The Federal Vision and Regeneration

The errors of the Federal Vision cannot be properly understood without recognizing that regeneration has been denied or made of little consequence in the redemption of sinners.

All of this is relevant with respect to the Federal Vision because there are some of their advocates who assert that regeneration is not a change of the essence of the soul. Hodge saw that position as a denial of both regeneration and original sin. Some modern opponents of the Federal Vision have overlooked their denial of regeneration and have not realized how that denial leads to a denial of original sin also. Thus, the Federal Vision cannot and does not hold to an Augustinian view of sin and grace.

 

“My thesis is that there is no such thing as ‘regeneration’ in the sense in which Reformed theology since Dort has spoken of it. The Bible says nothing about a permanent change in the hearts of those elected to heaven.”[1] —James Jordan, Federal Vision Proponent

“In baptism we are brought covenantally and publicly out of union with Adam and into union with Christ. When this occurs, one is ‘born again,’ not in the sense we have come to speak of regeneration as an irresistible, irreversible change of heart, but in the covenantal sense of being brought out of Adam’s family into God’s family.”[2] Rich Lusk, Federal Vision Proponent

One of the reasons that the Federal Vision remains a confusing system to so many evangelical Christians, even ministers, is because there has been a failure to consider what their proponents say about regeneration. When their statements about regeneration are carefully considered, it becomes clear that they cannot hold to an Augustinian view of sin or grace. It is really very simple. If regeneration is not needed, it can only be because man is not a sinner by nature. If man is a sinner, then regeneration is absolutely necessary. Thus, I placed the chapter on regeneration as the first substantive chapter in my new book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision.

In 2007, several ministers who hold to the Federal Vision agreed on a summary of their beliefs. This statement was titled “A Joint Federal Vision Profession” and was signed by four ministers in the Presbyterian Church in America (Mark Horne, Peter Leithart, Jeff Meyers, and Steve Wilkins), six ministers in the Confederation (now Communion) of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC) (John Barach, Randy Booth, Tim Gallant, Rich Lusk, Ralph Smith, and Douglas Wilson), and one teacher at large, Jim Jordan. Two of the PCA signatories, Wilkins and Leithart, have since transferred their membership to the CREC. Concerning regeneration, their joint document says:

Another difference is whether or not personal regeneration represents a change of nature in the person so regenerated. Some of us say yes while others question whether we actually have such an “essence” that can be changed.[3]

This quote is found in the section of the “Profession” concerning “intramural disagreements” and supposedly does not represent the views of every person in the Federal Vision. It wrongly contrasts personal regeneration with the idea that man has an “essence” which is changed in regeneration. These signatories equate nature with essence, but those terms are not the same thing. Regeneration is a change of nature, but it is not a change of the essence or the substance of the soul. The latter is the error of Manichaeism and is “inconsistent with the nature of sin and holiness.”[4]

Regeneration is a Change of Nature but Not a Change of Substance or Essence

The denial by some in the Federal Vision that man does not have an “essence” that can be changed is misguided. The only Protestant advocate of the view that man’s essence is changed in regeneration was Matthaias Flacius Illyricus (1520-1575), a pupil of Luther and a second-generation Reformer.[5] Every orthodox Protestant denomination believes both in personal regeneration and that such regeneration is not a change of the essence or substance of the soul of man. Moreover, the position of Illyricus was condemned by the Lutheran Formula of Concord[6] as a revival of the Manichean (Gnostic) heresy. Charles Hodge’s comment about Illyricus is enlightening:

Always extreme in his opinions, he held that original sin was a corruption of the substance of the soul, and regeneration such a change of that substance as to restore its normal purity.[7]

Illyricus’ view of regeneration is further illumined by the comment of Augustine concerning his own experience during his time as a Manichean heretic:

I still thought that it is not we who sin but some other nature that sins within us. It flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it so that you might bring healing to a soul that sinned against you. I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me. The truth, of course, was that it was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself. My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner.[8]

If regeneration is a change of the essence or substance of the soul of man, then man is not blamable for his sins. The problem of sin is blamed on the sinful substance (essence) of the soul within man, but the sinner incurs no guilt. Augustine was correct in acknowledging that the real problem was his own impiety which had divided his heart. Schaff’s comments about Augustine’s Anti-Manichean writings are worth noting:

