I’m writing the following piece because the so-called “Federal Vision” is of interest to some among us for various reasons. What follows is a descriptive account of some of the differences between the the most consistent expressions of the Federal Vision and orthodox Presbyterianism. I’ve chosen not to name the theologians I have in mind in this short post, though I plan to interact with one of them in the future. I haven’t provided documentation for the differences listed here, though they have been confirmed as accurate by two men who hold this system, even if they wouldn’t have chosen to use all the words I have used. I have not attempted a Scriptural rebuttal here, though the final section does provide a short critique.
One of the keys to understanding the difference between the most consistent expressions of the Federal Vision and confessional Presbyterian orthodoxy is the “dual aspect” of the covenant of grace. The Federal Vision rejects the classic “dual aspect” of the covenant of grace in favor of a different kind of duality. This disagreement about the nature of the covenant of grace produces many other serious doctrinal differences between orthodox Presbyterians and those who adhere to the Federal Vision.
I. Orthodox confessional Presbyterianism affirms the “dual aspect” of the covenant of grace. Orthodox Presbyterians teach that the covenant of grace has an inward “substance” and outward “administration.” The outward administration of the covenant of grace is the “purely legal aspect,” while its inward substance is the “communion of life aspect.”
A. Unbelievers are in the “purely legal aspect” of the covenant of grace. Unbelievers in the covenant of grace are under its gracious laws, ordinances, outward blessings, and discipline. Unbelievers in the covenant of grace, however, are not recipients of God’s saving grace. They are not in a present living and saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Unbelieving baptized infants are in this “purely legal aspect” as are baptized adults who falsely profess faith in Christ.
B. Believers alone are in the “communion of life aspect” of the covenant of grace. Believers are both in the “communion of life aspect” of the covenant of grace as well as its “purely legal aspect.” The communion of life aspect of the covenant of grace gives the gifts of vital union with Christ, regeneration, conversion, justification, adoption, sanctification, and perseverance to all who belong to it. Only the elect receive these gifts. Confessional Presbyterians withhold the Lord’s Supper from baptized children until they give evidence of conversion and entry into the communion of life aspect of the covenant of grace at which time they are welcomed to the Lord’s Table.
This “dual aspect” of the covenant of grace is also related to the distinction between the visible church (purely legal aspect) and the invisible church (communion of life aspect). Unbelievers may fall away, or apostatize, from the visible church (purely legal aspect). Believers may not, however, fall away, or apostatize, from the invisible church (communion of life aspect).
Confessional Presbyterians teach that only the elect enter into the communion of life aspect of the covenant of grace, and the are saved forever. The non-elect, however, never enter into the communion of life aspect of the covenant of grace. The non-elect only enter into the purely legal aspect of the covenant of grace. They never receive any saving blessings of eternal life in the covenant of grace.
II. The “Federal Vision” rejects the classic “dual aspect” of the covenant of grace. It affirms, instead, a different kind of duality, which distinguishes between the “present” and “future” blessings in the covenant of grace.
A. The “present aspect” of the covenant of grace. According to the Federal Vision, everyone who enters into the covenant of grace in baptism is savingly united to Christ, receives the gifts of justification, adoption, and living communion with the Triune God. Upon entering the covenant of grace, individuals are transferred from the headship of Adam (condemnation and death) to the headship of Christ (justification and life). God graciously gives all the infants of believers a seed (or habitus) of faith, and thus, infants are baptized as believers in the covenant of grace. Within the covenant of grace, God applies this “present aspect”of living communion with the Triune God indiscriminately to both decretally elect and non-elect members of the covenant of grace. The status of non-elect members within the covenant is therefore identical to the status of elect members in this “present aspect” of the covenant of grace.
B. The “future aspect” of the covenant of grace. According to the Federal Vision, only those members who finally persevere in faith will ultimately enter into all of the blessings of the covenant of grace in heaven. While everyone initially enters into the covenant of grace freely and unconditionally, faith and its concomitant good works are necessary to stay in the covenant of grace, and to enter into the final possession of eternal life with God in heaven. God gives the gift of salvation freely but then stipulates conditions (faith, love, good works, participation in the sacraments, perseverance) to retain the gift. Moreover, God only causes the decretally elect members of the covenant of grace to persevere to the end and inherit eternal life. God does not, however, grant the grace of perseverance to non-elect members of the covenant of grace. If a non-elect person is united to Christ within the covenant of grace, God will eventually withhold the necessary preserving grace from that person, perhaps after years of communion with him as Father and son, causing His son to lose saving faith. When a covenant member loses saving faith, God will strip him of all saving blessings, including the blessings of justification, adoption, and the present experience of life.
Thus, the differences between the Federal Vision and confessional Presbyterian orthodoxy are significant.
Unlike confessional Presbyterian orthodoxy:
1. The Federal Vision denies that the work of Christ effectually and finally redeems all who are united to Him. It affirms that many non-elect persons are united to Christ for a season, come under His saving blood and righteousness in the same sense as the elect, only later to fall away and be finally condemned in hell. This is a denial of the Scriptural and confessional Reformed doctrine of definite and effectual atonement. Scripture says that Christ entered the heavenly tabernacle, “by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12). And “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things” (Rom 8:32)?
2. The Federal Vision denies that regeneration involves a change of nature that cannot be unchanged. The Scripture teaches us that when the Holy Spirit conquers our hearts, He gives us new natures, the nature of sons, which cannot be changed back to orphans. Scripture says that we “have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable” (1 Pet 1:23). The Federal Vision denies of the confessional Reformed doctrine of regeneration and conversion.
3. The Federal Vision affirms that both faith and the works of faith are necessary conditions of remaining in Christ and under His saving blessings, including the blessings of justification and adoption. Thus, the Federal Vision denies that union with Christ is a sufficient and effectual source of these blessings. Scripture teaches that union with Christ is the source and cause of “every spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3), including “faith and love” (1 Tim 1:14; 2 Tim 1:13), “grace” (2 Tim 2:1), “salvation” (2 Tim 2:10), “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3), and God’s “riches in glory” (Phil 4:19). If these graces are freely given to all who are “in Christ” how can they possibly be antecedent conditions of remaining in Him?
4. The Federal Vision affirms that the believer’s good works are necessary conditions of remaining in a state of justification. The Federal Vision affirms that good works have a kind of instrumentality in justification, even while reserving a special place for faith. It teaches that while initial justification is by faith alone, the works of faith, which inevitably flow from faith are subordinate antecedent conditions of retaining a justified status in the future. But Scripture says, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due, but to the one who does not work, but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom 4:4-5). Paul warns, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit are you now being perfected by the flesh? . . . Does he who supplies the Spirit do so by works of the law or by hearing with faith? – just as Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gal 3:3-6). The Federal Vision, therefore, denies the Scriptural and confessional Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone.
5. The Federal Vision denies that God the Father preserves all of His sons to the end, but affirms instead that the Father withholds persevering grace from some of His sons and so strips them of their adoption. But the Scripture says, “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever” (Jn 8:35). In John 6:37, Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me, I will never cast out.” Rom 8:30 says, “those whom He justified, He also glorified.” 1 Corinthians 1:8 says that God “will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6 says, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 says, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful. He will surely do it.” The Federal Vision is a denial of these Scriptural teachings and of the confessional Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. It also calls the faithful Fatherhood of God into question.
[This post originally appeared on another blog. It has been republished here with the author’s permission.]