Federal Vision and Schererville
A Bit to Read
Federal Vision & the URC Synod (in Schererville)
The covenant is much talked about of late in the circles of North America’s reformed churches (see my previous article on Federal Vision). In the last couple of decades a group of thinkers and preachers and writers have begun promoting a view of the covenant they’ve learned from people who feature prominently in the history of the Canadian Reformed Churches, for example, Dr Klaas Schilder. Their position is known as ‘Federal Vision’, and yes, we’re comfortable with much of what they say. In opposition to these Federal Vision people are several other thinkers, preachers and writers who insist that the view put forward by Federal Visionists is not Scriptural. In fact, most of our North American sister churches have at Synodical level issued warnings against the view of covenant promoted by the Federal Vision people. The decision of the recent Synod of the United Reformed Churches (held last June in Schererville, IN) is reproduced in the accompanying side bar.
Of the nine points mentioned in this decision, statement Six is of particular interest. It reads:
Synod rejects the errors of those:
6. who teach that all baptized persons are in the covenant of grace in precisely the same way such that there is no distinction between those who have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace by baptism and those who are united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone (HC 21, 60; BC 29).
I do not seek to be critical of our brothers in the URC. But I wonder: does this statement do justice to God’s revelation? Does it provide comfort and true instruction to the people of the pew?
Statement Six says that it’s wrong to teach that all baptized persons (think: in the URC of Matsqui or in the Canadian Reformed Church of Yarrow) are “in the covenant of grace in precisely the same way.” Instead, we need to make a distinction: some members of the congregation “have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace” while other members of the congregation are in the covenant of grace in such a way as to be “united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone.” One wonders: How am I as a congregation member to work with this statement? What does this distinction actually look like in practice? How can I determine whether I (or someone else) “have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace” verses being “united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone”?
I suspect the statement wants to say that baptized adults who live as unbelievers “have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace,” while baptized adults who have made profession of faith and live the Christian life are “united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone.” So the statement is a warning against anyone who teaches or thinks that one is eternally saved simply on grounds of being baptized. That’s definitely a valid point: God does not forgive the sins of a baptized person (covenant child though he be) if that person does not live by faith. Then again, I don’t know of anyone who actually teaches that all baptized persons (= covenant people) actually receive the benefits of Christ’s redeeming work simply on grounds of their being covenant people. I know that some say some Federal Visionists teach this, but I’ve not come across such a statement myself; on the contrary (for example, Douglas Wilson, ‘Reformed’ is Not Enough, pg 13ff).
And to teach that all baptized people are automatically, on basis of their baptism (= covenant status), forgiven of their sins is obviously and patently unscriptural. In the covenant the Lord promises forgiveness of sins and life eternal, but no one receives the promised goods unless one believes those promises. That’s why one must respond to baptism by making profession of faith. Jacob and Esau received the identical covenant promises, but the one was saved and the other was not because the one embraced those promises in faith while the other did not. It happens today too: not everyone baptized in the church actually makes profession of faith. We have in our families and amongst our acquaintances those who reject God’s promises as He gave them in their baptism. Such persons are indeed not “united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone.”
Here, though, is the question. What actually was Esau’s position in the covenant? And what position do unbelieving covenant people have in the covenant? Do they “have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace”? If yes, what is “an outward relation”? Is its ‘opposite’ an ‘inward relation’ to the covenant? If so, what’s that? More: if an adult church member, baptized as he was, turns out to be unbelieving and therefore “have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace”, when did his “outward relation” begin? Did he have an “outward relation” since childhood? If the answer is Yes in relation to this unbelieving adult, what am I to think of the child I presented for baptism last week? Does she too have “only an outward relation to the covenant”? How can I know? I suppose we have to assume it’s not so….
The thing is this: an “outward relation to the covenant of grace” is not language found in the Bible, and it’s not language found in the confessions either. Instead, it’s language that has a history of doing great damage in God’s churches (think of the Liberation of 1944). There’s wisdom in avoiding language not found in the Bible or the Confessions, and that’s the more so when it’s known to have brought about wreckage.
More: is it actually possible to “have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace?” When God said at baptism that He established His covenant of grace with our children, can we take Him at His word or do we have to wonder whether our child has actually “only an outward relation to the covenant” instead of an ‘inward relation’ (whatever that may be)?
Below is a section of the Press Release from the recent Synod of the United Reformed Churches.
Justification and the Federal Vision
The URCNA joined a number of Reformed and Presbyterian federations in addressing a movement of growing concern known as the “Federal Vision.” In doing so, Synod 2007 approved statements which:
- Affirmed “that the Scriptures and confessions … teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, based upon the active and passive obedience of Christ alone.”
- Affirmed “that the Scriptures and confessions teach that faith is the sole instrument of our justification apart from all works.”
- Determined to “remind & encourage individuals and churches that, if there are office-bearers suspected of deviating from or obscuring the doctrine of salvation as summarized in our confessions, they are obligated to follow the procedure prescribed in Church Order Art. 29, 52, 55, 61, and 62 for addressing theological error.”
The Synod then adopted a statement comprising rejections of error, intended to serve as pastoral advice to the churches. That statement said:
Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine. Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those:
- who deny or modify the teaching that “God created man good and after His own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness,” able to perform “the commandment of life” as the representative of mankind (HC 6, 9; BC 14);
- who, in any way and for any reason, confuse the “commandment of life” given before the fall with the gospel announced after the fall (BC 14, 17,18; HC 19, 21, 56, 60);
- who confuse the ground and instrument of acceptance with God before the fall (obedience to the commandment of life) with the ground (Christ who kept the commandment of life) and instrument (faith in Christ) of acceptance with God after the fall;
- who deny that Christ earned acceptance with God and that all His merits have been imputed to believers (BC 19, 20, 22, 26; HC 11-19, 21, 36-37,60, 84; CD I.7, RE I.3, RE II.1);
- who teach that a person can be historically, conditionally elect, regenerated, savingly united to Christ, justified, and adopted by virtue of participation in the outward administration of the covenant of grace but may lose these benefits through lack of covenantal faithfulness (CD, I, V);
- who teach that all baptized persons are in the covenant of grace in precisely the same way such that there is no distinction between those who have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace by baptism and those who are united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone (HC 21, 60; BC 29);
- who teach that Spirit-wrought sanctity, human works, or cooperation with grace is any part either of the ground of our righteousness before God or any part of faith, that is, the “instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness” (BC 22-24; HC 21, 60, 86);
- who define faith, in the act of justification, as being anything more than “leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified” or “a certain knowledge” of and “a hearty trust” in Christ and His obedience and death for the elect (BC 23; HC 21);
- who teach that there is a separate and final justification grounded partly upon righteousness or sanctity inherent in the Christian (HC 52; BC 37).
Finally, Synod 2007 appointed a study committee to examine the Federal Vision and similar teachings regarding the doctrine of justification. The committee was asked to bring a clear statement concerning this matter to the next synod.