The Federal Vision, Ten Questions, and the Westminster Standards

Ten questions that are relevant to the Federal Vision controversy

The Holy Spirit works in the visible church in accordance with the decree of election. Therefore, the elect in the visible church receive some benefits which the non-elect in the visible church do not. All the elect and only the elect are effectually called. The Holy Spirit works faith in their hearts and thereby unites them to Christ in their effectual calling (WSC Q. 30). Effectual calling is that work of the Spirit which effectually and permanently saves through that radical transformation called regeneration and the new birth.

 

I know that the Federal Vision movement is not monolithic. Various individuals associated with the movement have various opinions on various doctrines. We have difficulty sorting out who believes what within the movement. I think we can more easily agree on the questions which the Federal Vision movement has raised. My first goal is to list what I think are some of the more significant questions. My second goal is to see what answers to these questions I can find in the Westminster Standards. I will look first in the Shorter Catechism and then seek further clarification in the Confession and Larger Catechism when I think that would be helpful. My hope is that this will prove to be a more constructive approach than trying to figure out how various Federal Vision proponents would answer these questions.

Here are what I consider to be ten questions that are relevant to the Federal Vision controversy:

  1. Should the covenant of grace be interpreted in terms of a dual aspect rooted in an apparent antinomy between divine sovereignty and human responsibility?
  2. Are there people in the church in terms of external privileges (the visible church) who are not actually members of the body of Christ through a personal, saving union with Jesus (the invisible church)?
  3. Does being in a personal, saving union with Christ make redundant and unnecessary the teaching that a person receives in Christ certain saving benefits?
  4. Can the fruit of sanctification, both internal graces and outward works, rightfully contribute to a person’s subjective assurance that he does have a saving faith relationship with Jesus?
  5. Can a person be in a personal, saving union with Jesus and not persevere in that union?
  6. Does a regenerate church member have a personal, saving union with Jesus that differs in kind from anything that a church member can lose through apostasy?
  7. Does Christ’s acquittal of the elect on the last day contradict justification through faith alone?
  8. Can a person receive a sacrament as a sign and seal of Christ and His saving benefits without ever receiving the things signified because of unbelief?
  9. Is the distinction between communing members and non-communing members in the visible church a valid distinction?
  10. Is there a substantial discontinuity between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace?

Here are my attempts to answer these questions from the Westminster Standards.

The Dual Aspect of the Covenant

Question 1:           Should the covenant of grace be interpreted in terms of a dual aspect rooted in an apparent antinomy between divine sovereignty and human responsibility?

Answer:                 Yes.

I dealt with this question in The Federal Vision, The Dual Aspect, And The Westminster Shorter Catechism.

The Visible and Invisible Aspects of the Church

Question 2:           Are there people in the church in terms of external privileges (the visible church) who are not actually members of the body of Christ through a personal, saving union with Jesus (the invisible church)?

Answer:                 Yes.

The visible church is mentioned only once in the Shorter Catechism, in its answer to Question 95, “To whom is baptism to be administered?” The meaning of the visible and invisible aspects of the church are defined in detail in Chapter 25 of the Westminster Confession of Faith and in several questions answered in the Westminster Larger Catechism (Qq. 61-65, 59, 82-82 and 86). At any point in time, there are some in the visible church who are not in a personal, saving union with Christ, and some of these never will be (cf. WLC Q. 61). The visible church is the church as we see it in this life, and the invisible church is the church as only God can see it.

The Holy Spirit works in the visible church in accordance with the decree of election. Therefore, the elect in the visible church receive some benefits which the non-elect in the visible church do not. All the elect and only the elect are effectually called. The Holy Spirit works faith in their hearts and thereby unites them to Christ in their effectual calling (WSC Q. 30). Effectual calling is that work of the Spirit which effectually and permanently saves through that radical transformation called regeneration and the new birth. Effectual calling includes “enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by his almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace” (WCF 10.1; cf. WLC Q. 67).

