A Federal Vision or Just the Same Old Nonsense

A controversy arose in 2002 after an annual pastor’s conference held at the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Louisiana.  The controversy centered around the subjects of baptism, justification and salvation.  The men who were invited to speak at this conference included Steve Wilkins, pastor of Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church; Douglas Wilson; R C Sproul, Jr; Carl Robbins; John Barach; and Steve Schlissel.  The theological views presented by these men soon came to be known as Federal Vision Theology.  In September of the same year, under pressure to defend the views they presented, the Auburn session approved a 13-point summary statement of their views.

I wish I could say these 13 points represented a new threat to the gospel, but they didn’t. Sadly, most have been present and even cherished in reformed/Calvinistic/Presbyterian circles for decades and sometimes even centuries.  The only thing new about them is the way they were combined with baptism and communion.  Consider, for example:

Summary Statement of Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church’s Position on the Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation (emphasis within are mine):

  1. This covenant is made with believers and their children. It is publicly manifested in the Church, the body of Christ which we formally enter by means of baptism. The Church is not merely a human community, and the Church’s enactments of the means of grace ARE NOT MERELY HUMAN WORKS. THEY ARE GOD’S WORKS THROUGH HIS ORDAINED MINISTERS. The Church herself is God’s new creation, the city He promised to build for Abraham. The Church is not MERELY A MEANS TO SALVATION, a stepping-stone to a more ultimate goal. Rather, the Church herself is God’s salvation, the partially-realized goal in history that will be brought to final fulfillment at the last day. WHEN SOMEONE IS UNITED TO THE CHURCH BY BAPTISM, HE IS INCORPORATED INTO CHRIST AND INTO HIS BODY; HE BECOMES BONE OF CHRIST’S BONE AND FLESH OF HIS FLESH.
     
    6. God uses means by which His Spirit works SALVATION INTO THE HEARTS OF HIS ELECT: the preaching of the Word, THE FAITHFUL ADMINISTRATION OF THE SACRAMENTS OF BAPTISM AND THE LORD’S SUPPER, AND THE COMMUNION OF THE SAINTS. These means have been entrusted to the Church. By these, through the blessing of the Spirit, the Church becomes THE MOTHER OF ALL BELIEVERS.  APART FROM THE CHURCH AND ITS MINISTRY OF THESE MEANS OF GRACE, THERE IS ORDINARILY NO SALVATION.

    So, baptism and communion are not “merely” (notice the propagandist language) the works of men who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.  No, they are God’s works effectually wrought through the hands of “ordained” ministers.  Too bad for those who aren’t ordained ministers, huh.

    Furthermore though, these “means which God effectually works through the hands of His ordained ministers” they are the very means of salvation itself.  That is, in answer to the question how does God save His elect, these men answer, by uniting the elect to the church through the sacraments of baptism and communion.  If this does not represent a blatant return to Rome then nothing does.

    But the tragedy is only beginning, because we are about to find a whole lot of other men drawn into the act.

  2. By baptism one is joined to Christ’s body, united to Him covenantally, and given all the blessings and benefits of His work. This does not, however, grant to the baptized FINAL SALVATION; RATHER, IT OBLIGATES HIM TO FULFILL THE TERMS OF THE COVENANT (EMBRACING THESE BLESSINGS BY FAITH, REPENTING OF SINS, AND PERSEVERING IN FAITHFUL OBEDIENCE TO GOD). One can only fulfill the terms of the covenant by faith, not by works. (?) And even this faith is the gift of God, lest anyone should boast.
     

    Now where have I heard this before?

    10. Once baptized, an individual may be truly called a Christian because he is a member of the household of faith and the body of Christ. HOWEVER, NOT ALL WHO ARE CHRISTIAN IN THIS SENSE WILL PERSEVERE TO THE END. SOME WILL FALL FROM GRACE AND BE LOST. The Bible DOES NOT explain the distinction between the nature of the work of the Spirit in the reprobate and the nature of His work in the elect, and even uses the same language for both.

    So, people who are part of the body of Christ will not persevere?  Some parts of Christ’s body will fall from grace and be lost?  Anyone remember what the P in TULIP stands for anymore?

