deny children the covenant meal and in effect tell them, "You have no share in Christ. You're not Christians." I have seen first-hand how many children who have been faithfully taught and have been raised partaking of the Lord's Supper walk with our Lord at a young age and obediently serve Him.
Another aspect to the church (Ecclesiology)
Now think about this for a moment; if baptism unites you with the entire body of Christ, his visible church, which consists of everyone else who was baptized in the name of the Triune God, then your baptism ties you together with an enormous body of believers! When you understand the Church to be everyone who is covenantally united through baptism, then your perspective on ecclesiology shifts dramatically.
It's like going from a geocentric model of the skies to a heliocentric model; before, you might have viewed 'Christian' to mean only those people within your denomination, or even your local church. But the Federal Vision has forced many Christians to suddenly realize that they have ties with a massive body of people on earth; the 'church' doesn't revolve around our denomination or particular doctrinal perspective. Rather, we are all just one branch on a mighty vine which extends past denominational fences to every single person who has been baptized in Christ's name.
This means that Roman Catholics are Christians. Whoa! Wait, wait, wait. I didn't say they were faithful Christians, or that we'd see them in heaven. But they have been baptized in Christ's name and into His body. This means that we have some level of unity with them which we do not have with Joe Pagan down at the Pigsty Night Club. And we have that same tie with the Eastern church, the Orthodox Church. Now, the nominalism in Russia and Spain and Mexico and other countries is famous, but so is American nominal Christianity. To an extent, all of these branches of Christianity are still Christianity, because they all still preach a triune Lord and administer the sacrament of baptism in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
In short, the Federal vision of ecclesiology quickly becomes a global vision of ecclesiology, a corporate ecclesiology. The church today spans the globe, though in many areas it is unhealthy and has dead branches. Yet, Christ's body stretches from continent to continent, and He will purge it of spot and blemish in time.
Another aspect to election
So how does this federal view of the sacraments and membership in Christ relate to the Pauline doctrine of election? Here in particular it has been easy to get confused about what the Federal Vision theologians teach. A rumor has gone around that Federal Vision theologians teach that you can be elect and still go to hell; do they really say this?
As you already know, the doctrine of election means that God chose from before the foundation of the world who would be His children among all the humans who would ever live on earth. God chose everyone who would become a Christian (using the Christian = person who goes to heaven). But if you have the Federal definition of Christian, then you have two kinds of Christians: the believing one, and therefore a covenant-keeper, and the unbelieving, who is incapable of being a covenant-keeper.
So then, there are two kinds of elect Christians which must be distinguished if we are going to use the same language as scripture. There are those whom God chose to be faithful covenant members (again, not faithful in themselves, but as a gift of God’s grace) from before the foundations of the world, and there are those whom God chose to be faithless covenant-breakers from before the foundation of the world.
In one sense, you can be an elect Christian and go to hell. What is this kind of person elect to? This person has been predestined to nominal Christianity, to hypocrisy, to be an apostate, a vessel of dishonor. In contrast, all of Christ's true sheep are actually those Christians who have been elected to faithfulness and eternal life.
The Federal Vision in no way contradicts the classic, Pauline, Augustinian, Calvinist doctrine of election; it simply carries out the implications of God's decrees and sovereign story-writing to those who break their covenant bonds with the church. So when we refer to those 'elect,' chosen by God to be a part of his church body, this word can mean a mixed bag; some covenant members are elect to be faithful covenant members, and others are elect to damnation, whose damnation would have been less harsh if they had not first joined the body of Christ (2 Peter 2:18-20). God uses this to refer to the OT Israelites as "My people" (Exodus 3:10) or "Israel my elect" (Isaiah 45:4), many of whom are now burning in hell. Many of those who were called "God's people " in the Old Covenant were not His people in a spiritual sense, but only in a covenantal sense. Not all Israel are of Israel. In the same way, not all those "elect" (to covenantal union) are elect to salvation (e.g. Simon the Magus).
