The Federal Vision and Grace

Federal Vision’s denial that regeneration represents “a permanent change in the hearts” of God’s people changes the meaning of the biblical gospel and also of the grace of God.

It is not enough, therefore, that the adherents of the Federal Vision speak about grace. What do they mean by the use of the word grace? Is it the internal, subjective, efficacious grace bestowed by the Holy Spirit in regeneration? Or is it external, objective, and non-efficacious “grace” bestowed by water baptism? These are questions of great moment. One Federal Vision advocate, Rich Lusk, contends that all the covenant community has an “objective standing in grace.”

 

The Federal Vision and Grace[1]

“If grace is the favor of God manifested in the bestowal of favors, then baptism is and confers grace: the grace of standing in the house of God, the grace of membership in the community of the reconciled, the grace of immersion in the history of the bride of Christ, the grace of God’s favorable regard upon us.”[2]  —Peter Leithart, Federal Vision Proponent

“The grace of God is not ‘that blue Pepsi, Gatorade stuff that really juices up your system, its [sic—DR] favor—it means being in a favorable, and receiving the favor of God, and that is only found in Christ, He was the one whom God favored, he is the Beloved of the Father, and it is in him that we are granted favor as well.’”[3]   —Steve Wilkins, Federal Vision Proponent

The denial by James Jordan and others in the Federal Vision that regeneration represents “a permanent change in the hearts” of God’s people lays an ax at the root of biblical Christianity. Such a denial also changes the meaning of the grace of God. Thus, Peter Leithart’s definition of grace leaves out any reference to an inner renewal or redemptive grace. Steve Wilkins defines grace in terms of union with Christ, but also makes no reference to redemption or supernatural regeneration. In other places, union with Christ is defined by the Federal Vision advocates as an ecclesiastical relationship as a result of baptism. Any obscuring of the importance of supernatural regeneration has the same effect as a denial of it. If regeneration is neither necessary (as all the signatories of their “Profession” must believe) nor possible (as some of the those signatories assert), then it is because, as B. B. Warfield wrote in the preface to Augustine’s Anti-Pelagian Writings, the nature of man is such that it does not need “divine grace in the sense of an inward help to man’s weakness.”[4] If regeneration is not a supernatural act of God, then the subjective experience of redemptive grace in the inner man is not needed. It is not enough, therefore, that the adherents of the Federal Vision speak about grace. What do they mean by the use of the word grace? Is it the internal, subjective, efficacious grace bestowed by the Holy Spirit in regeneration? Or is it external, objective, and non-efficacious “grace” bestowed by water baptism? These are questions of great moment. One Federal Vision advocate, Rich Lusk, contends that all the covenant community has an “objective standing in grace.”[5] His position is similar to the views of other Federal Vision proponents. Such a position is not new, as Warfield further observed concerning the Pelagian controversy:

It was upon this last point [i.e., that grace is an inward help to man’s weakness—DR] that the greatest stress was laid in the controversy, and Augustin was most of all disturbed that thus God’s grace was denied and opposed. No doubt the Pelagians spoke constantly of grace, but they meant by this the primal endowment of man with free will, and the subsequent aid given to him in order to its proper use by the revelation of the law and the teaching of the gospel, and, above all, by the forgiveness of past sins in Christ and by Christ’s example[6]

A more comprehensive definition of the Pelagian view of grace is given by Herman Bavinck:

Hence, in Pelagius’s theory there could be no internal grace, no regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit which not only illumined the mind but also bent the will. He admittedly did speak of grace but meant by it only: (a) natural ability, the gift of being able to will, which God grants to every person—creating grace; (b) the objective grace of the proclamation of the law or the gospel and of the example of Christ, which was directed to the human intellect and instructed people in the way of salvation—illuminating grace; and (c) the forgiveness of sins and future salvation, which would be granted to the person who believed and did good works.[7]

The doctrine of regeneration can never be allowed to become an intramural debate as the Federal Vision advocates have made it. The denial of the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, as Bavinck states, necessarily results in a Pelagian view of salvation.

Grace in the Federal Vision System

An essential issue at stake with the rise of the Federal Vision / New Perspectives on Paul theology is the correct definition of grace. Grace is a term which is used frequently in Scripture with various shades of meaning. Reformed theology has generally categorized grace as either common grace or redemptive grace. Calvin was especially instrumental in developing an understanding of common grace as an expression of God’s favor which does not necessarily result in salvation. Not all grace is saving grace. Not every operation of the Holy Spirit is a saving operation. There are common operations of the Holy Spirit which are manifestations of God’s grace which do not result in salvation.

Though the proponents of the Federal Vision frequently refer to the grace or gifts of God, they generally fail to define what they mean by grace. In the trial of Peter Leithart by Pacific Northwest Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America, an expert witness for the defense, Dr. William Barker,[8] whose orthodoxy is not in question, struggled to define the Federal Vision’s view of grace. He was twice asked about the assertions of Leithart that the differences between God’s covenants with man before the fall and after the fall were not at the level of a contrast between grace and law. Barker rightly explained that grace before the fall was beneficent favor—not redeeming grace. The prosecutor in that trial, Jason Stellman (who has since defected from the PCA to become Roman Catholic), should have then asked Dr. Barker if he could point to any places where Leithart or other Federal Vision advocates distinguish grace in that way (there are no places of which I am aware). Then, Barker said that as long as salvation was understood to be by grace alone through faith alone, that was sufficient. In other words, he answered essentially the same question in two contradictory ways. First, he distinguished between the beneficent grace before the fall and the redemptive grace after the fall.  Second, he asserted that as long as grace was understood to be redeeming grace, he had no concerns. That is begging the question. The grace before the fall was not redemptive grace. The grace after the fall is more than beneficent favor to God’s elect. Thus, the proponents of the Federal Vision never clearly distinguish grace before the fall from grace after the fall in any place of which I am aware. Indeed, they cannot define grace after the fall as both redemptive and efficacious without abandoning their other views.