10-2.  For example, the same language that describes the Spirit coming upon Saul (1 Sam. 10:6) is used when the Spirit comes upon David (1 Sam. 16:13), Gideon (Jdg. 6:34), Jephthah (Jdg. 11:29), and Samson (Jdg. 14:6, 9; 15:14). Yet in four of these five cases (David, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson), the man in question was clearly given persevering faith and brought to FINAL SALVATION BY THE SPIRIT’S WORK. The Biblical narrative, however, appears to draw NO DISTINCTION between Saul’s initial experience of the Spirit and the experience of those who obtained FINAL SALVATION. While God, no doubt, predestined Saul’s apostasy (since He foreordains all that comes to pass), God was not the author of Saul’s apostasy. Saul received the same initial covenantal GRACE that David, Gideon, and other men who persevered in faith received, but he did not receive the gift of perseverance. At the same time, HIS FAILURE TO PERSEVERE WAS DUE TO HIS OWN REBELLION. Herein lies the great mystery of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.

Just what is this reminding me of?

11.  None of those elect unto final salvation can lose that salvation, however much he may backslide. God preserves all His elect in covenant faithfulness. THE BIBLICAL LANGUAGE REGARDING SALVATION, HOWEVER, IS MORE COMPLICATED.    In one sense, ALL THOSE IN THE COVENANT ARE SAVED.  They have been delivered out of the world and brought into the glorious new creation of Christ, BUT NOT ALL WILL PERSEVERE IN THAT SALVATION.  Jesus spoke of those in the new covenant who would be UNITED TO HIM, BUT THEN CUT OFF BECAUSE THEY DID NOT PERSEVERE IN FRUIT-BEARING.  If Jesus Himself is salvation, are we not forced to conclude that being cut off from Him means being cut off from the source of salvation and from salvation itself?

Oh yeah, now I remember what this reminds me of.

“God’s grace is not a static attribute whereby He passively accepts hardened, unrepentant sinners. Grace does not change a person’s standing before God yet leave His character untouched. Real grace does not include, as Chafer claimed, ‘the Christian liberty to do precisely as he chooses.’ True grace, according to Scripture, teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age.  Grace is the power of God to fulfill our new covenant duties, however inconsistently we obey at times. Clearly, grace do not grace permission to live in the flesh; it supplies power to live in the Spirit. Faith, like grace, is not static. Saving faith is more than just understanding the face and mentally acquiescing. It is inseparable from repentance, surrender, and a supernatural longing to obey.” – John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, pg 7

“Saving faith is more than just understanding the facts and mentally acquiescing. It is inseparable from repentance, surrender, and a supernatural longing to obey. None of these responses can be classified exclusively as a human work, any more than believing itself is solely a human effort.” – John MacArthur, ibid, pg 7

“The answer to the question, what is faith? is the most basic one in this whole controversy. It is not a simple mental assent to facts—not lordship facts and not Savior facts. It is a heartfelt coming to Christ and resting in him for what he is and what he offers. It is an act of the heart that no longer hates the light but comes to the light because a new set of spiritual taste buds have been created and Christ now tastes satisfying to the soul.” – John Piper, Letter to a Friend Concerning the So Called Lordship Salvation

“Reformed theology cuts the ground out from underneath the position presented by Wilkin (Robert), for the faith that saves is the work of the Spirit in regeneration itself, and hence cannot possibly be separated from the rest of the work of the Spirit. Hence, there is no contradiction between saying that a person who believes has eternal life and saying that a person who keeps Christ’s word has will never see death. Only the synergist has to struggle to explain the relationship: the monergist has a consistent understanding.” – James White, “Lordship Salvation, Faith, Repentance, and Monergism”

The Auburn men talk of a “final salvation” brought about the Spirit.  Lordship drops the “final” aspect of this even as they continue to talk about salvation as being wrought by the Spirit.  Funny thing, I thought salvation was something which had been wrought by the Son and is only applied by the Spirit.  Not according to the Lordship Salvation or Federal Vision men it isn’t.

Listening to the Auburn lectures it becomes clear what the Auburn men think of faith.  They talk about faith as being “more than mere intellectual assent”, and they talk about the object of faith as being “not merely doctrine, but rather a person.”   Once again with the no creed but Christ nonsense.

12.   It appears that the Bible speaks of salvation, more often than not, IN RELATIONAL AND COVENANTAL CATEGORIES, RATHER THAN IN METAPHYSICAL ONES. SALVATION IS NOT A THING WE POSSESS THAT CAN BE LOST AND FOUND, LIKE CAR KEYS. IT IS A MATTER OF BEING RIGHTLY RELATED TO GOT THROUGH CHRIST.  BUT RELATIONSHIPS ARE NOT STATIC, UNCHANGING ENTITIES.   THEY ARE FLUID AND DYNAMIC.  Our salvation covenant with the Lord is like a marriage. IF WE PERSEVERE IN LOYALTY TO CHRIST, WE WILL LIVE WITH HIM HAPPILY EVER AFTER.  IF WE BREAK THE MARRIAGE COVENANT, HE WILL DIVORCE US It may not be wise to call this “losing one’s salvation,” but it seems contrary to Scripture to say that nothing at all is lost. To draw such a conclusion appears to deny the reality of the covenant and the blessedness that is said to belong even to those who ultimately prove themselves reprobate.