II. What the Federal Vision is not:
Salvation by works:
Having a Federal Vision in no way implies that a man is saved by his works, or justified by his works, or in any way elevated above any other man by his works. The signers of the Joint FV Profession state, "We affirm that justification is through faith in Jesus Christ, and not by works of the law, whether those works were revealed to us by God, or manufactured by man" (JFVP pg. 4, Reformed Catholicity). Also, "We affirm that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone. Faith alone is the hand which is given to us by God so that we may receive the offered grace of God. Justification is God's forensic declaration that we are counted as righteous, with our sins forgiven, for the sake of Christ alone" (JFVP pg. 6, "Justification by Faith Alone").
Rather, the terms of the New Covenant (obedience to the Bible and the Church) are a thermometer for how a person is doing spiritually. If a man is in sin, you can tell by comparing him to the law of Christ, for even a child is known by his actions, whether they are true and right. And how the man reacts to the ministry of the church also speaks about what is in his heart – faith and humility, or pride and deceit.
If anything, the New Covenant shows how much we must cling to the grace of Christ, for without Christ we can neither obey Christ's commandments in Moses or in the Gospels or in the Epistles. Instead, as Doug Wilson would say, we work out what God works in. We live by grace through faith alone, and only Christ gives us the strength to be faithful to the terms of His covenant; and everyone who tries to follow that covenant on his own strength falls short and brings judgment on his head.
Justification by works
In the same way as we are only saved through Christ, we are only justified through Christ. To a Federal Vision theologian, the only thing which makes us right with God and removes our guilt is the dead body of Christ hanging on the cross. The only thing which gives us hope is not our own behavior, for we all fall every day; rather, it is Christ risen above, and His Holy Spirit working in us to produce the good works which God prepared for us beforehand.
Now, whether you are right with your church body, whether you are being faithful to the covenant, is determined by your works; druggies and fornicators whose deeds become public will quickly find that their pastor and elders wish to meet with them. But neither Douglas Wilson, nor John Barach, nor Steve Wilkins, nor any other FV theologian would ever claim that the good deeds which can keep us in fellowship with our church have any canceling power on the wages and debt of our sins. Only Christ's blood alone.
Also, the Federal Vision theologians don't believe that being baptized means being saved. They tell us, "We deny that baptism automatically guarantees that the baptized will share in the eschatological Church... that an "effectual call" or rebirth is automatically wrought in the one baptized. Baptism apart from a growing and living faith is not saving, but rather damning" (JFVP pg. 5, "The Sacrament of Baptism").
Being baptized means that you are united with Christ's body here on earth and are accountable to His commandments and His church body, but whether or not you are going to be in eternal glory depends on whether God has chosen to change your heart, give you faith, and forgive your sins in Christ.
Baptism makes you a Christian only in the Federal sense of the word: you have been externally united to the visible Church here on earth. A baptized Christian can also be a nominal believer – believer in name, not in the heart. The Federal vision in no way teaches that everyone who is baptized is automatically a faithful Christian. A Christian must be a Christian of the heart and by faith.
Now, on the other hand, Federal vision theologians may say that God does save people through baptism – that God uses baptism as part of the conversion method (just as people at Billy Graham crusades might have come to the front of the revival and prayed a prayer, or thrown a pinecone in the fire; neither the pinecone nor the prayer actually paid for your sins, but God may have used it to bring you to him). Some FV would also refer to the temporary state of self-deceived faith that a false Christian has as a sort of "regeneration" (such as the seed in the parable of the sower which "hears the word in joy and immediately receives the word with joy," but falls away when persecution comes).
But they are careful to distinguish this from true salvation. "Those covenant members who are not elect in the decretal sense enjoy the common operations of the Spirit in varying degrees, but not in the same way that those who are elect do" (JFVP pg. 3, "The Divine Decrees"). A good OT example of an unsaved covenant member temporarily receiving the benefits of the Spirit would be King Saul, who had the Holy Spirit for a time but later was left by Him.
All this to say, the Federal Vision emphasizes the reality of the covenant, but it does not equate baptism with eternal life. Those who claim that this is part of FV theology are either misled, confused, or being dishonest.
A Denial of the Assurance of Salvation
Federal Vision theologians have not taught that someone who truly believes in Christ and is filled with the kind of living faith in James 2 have can lose his salvation. Not once. As in never. "We affirm that those who have been justified by God's grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are saved to the uttermost and will spend eternity with Christ and his saints in glory forever" (JFVP pg. 6, "Assurance of Salvation").