The non-elect “are often outwardly called by the ministry of the Word, and have some common operations of the Spirit” (WLC Q. 68). The common operations of the Spirit may influence a totally depraved sinner for a time by restraining the dominating effects of indwelling sin, but there is no radical spiritual transformation. To use the language of Ezekiel, the common operations of the Spirit may temporarily soften the heart of stone, but they do not take away the heart of stone and give a heart of flesh. An operation of the Spirit is a temporary influence and not a transforming renewal through a personal, saving union with Christ. The non-elect may be almost persuaded through the common operations of the Spirit, but “they never truly come unto Christ” (WCF 10.4).

How does one become a member of the visible church? The Shorter Catechism says that “baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church…” (WSC Q. 95). The Confession and Larger Catechism teach that baptism with water solemnly admits a person into the visible church (WCF 28.1; WLC Q. 165). These statements at first appear to be logically incompatible. How can baptism be the solemn means of admitting a person into the visible church if no one who is out of the visible church should be baptized? The problem in this baptismal catch-22 is the assumption that the solemn admission is the initial admission. There are other statements which indicate that it is not. The Larger Catechism says that “the visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children” (WLC Q. 62). Circumcision under the old covenant and baptism under the new covenant are not even mentioned in this definition of the visible church. This definition places the adult with a credible profession and the child with covenant status in the visible church before baptism. The Larger Catechism confirms that a child with covenant status is in that respect within the covenant even before his baptism (WLC Q. 166). Sacraments are intended only for those who are in some respect already in the covenant; they distinguish those who are within from those who are without (WLC Q. 162). Baptism as a solemn admission can fulfill that purpose without being the initial means of admission. Therefore an adult with a credible profession is baptized because he is already within the visible church. This does not make baptism optional because a credible profession includes a desire to obey Christ through submitting to baptism.

The language of the visible and invisible aspects of the church is helpful in explaining why not everyone with his name on a church roll is necessarily in a personal, saving union with Christ. This language is misused when it is interpreted to imply that the visible church and the invisible church are two separate concrete entities. For example, it is a serious mistake to argue that membership in a visible church is optional because believers are already members of the invisible church. Properly interpreted, visible and invisible are abstract qualities of one concrete reality as seen from two different perspectives, the human and the divine. The solution to the abuse of theological terms which provide illuminating distinctions is not to abandon the terms but to define them carefully and to use them properly.

Personal Union versus Saving Benefits

Question 3:           Does being in a personal, saving union with Christ make redundant and unnecessary the teaching that a person receives in Christ certain saving benefits?

Answer:                 No.

It is a serious error to teach that a person can partake of the redemption purchased by Christ apart from a personal, saving union with Christ. Yet, our doctrinal standards do not teach that error. Following the example of Scripture, our Standards teach both the necessity of a personal union with Christ for salvation and the saving benefits which everyone partakes of when united to Christ. The Spirit applies to us the redemption purchased by Christ by working faith in us and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling (WSC Q. 30). They that are effectually called partake of justification, adoption and sanctification (WSC Q. 32). Baptism signifies and seals both our ingrafting into Christ and our partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace (WSC Q. 94). The worthy receivers of the Lord’s Supper are made partakers of His body and blood, with all His benefits …” (WSC Q. 96). To summarize faithfully and comprehensively what Scripture teaches about the Spirit’s application of salvation, we must discuss not only our saving union with Christ but also the specific benefits which result from that union. To teach that personal union with Jesus and the objective salvific benefits which result from that union are somehow at odds with each other is to set up a false dilemma.

Assurance of Salvation

Question 4:           Can the fruit of sanctification, both internal graces and outward works, rightfully contribute to a person’s subjective assurance that he does have a saving faith relationship with Jesus?

Answer:                 Yes.

“Assurance of God’s love” is a benefit that in this life accompanies or flows from justification, adoption and sanctification (WSC Q. 36). The Confession explains how sanctification can build up this assurance through its fruits:

“These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers … strengthen their assurance …”  WCF 16.2).

“… such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace …  This certainty is … an infallible assurance of faith founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God …” (WCF 18.1,2).