His [Augustine’s] doctrine of the nature of evil is particularly valuable. He has triumphantly demonstrated for all time, that evil is not a corporeal thing, nor in any way substantial, but a product of the free will of the creature, a perversion of substance in itself good, a corruption of the nature created by God.[9]

Therefore, the intramural debate about regeneration among the Federal Vision proponents wrongly contrasts nature and essence. Regeneration is a change of nature, but that nature is not the essence or substance of man. Sin is a matter of the will and is not corporeal; it does not consist in physical substance or matter. Essence is corporeal and does consist in physical substance. This statement of their “Profession” concerning regeneration is both troubling and nonsensical. Did this Federal Vision “Profession” intend to say that some of them believe in personal regeneration and others of them do not? Or, did they intend to say that some of them believe that regeneration is a change of nature and others of them do not? Or, did they intend to say that some of them believe regeneration is a change of the essence of the soul and others disagree? Or, did they intentionally contrast personal regeneration with an heretical view of it? Like so many things about the Federal Vision, they promote confusion by making theologically imprecise statements.

While regeneration is not a change of the substance or essence of the soul, the whole soul is the subject of this great work of God—the intellect, the feelings, and the will. It is a spiritual resurrection and the beginning of new life. The Holy Spirit inclines the will of man to holiness and against sin in regeneration. Before regeneration, the will is inclined to sin and wholly incapable of seeking God. As Charles Hodge states about regeneration:

Sometimes the word expresses the act of God. God regenerates. Sometimes it designates the subjective effect of his act. The sinner is regenerated. He becomes a new creature. He is born again. And this is his regeneration. . . Its metaphysical nature is left a mystery. It is not the province of either philosophy or theology to solve that mystery.[10]

In a chapter on regeneration in Introduction to Dogmatic Theology, Edward A. Litton, a nineteenth-century evangelical Church of England minister and scholar, makes the following observation:

The union with Christ, and through Christ with God, of which Scripture speaks, is of an ethical, not a metaphysical character; a union effected by faith, and moral in its nature; not of essences, whether Divine or human. Physical conceptions on the subject are an intrusion of the natural creation into the higher region of supernatural grace.[11]

The New Divinity, Regeneration, and Pelagianism

In the nineteenth-century theological controversy with the “New Divinity” held by Charles G. Finney, Albert Barnes and others, the Princeton Seminary professors clearly saw that the issue was between Calvinism and Pelagianism. Charles Hodge wrote an article for the Biblical Repertory and Theological Review (later known as the Princeton Review) on the subject of regeneration. Hodge’s article was a review of a sermon preached by Samuel H. Cox before the Synod of New York in 1830. Cox was the pastor of Laight Street Presbyterian Church in New York City and was an advocate of the New Divinity. In that sermon, he misrepresented and falsely caricatured the doctrine of regeneration held by his opponents as stating that:

Regeneration consists in some secret physical motion on the soul which restores its dislocated powers and cures the connatural diseases of its texture.[12]

The false caricature by Cox that the orthodox doctrine of regeneration consists in a physical change was the primary concern of Hodge in his article. He saw Cox’s false caricature as an attack on the older Calvinists who were accused of also teaching “that man’s depravity is a ‘physical defect’—that regeneration is a ‘physical change’, etc.”[13] In his review, Hodge shows that referring to regeneration as a physical change is the same thing as referring to it as a change of the essence or substance of the soul (similar to what the Federal Vision “Profession” states). Moreover, he proves that any description of regeneration as a physical change necessarily results in caricaturing original sin as a physical change also. The two doctrines hang together and fall together. Indeed, Cox also falsely caricatured total depravity as a physical change in the introduction to his sermon.[14] As Hodge says:

We cannot pass this subject without a single remark on the charge of physical depravity. The futility and unfairness of the same charge as it regards the subject of regeneration we have endeavored to expose above. As this rests on precisely the same grounds, it must stand or fall with the other.[15]

In other words, if either regeneration or native depravity consists in a physical change, the other must also. The two stand or fall together on the same ground. Of course, the purpose of Hodge’s review article was to prove that such a doctrine was neither the doctrine of the older Calvinists nor those Calvinists of his age. (Rather, that the false caricature of either regeneration or native depravity is the result of a theological system moving in the direction of the Pelagian spectrum of heresies by defining regeneration as moral suasion only and not a change of heart.)[16]