In all those statements about grace at the beginning of this chapter, Leithart never defines it as the redemptive grace of Christ or the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit. Grace is being in the community of God, however that came to pass, according to Leithart. Some Federal Vision proponents do speak of the principle of works in the covenant before the fall and the redemptive grace of the second covenant, but they strongly assert that the two covenants are bound together by grace. Both are gracious covenants, according to them. Yet, they never define how that grace is the same in both covenants. Such ambiguity in defining grace is not a new phenomenon. Augustine accused Pelagius of the same thing:

That which he seems to regard as the grace which helps us to turn aside from evil and to good, he describes in such a manner as to keep to his old ambiguity of language, and thus have it in his power so to explain to his followers, that they may suppose the assistance which is rendered by grace, for the purpose of helping our natural capacity, consists of nothing else than the law and the teaching.[9]

This chapter is not the place to delve into the Federal Vision’s teaching about the law, or covenant faithfulness, and regeneration. Regeneration was covered in Chapter 2 and covenant faithfulness will be considered in Chapter 16. It will be evident when those chapters are read in light of this one (and vice versa) that they mean nothing more by grace than what Pelagius taught. They necessarily restrict “grace” to common grace, to the law and to teaching (including the example of Christ). Many of those in the Federal Vision deny the supernatural work of God’s Spirit in the hearts of believers. Therefore, they cannot unequivocally believe that grace is efficacious and redemptive unto eternal life. Thus, they use the word grace without defining its meaning.

If the “grace” conferred in baptism is defined as redemptive and efficacious grace, the whole Federal Vision theory falls apart. Its position would then be as follows:

When a person is baptized with water, he receives all the saving benefits of Christ’s redemptive grace which grace is efficacious unto eternal life.

Thus, salvation would be guaranteed for all the baptized who have all received redemptive, efficacious grace in their baptism—a teaching manifestly contradicted by Scripture. Yet, if the “grace” conferred in baptism is defined as common grace or beneficent favor, there are other difficulties. The position of the Federal Vision then becomes:

When a person is baptized with water, he receives the common grace of God, and if he perseveres in this grace he will be saved.

That position would mean that a person can persevere unto salvation without receiving the special, redemptive grace of God. To obviate this difficulty, the Federal Vision proponents have modified their earlier teaching. They once taught that the baptized receive everything that Christ has to offer. They now say that baptism bestows all the benefits of Christ except perseverance. Yet, that position causes additional problems for them.

Peter Leithart evaded defining grace as either special or common at his trial. Instead, he stated that the grace conferred in baptism is something like “ordination grace.” Ordination grace is a view held by Catholics wherein they include “divine orders” among the so-called seven sacraments of the church, but it is not a doctrine of the Reformed churches. There is no scriptural warrant for teaching that grace is conferred in the act of ordination. Ordination acknowledges the grace that is already present in the ordinand, but does not confer grace. The whole of the Bible testifies to this truth. The priests of the Old Testament were ordained in solemn ceremonies by having the blood of the sacrifice sprinkled on them which symbolically cleansed them. Yet, the general disregard by the priests for God’s ordinances is proof that they did not receive “ordination grace” in those ceremonies. Leithart does not even define what he means by “ordination grace.” It is apparently a term he uses to find a middle ground between common grace and redemptive grace.

Dewey Roberts is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Cornerstone PCA in Destin, Fla.

[1] This article is excerpted from: Dewey Roberts, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision (Destin, FL: Sola Fide Publications, 2016), 59-63.

[2] Peter Leithart, The Priesthood of the Plebs: The Baptismal Transformation of Antique Order (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 183.

[3] Guy Prentiss Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2006), 237.

[4] B. B. Warfield, “Introductory Essay on Augustin and the Pelagian Controversy,” in Philip Schaff, ed., Saint Augustin, Anti-Pelagian Writings, Volume V of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), xv.

[5] Rich Lusk, “New Life and Apostasy,” in Steve Willkins and Duane Garner, eds., The Federal Vision (Monroe, Louisiana: Atahanasius Press, 2004), 274-275.

[6] Schaff, ed.,  Augustin, Anti-Pelagian Writings, xv.

[7] John Bolt, ed., John Vriend, trans., Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3, Sin and Salvation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006), 508-9.

[8] My respect for Dr. Barker is immense and his theology is not in question.. My purpose is not to embarrass him, but to show the errors with the Federal Vision/New Perspectives on Paul.  He chose to be an expert witness in this trial and the trial documents reveal the difficulty he had in defining the Federal Vision’s view of grace.  His personal view of grace is correct, but he necessarily struggled in attempting to exonerate Leithart.

[9] Schaff, ed., Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, 232.