The Larger Catechism also includes the Spirit’s “enabling them to discern in themselves those graces to which the promises of life are made” as one of the means that “such as truly believe in Christ, and endeavor to walk in all good conscience before him, may … be infallibly assured that they are in the estate of grace, and shall persevere therein unto salvation” (WLC Q. 80).

Perseverance

Question 5:           Can a person be in a personal, saving union with Jesus and not persevere in that union?

Answer:                 No.

The Shorter Catechism clearly states that “increase of grace and perseverance therein to the end” do in this life accompany or flow from justification, adoption and sanctification (WSC Q. 36). The Shorter Catechism also identifies the destiny of believers after this life:

“The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory …” (WSC Q. 37).

“At the resurrection, believers, being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment, and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity” (WSC Q. 38).

The Confession teaches with unmistakable clarity the perseverance of all who have a personal, saving union with Christ:

“They, whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved” (WCF 17.1).

Similarly, the Larger Catechism says,

 “True believers, by reason of the unchangeable love of God, and his decree and covenant to give them perseverance, their inseparable union with Christ, his continual intercession for them, and the Spirit and seed of God abiding in them, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (WLC Q. 79).

Apostasy

Question 6:         Does a regenerate church member have a personal, saving union with Jesus that differs in kind from anything that a church member can lose through apostasy?

Answer:                 Yes.

The Shorter Catechism does not directly address the issue of apostasy but indirectly implies an answer to the above question through its teaching on perseverance. If all those who have a personal, saving union with Christ persevere to the end, then none of those in the visible church who do apostatize can have had that personal, saving union. The Confession states that “those that are justified … can never fall from the state of justification” (WCF 11.5). See also WCF 17.1 and WLC Q. 79 quoted above in question 5 about perseverance. This does not mean that those who apostatize lose nothing. The benefits which all the members of the visible church enjoy in this life include “the communion of the saints, the ordinary means of salvation, and offers of grace by Christ” (WLC Q. 63).

Acquittal on the Last Day

Question 7:           Does Christ’s acquittal of the elect on the last day contradict justification through faith alone?

Answer:                 No.

The Shorter Catechism says, “At the resurrection, believers, being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged, and acquitted in the day of judgment …” (WSC Q. 38). We should assume that the intended meaning of this statement about a future acquittal does not contradict anything the Westminster Standards also teach about justification. Justification is a punctiliar divine act which occurs when God uses saving faith as the alone instrument of justification (WCF 11.2). This is the point in time at which the Spirit works faith in us and unites us to Christ (WSC Q. 30). Based on that personal, saving union with Christ, God then imputes to us “the perfect obedience and satisfaction of Christ” (WLC Q. 70). Though this imputation is a one time act, God continues thereafter to forgive our sins based on that act of imputation (WCF 11.5). The acquittal at the last day will be simply another declaration of our legal state in Christ. The distinctive of this declaration will be its very public nature, being made before all the angels and all humanity.

Our good works can never be a ground for divine forgiveness of our sins:

“We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from his Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment” (WCF 16.5).

Yet good works are “the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith” (WCF 16.2), and God will reward them, not as a payment of something merited or earned but as grace upon grace:

“Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections” (WCF 16.2)

Sacramental Efficacy

Question 8:         Can a person receive a sacrament as a sign and seal of Christ and His saving benefits without ever receiving the things signified because of unbelief?

Answer:                 Yes.

The Shorter Catechism says that God uses both the Word and the sacraments as means of grace “whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption” (WSC Q. 88). The Spirit ordinarily uses the Word when working faith in the heart, and uses both the Word and sacraments to increase and strengthen that faith (WCF 14.1). Yet not all who hear the Word are saved (WLC Q. 61), and the sacraments do not always increase and strengthen faith. “The sacraments become effectual means of salvation … only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them” (WSC Q. 91).

Communing and Non-Communing Membership

Question 9:           Is the distinction between communing members and non-communing members in the visible church a valid distinction?

Answer:                 Yes.