  1. B. Warfield refers to another quote from Finney wherein he denied original sin for the very same reason he denied that regeneration is a change of substance or physical nature of the soul:

We deny that the human constitution is morally depraved. . . because it is impossible that sin should be a quality of the substance of the soul or body. It is, and must be, a quality of choice or intention, and not of substance.[17]

All of this is relevant with respect to the Federal Vision because there are some of their advocates who assert that regeneration is not a change of the essence of the soul. Hodge saw that position as a denial of both regeneration and original sin. Some modern opponents of the Federal Vision have overlooked their denial of regeneration and have not realized how that denial leads to a denial of original sin also. Thus, the Federal Vision cannot and does not hold to an Augustinian view of sin and grace.

Some opponents of the Federal Vision consider them guilty of Semi-Pelagianism instead of Pelagianism because they think they have neither denied regeneration nor original sin. Hodge’s review of Cox’s sermon proves the falsity of that idea. Whenever someone claims that man does not have an essence or substance that can be regenerated, he has already denied both regeneration and original sin. That is a cover position for Pelagianism according to Hodge. Hodge’s review article is fifty pages long and thoroughly exposes this false caricature of regeneration. Anyone doubtful of the connection between regeneration and original sin or of the problem in falsely caricaturing them as physical changes should read Hodge’s article with great carefulness.

Therefore, the statement concerning regeneration by those who signed the “Profession” appears to be an instance where they have delved into mysteries which God has not fully explained in His Word. Their intramural debate about regeneration cracks open the door for the entrance of error and heresy in both directions. On the one hand, they have opened the door for the heresy of Manichaeism. On the other hand, they have relegated the scriptural doctrine of regeneration to being a non-essential doctrine of no great importance. They have determined that fundamental differences concerning it are irrelevant. The errors of the Federal Vision cannot be properly understood without recognizing that all of the signatories to their ‘Profession’ have relegated regeneration to an intramural debate and some of them deny regeneration altogether. That represents a serious and heretical departure from evangelical Christianity.

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

[1] James Jordan, “Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration: Some Tentative Explorations,” Occasional Paper No. 32 (Niceville, Florida: Biblical Horizons, 2003), 1.

[2] Rich Lusk, “Do I Believe in Baptismal Regeneration?” accessed at: http://trinity-pres.net/essays/do-I-believe-in-baptismal-regeneration.pdf on October 20, 2016.

[3] http://www.federal-vision.com/resources/joint_FV_Statement.pdf, accessed October 20th, 2014. This document was formulated in 2007 and was signed by John Barach, Rich Lusk, Randy Booth, Jeff Meyers, Tim Gallant, Ralph Smith, Mark Horne, Steve Wilkins, Jim Jordan, Doug Wilson, and Peter Leithart

[4] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume III (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), 32. The Manichees were a major Gnostic religion founded by the Iranian prophet, Mani. Like all Gnostics, they believed in the dualistic struggle between good and evil. Augustine was once a Manichee, but opposed it when he was converted. The Manichees said that their religion was for the whole world because Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism were incomplete religions.

[5] Hodge, Systematic Theology, III, 6.

[6] Philip Schaff, ed., and David S. Schaff, rev., The Creeds of Christendom: With a History and Critical Notes, Volume III, “The Evangelical Protestant Creeds” (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1983), 103.

[7] Hodge, Systematic Theology, III, 5-6.

[8] R. S. Pine-Coffin, trans. and introduction, Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book V, Section 10 (London, England: Penguin Books, 1961), 103.

[9] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981), 1013.

[10] Hodge, Systematic Theology, 5.

[11] Philip E. Hughes, ed., Edward Arthur Litton, Introduction to Dogmatic Theology (London, England: James Clarke & Co. Ltd, 1960), 329.

[12] Charles Hodge, “Regeneration” in Princeton Versus the New Divinity (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2001), 4.

[13] Ibid., 5.

[14] Ibid., 4. Cox said: “Total depravity and physical depravity are nearly synonymous.”

[15] Ibid. 46.

[16] Ibid., cf. especially pages 11-20, 26-27, 45-49.

[17] Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, Perfectionism (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1974), 188.