Also, reinforcing the traditional, Reformed understanding of predestination, this eternal state of glory is fore-ordained through decretal election: "We deny that any person who is chosen by God for final salvation before the foundation of the world can fall away and be finally lost. The decretally elect cannot apostatize" (JFVP pg. 7, "Apostasy").
One way that a FV pastor might encourage someone who doubts his salvation (such as someone who fears he's committed the unforgivable sin) would be to point out, "Look, the very fact that you're worried about the state of your salvation means that you don't have a hard heart. The very fact you're concerned about whether or not you're saved shows that you haven't blasphemed the Holy Spirit. Someone who is going to hell doesn't care about whether or not he is right with God. Now, look to Christ and believe that you're saved!"
Another reminder God has given us that we are saved is our baptism - not that we trust in our baptism for our salvation, but rather that the baptism is like our wedding ring. It is a guarantee for us that yes, we are part of the redeemed bride of Christ. Although this sounds unfamiliar to us Protestants at first, the Westminster Confession of Faith explicitly states this when it tells us that baptism is a "sign and seal" for the recipient of his "ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins..." (WCF Ch. 28.1).
At the same time, a person who is in deep sin and rebellion against the church needs to hear not "Jesus loves you and everything is good!" but a warning to consider whether he is saved or not. The gospel is both Repent and Believe. You cannot claim to serve God and yet persist in breaking God's law, the commands of Christ and the apostles. "For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God" (Ephesians 5:5).
Also, apostasy is a real thing, as you've probably seen for yourself if you've lived in a church community long enough. However, this is not an apostasy from saving grace, but from the grace of the covenant. Covenantal Christians who fall away do fall from a real connection to Christ (such as those in Hebrews 6 who trample the blood of the covenant underfoot). But the true sons of God will never fall away.
The New Perspective on Paul
Despite the PCA's apparent confusion on the matter, the Federal Vision is not the same thing as the teaching of N.T. Wright and other theologians who teach the New Perspective on Paul. Although there has been some communication between the two camps (particularly between N.T. Wright and Dr. Leithart), these are quite distinct theological movements.
The New Perspective on Paul teaches just that: a new perspective, a new view of Paul's teaching which deals in particular with justification by works and his war against the Hebraists of his time (such as those who appear in Galatians). Part of this new perspective is the claim that Paul's reactions to the Judaists were not a response to Jewish attempts to earn their way to heaven through the Mosiac code, but rather that Paul was attacking the Jewish ethnic pride, which tried to turn every convert into a Jew rather than a servant of God. The New Perspective might say that Luther's classic understanding of by grace alone misreads Paul's argument; the Pharisees were not trying to earn their way to God's favor. Rather, they thought they were already there, simply by nature of being descended from Abraham. It was the sin of ethnic pride, not works-righteousness, which the New Perspective folks would say Paul is so vehement against.
While some of the New Perspective gentlemen have similar sympathies to the Federal Visionaries (such as a common understanding of the corporate, world-wide nature of the church), these are really quite different discussions. For anyone to say that FV is NPP, or vice versa, simply means that they don't quite understand either group. Many, if not most proponents of the Federal Vision, are in disagreement with the New Perspective on Paul.
A denial of the classic Reformed theology as found in the Westminster or Heidelberg:
While the Federal Vision proponents believe in the Reformed notion of semper reformanda (the church always reforming), and therefore believe the church will always be improving in its expressions of eternal truths, they do not reject the historic reformed confessions such as the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Heidelberg Catechism (see JFVP pg. 1). On the contrary, they seek to return to the solid foundations laid by the Reformers of the 16th century, and to build on that firm foundation.
A denial of the imputation of Christ's righteousness
Dr. Peter Leithart in particular has been accused of denying that Christ's active obedience in obeying the OT Law is imputed to Christians. In personal correspondence with him, I have discovered that Dr. Leithart actually would say that the problem isn't with Christ's active obedience, but rather that the active/passive distinction doesn't hold any water itself. He would say that Christ's entire life of obedience is imputed to us, including his death on the cross, and in exchange, our sins are imputed to Him; that the Resurrection is God's thundering verdict of "Not Guilty!" This verdict is also the verdict of our innocence in Christ.