A “fluid and dynamic” relationship is neither what the Scriptures nor the reformers defined as a forensic judgment.  The gospel is about what Christ got done outside of His elect, and not instead about what Christ can do with them and alongside them.

In the April, 2003 issue of Christian Renewal (a Canadian newspaper), Steven Wilkins, Douglas Wilson, John Barach, and Steven Schlissel sat down for an interview.  In this interview, Steve Schlissel stated:

“Have Reformed folks gotten it wrong? Yes, to the extent that they’ve followed Luther in an imaginary Law/Gospel antithesis…. The law as God gave it is the gospel…. And the gospel as announced by Paul is the law…. The gospel brings demands…. The gospel has obligations. Always has…. the gospel is permeated with God’s good law . . . we insist that saving faith is an obedient faith.”

Douglas Wilson echoed this sentiment:

“What drives apostasy is unbelief, and the engine that drives salvation is faith and only faith.”

[Interviewer: “But not faith only”?]

[Wilson]: “Not bare bones faith. Not assent. Devils have that. True faith is more than assent…. we say faith cannot be separated from trust and obedience, and…we say saving faith cannot be separated from a life of obedience and trust.”


Isn’t this exactly what MacArthur has said?  Indeed, it is.

“Saving faith is more than just understanding the face and mentally acquiescing. It is inseparable from repentance, surrender, and a supernatural longing to obey.” – John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, pg 7

“Orthodox doctrine by itself is no proof of saving faith. Demons affirm the oneness of God and tremble at is implications, but they are not redeemed. Mathew 8:29 tells of a group of demons who recognized Jesus as the Son of God. They even exhibited fear. Demons often acknowledge the existence and authority of Christ (Matt. 8:29-30); Mark 5:7), His deity (Luke 4:41), and even His resurrection (Acts 19:15), but their diabolical nature is not changed by what they know and believe. Their fearful affirmation of orthodox doctrine is not the same as saving faith. James implies that demonic faith is greater than the fraudulent faith of a false professor, for demonic faith produces fear, whereas unsaved men have ‘no fear of God before their eyes’. If the demons believe, tremble, and are not saved, what does that say about those who profess to believe and don’t even tremble?” – John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles, pg 151

Like the Lordship Salvationists, the Auburn men also deny that doctrine is the object of faith, and that faith is intellectual assent to this doctrine.   The Auburn men insist instead that faith is in a person and in a relationship, and not instead in facts about said person.

I wish I could say only the Lordship and Federal Vision guys share this idiotic view, but I would be lying if I did.  Sadly, this Kierkegaardian existential view of faith has been the cherished opinion of many reformed folk for centuries.  One need only read how Sandeman is treated to see this.

Not satisfied to deny only four of the five points, the Auburn men go on to deny the fifth, as well.

8.  God has decreed from the foundation of the world all that comes to pass, including who would be saved and lost for all eternity. Included in His decree, however, is that some persons, NOT DESTINED FOR FINAL SALVATION, will be drawn to Christ and His people ONLY FOR A TIME. These, for a season, enjoy real blessings, PURCHASED FOR THEM BY CHRIST’S CROSS, and applied to them by the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament.

Here again, I wish I could say this was something new, but . . .

“In continuing the analysis of this doctrine (particular atonement), it is necessary to be clear what the question is not. The question is not whether many benefits short of justification and salvation accrue to men from the death of Christ.  The unbelieving and the reprobate in this world enjoy numerous benefits that flow from the fact that Christ died and rose again.  The mediatorial dominion of Christ is universal.  Christ is head over all things and is given authority in heaven and earth.  It is within this mediatorial dominion that all the blessings which men enjoy are dispensed.” – John Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, pg. 61

“Evan (Evangelista). I beseech you consider, that God the Father, as he is in his Son Jesus Christ, moved with nothing but with his free love to mankind lost, hath made a deed of gift and grant unto them all, that whosoever of them all shall believe in this his Son, shall not perish, but have eternal life. And hence it was, that Jesus Christ himself said unto his disciples, (Mark 16:15), ‘Go and preach the gospel to every creature under heaven’: that is, Go and tell every man without exception, that here is good news for him; Christ is dead for him; and if he will take him, and accept of his righteousness, he shall have him. — The Marrow of Modern Divinity, Edward Fisher, Chapter 2, Section 3, 3

Read any of the tolerant Calvinists today.  James White insists the apostles defined THE CHURCH by more than facts about the Trinity, the Cross and the resurrection, but he’ll turn right around and insist you’re Hyper-Calvinist if you insist they also defined THE GOSPEL by more than these facts too.

My question for the ministers and pastors and synods who criticize and refute the Auburn men for their view on baptism; why bother when you yourselves have been preaching the same heresies they have?  Why not first clean out the Lordship Salvationists and Tolerants in your midst?  Why are you holding to obvious heresies like Common Grace and the Free Offer and then pretending to be shocked when men like Schlissel and Wilson take you up on it?

9.  Salvation depends upon being united to Christ (REFER TO #7 ABOVE TO SEE HOW ONE IS TO BE UNITED TO CHRIST.) Clearly, those who are eternally saved are those who continue to abide in Him by the grace of God. There are those, however, who are joined to Him as branches in the vine, but who because of unbelief are barren and fruitless and consequently are cut off from the vine and from salvation. Jesus says these “believe for a while” but do not bear fruit unto salvation.

 

13. With this understanding, the “five points of Calvinism” are still preserved, but they have been enriched by a nuanced covenant theology following the tradition and teaching of Augustine and Calvin. By framing the issues as we have, we are able to preserve God’s sovereignty in salvation and hold covenant breakers accountable for their apostasy. Additionally, this view seems to do full justice to the Scripture’s teaching on the nature of the Church and efficacy of the sacraments, as well as the genuineness of the covenantal promises and threats. In our formulation of how we understand the application of God’s sovereign and covenantal grace, we lose nothing and yet, gain much in our understanding of how the sovereign God applies His salvation in history.

No, the five points of Calvinism are not still preserved. Nothing about the five points of Calvinism are preserved by anything in these 13 points, or in the heresies of Lordship Salvation, Common Grace, the Free Offer of the Gospel or the Marrow.   You accept any of those, then you might as well call yourself a Federal Vision man.

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About David Bishop

Gospel of Grace Church http://www.gospeldefense.com/about.html
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6 Responses to A Federal Vision or Just the Same Old Nonsense

  1. Gdwood says:

    Thank you

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. tuckerup187 says:

    Hello!

    I very much appreciated your explanation of the “Federal Vision” position, as I had never sorted through it myself. Having it comparably positioned next to the Marrow and Lordship views were also helpful, insofar as the point you were trying to make about “faith” and the object of it.

    If I correctly understand you, then you vigorously object to “faith” being defined as more than what the word itself entails – which is belief! – and you further object to notions that “faith” – belief – can be in anything other than propositions. For faith to be salvific – that is, what is commonly referred to as “saving faith” – the propositions believed must be those we are given in Holy Writ pertaining specifically to Jesus Christ and what God has said (via the Scripture) about Who Christ was and is, and about the purpose and meaning of the work He did by coming, living, dying, and resurrecting. Furthermore, unlike the Marrow Men and the Lordship Salvationists and the Federal Vision proponents, you adamantly reject that there is anything whatsoever in a person or an institution or a ceremony (baptism, for example), that can “improve upon” – much less “ignite” or “make applicatory” – the excellency and sufficiency that is Christ Himself to the satisfaction of the Father’s justice and, hence, as our sole and complete salvation. With all of that, I would concur.

    Referring again to the muddied glop made of “saving faith” by the Federal Vision proponents and others, you added, “Sadly, this Kierkegaardian existential view of faith has been the cherished opinion within reformed [sic] circles for centuries.”

    Figuratively speaking, that is when I spat out my coffee! Leaving aside for a moment whether or not you’ve rightly represented Kierkegaard, I must tell you that the statement itself threw off-balance your entire essay. I think that many of your readers may have no appreciable familiarity with Kierkegaard and so the rather out-of-the-blue reference to him is pointless. Yes, it “sounds” lofty, informed, and “smart,” but it does not well serve the rest of your essay. In fact, it distracts entirely!

    As for whether or not the Kierkegaardian blame is justified, well, that’s an essay unto itself. As you know, Kierkegaard was an immensely complex man and thinker, and any reductionist treatment of him is “a little too ironic, don’t cha think?!! Yeah, I really do think -”

    The men and movements with whom and with which you have compared him simply do not compare with him.

    Kierkegaard was born about 204 years ago. On that simplest of facts alone, it may be a bit of an overstatement to blame him for “centuries” of Reformed theological error!