There are certainly some who do deny the "imputation of the active obedience" of Christ, but they are denying a particular theological interpretation of Christ's fulfillment of the Old Covenant, not the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to us. Here again the Joint FV Profession is very helpful: "We affirm Christ is all in all for us, and that His perfect, sinless life, His suffering on the cross, and His glorious resurrection are all credited to us... We affirm not only that Christ is our full obedience, but also that through our union with Him we partake of the benefits of His death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement at the right hand of God the Father" (JFVP pg. 5, "Union with Christ and Imputation).
Heresy taught by men who have been tried in an ecclesiastical court:
One thing which the Federal Vision is definitely not is heretical teachings which have been condemned in an ecclesiastical court. If we look at how this story has played out, in 2002 a conference was held in Auburn, Louisianna entitled “The Federal Vision.” Since then, the label 'Federal vision' has been slapped on the theology which I have tried to describe above, and along with this label, the adjective 'heresy' has been pasted.
Whether or not you agree with some of the Reformed denominations who have rejected the Federal Vision, there has not yet been any sort of public trial or debate where denominations have charitably asked Federal Vision theologians to personally and publicly defend their theology based on Scripture, at least not such an event which has turned out in a conviction of heresy. Most reformed denominations seem to read the works of FV theologians and pass judgment on them from a distance without actually contacting the ministers and asking them to explain their writing.
An example of this is the PCA's treatment of FV teaching. The PCA in its General Assembly in June, 2007, heard the decision of their committee that the 'Federal Vision' and New Perspective on Paul theology did not match up with the Westminster Confession of Faith, but that was no trial. No, not even when R. C. Sproul defended the anti-FV membership of the committee by saying, “You do not put the accused on the jury,” during the open-mic part of the session. Why? The personal, in-court, recordable testimony of the people who teach this theology (including those within the PCA) wasn't presented to the general assembly in any form. Rather, the decisions and (sadly inaccurate) summary work of the Committee alone were presented. The General Assembly voted and accepted the committee's condemnation of FV theology without fully hearing those they were condemning.
As a result of the unfortunate PCA decision, there have been several recent PCA examinations/trials caused by accusations that PCA pastors were teaching "Federal Vision theology." Jeff Meyers was examined and exonerated by his presbytery in the spring of 2011. TE Greg Lawrence was tried and exonerated in the fall of 2011. Dr. Peter Leithart was tried in June of 2011, and the verdict (announced in October) was also exoneration of all charges. But it seems that certain PCA men have pronounced these men guilty and are very ready to use the machine of church politics to drive them out of the PCA at all costs.
Besides these trials (which assume the accuracy of the PCA's committee report), there has been little actual debate period, meaning head-to-head, face-to-face, between Waters and Wilson, or Sproul and Wilkins, or Clark and Barach. Some interaction was attempted in 2003 but without achieving any real results. I think it's clear that the Federal Vision is in no way heretical, but for the larger body of evangelical, reformed believers to really decide this, we need much more public debate, just as the early church needed the public confrontation of Arius by Athanasius, and as the early Protestants needed the debates between Luther and Zwingli. We need the most adamant opponents of the Federal Vision to actually face the Federal Visionaries in open debate, not merely in long-range blog warfare, and we need this to happen soon.
In all this, I've tried to give you a picture of the Federal Vision theology. I sat under Doug Wilson's teaching for 14 years, and attended numerous classes at New Saint Andrews College. I have had many a recitation with Peter Leithart, and I have personally interviewed Steve Wilkins and Dr. David Field, besides corresponding with Rich Lusk. I believe I understand the majority of the issues, and hopefully, this little article may have cleared up some of your questions about the Federal Vision. I'm also leaving many implications, details, and narrower discussions out of the picture. So please study this more.
All glory be to God alone, and to His Son, by whose saving blood alone we are healed.
In Christ's name,
Author, Luke Nieuwsma
Editor, Daniel Foucachon
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