    • David Bishop says:

      Dear reader, thank you for the comment. You should be aware though, that many of my readers do indeed have an appreciable familiarity with Kierkegaard and why precisely he is mentioned here. You should read more of my articles. In fact, you should do a search for Kierkegaard in the search bar.

      https://cornbreadandbourbon.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/faith-and-danish/

      https://cornbreadandbourbon.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/the-mere-intellectual-assent-fallacy/

      https://cornbreadandbourbon.wordpress.com/2015/05/11/john-macarthur-and-the-lies-of-lordship-salvation-part-3/

      “What I really need is to become clear in my own mind what I must do, not what I must know – except in so far as a knowing must precede every action. The important thing is to understand what I am destined for, to perceive what the Deity wants me to do, the point is to find the truth for me, to find that idea for which I am ready to live and die. What good would it do me to discover a so-called objective truth, though I were to work my way through the systems of the philosophers and were able, if need be, to pass them in review?” – Soren Kierkegaard, A Short Life of Kierkegaard, pg 82

      I first began writing about Kierkegaard soon after I encountered warnings about him in books by J. Gresham Machen. Later, I encountered him in Karl Barth himself. I do not at all find him to be a complicated man. Quite the opposite. His “Either/Or” could have written and read widely today on the campus of any seeker-sensitive church and in the auditorium of any modern corporate improvement conference. In fact, just yesterday I had to sit through two hours of b.s. from a Willow Creek marketing guru who insisted the life pursuit of every business leader and employee should be to find their passion. Not truth, mind you, not even find what you’re good at. No. Find your passion. Hello, Kierkegaard.

      https://sovereigngracesociety.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/knowledge-truth-and-christianitys-first-critics/

      Anyway, yes, most of my readers are quite familiar with who Kierkegaard was and why he directly effects the conversation in the above piece.

  3. markmcculley says:

    Nothing new indeed.

    Martyr’s Mirror–“I said it was only a bread-god.’ The priests were wroth that I so contemned their god.”

    Doug Wilson—“What I do as a dad dominates. When a father abdicates his power over his family, the father’s instrument of domination is his empty chair.” (Father Hunger, 2012)

    John Calvin—“The integrity of the sacrament lies here, that the flesh and blood of Christ are not less truly given to the unworthy than to the elect believers of God; and yet it is true, that just as the rain falling on the hard rock runs away because it cannot penetrate, so the wicked by their hardness repel the grace of God, and prevent it from reaching them.”

    Martin Luther–Here you might say: I perceive, then, that baptism is also required. To be sure it is, but baptism is not a work that we do. It is to be coupled, however, with faith, because God would not have faith to be hidden in the heart, but would have it burst forth and manifest itself to the world. For this reason, he ordained such outward signs, by means of which everyone may show and confess his faith, to the end that we may come to the holy cross. For, if faith were to be kept as a secret, hidden in the heart, we would be pretty sure of not having to bear the cross or to follow Christ; if the world knew not that we believed, we would not be persecuted. we would never be the means of leading a soul to repentance and faith if we did not openly confess the Gospel and observe an external sign whereby men might know who and where the Christians are. Now, God has so ordained that our faith should be manifested before the heathen; hence, whosoever is a Christian and has received baptism, is in danger of his life among the heathen and unbelievers. It is necessary that we receive baptism if we are Christians; or, if that is beyond our reach, that we say, at least: I sincerely desire to be baptized.

    Martin Luther–. Moreover, the sign of baptism is given us also to show that God himself will help us, and that we should be certain of his grace, and that everyone be able to say: Hereunto did God give me a sign, that I should be assured of my salvation, which he has promised me in the Gospel. For he has given us the Word, that is, the written document; and beside the Word, baptism, that is the seal. So faith, which apprehends the Word, may be strengthened by the sign and seal. But you see no work of man in this transaction; for baptism is not my work but God痴. He that baptized me stands in God痴 stead and does not the work of a man, but rather it is God痴 hand and work. God is the real worker. Therefore, I may and should say: God, my Lord, baptized me himself, by the hand of a man. …Through faith I obtain so much that nothing is impossible to me. If it were necessary and conducive to the spreading of the Gospel, we could do easily the signs; but since it is not necessary, we do not do them. For Christ does not teach that Christians practice the spectacular, but he says they have the power and can do these things. And we have many such promises throughout the Scriptures; for example, in James 14:12, where Christ says: he that believes on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do. The same power is in the church still. And though it is not exercised, that does not matter; we still have the power to do such signs.

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