The Shorter Catechism says that “the infants of such as are members of the visible church are to be baptized” (WSC Q. 95). Yet the Shorter Catechism adds other requirements for partaking of the Lord’s Supper:

 “It is required of them that would worthily partake of the Lord’s supper, that they examine themselves, of their knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, of their faith to feed upon Him, of their repentance, love, and new obedience; lest coming unworthily, they eat and drink judgment to themselves” (WSC Q. 97).

This implies that one can be a member of the visible church without yet having the spiritual ability necessary for the worthy receiving of the Lord’s Supper. This implication is made explicit in the Westminster Larger Catechism:

“The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper differ, in that Baptism is to be administered but once, with water, to be a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants; whereas the Lord’s Supper is to be administered often, in the elements of bread and wine, to represent and exhibit Christ as spiritual nourishment to the soul, and to confirm our continuance and growth in him, and that only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves” (WLC Q. 177).

The Westminster Standards teach that a believer needs a certain degree of spiritual maturity in order to partake worthily of the Lord’s Supper. This is the basis for the distinction between communing and non-communing members. Those who agree with the Standards on this point may have reasonable disagreements on the required degree of spiritual maturity for admission to the Lord’s Table.

Covenants of Works and Grace

Question 10:        Is there a substantial discontinuity between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace?

Answer:                Yes.

The Confession states that “life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (WCF 7.2; cf. WLC Q. 20; WSC Q. 12). The Shorter Catechism identifies the requirements under the covenant of grace for escaping the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin:

“To escape the wrath and curse of God, due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption” (WSC Q. 85).

Our Confession explains the transition from the first covenant to a second covenant:

Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe (WCF 7.3).

In short, the obligations of the covenant of grace are faith and its necessary fruits. Such diverse covenantal conditions are indications of a strong dichotomy between the two covenants.

Regarding the discontinuity between the two covenants, some raise questions related to merit, grace and faith. The Standards use the word “merit” in reference to the saving work of Jesus Christ (WCF 17.2; WLC Qq. 55, 174). I interpret this not as absolute merit but as merit defined by God’s own covenant. Christ’s work perfectly satisfied God’s just wrath against our sins, but God was under no absolute obligation to accept Christ’s work in our place. He freely bound Himself to do so in the covenant of grace. To use the language of the Confession, “the Lord was pleased to make a second [covenant], commonly called the covenant of grace …” (WCF 7.3). God delivered the elect by the covenant of grace “of his mere love and mercy” (WLC Q. 30; cf. WSC Q. 20). In this voluntary covenantal context, Christ merited our salvation. This is not something we could do for ourselves. The Confession clearly states that sinners can never merit salvation on their own (WCF 16.5).

The Standards do not use the word “merit” with reference to Adam’s meeting the condition of the covenant of works. One can argue that it would be appropriate because of the parallel between Adam and Christ taught in Romans 5. Regardless of that, our Standards do clearly state that the fall made humanity “incapable of life” by the first covenant (WCF 7.3). Under the second covenant, “the perfect obedience and sacrifice” of Christ satisfies God’s justice (WCF 8.5). Jesus’ perfect obedience and finished sacrifice constitute the total ground for the saved sinner’s perfect legal standing in the covenant of grace. In the first covenant, Adam failed to meet the condition of perfect obedience. In the second covenant,

“The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience, and sacrifice of himself, which he, through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him” (.WCF 8.5)

This drastic contrast between the failure of Adam as a covenant head in the first covenant and the obedience and satisfaction successfully provided by Christ in the place of elect sinners in the second covenant, demonstrates the strong dichotomy between the two covenants.

Regarding the first covenant, the Confession describes what some would call a form of divine grace:

“The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant” (WCF 7.1).

Grace in the covenant of grace, however, goes far beyond this. Grace within the covenant of grace involves mercy upon a sinner who deserves judgment and the impartation of spiritual life and ability to someone who is spiritually dead. It is grace which provides a Redeemer to pay the deserved penalty for sin and to provide the required perfect obedience. It is a transforming grace which works faith in the sinner’s heart and a persevering grace that will not let go. The differences here also demonstrate the strong dichotomy between the two covenants.

I don’t think our Standards directly address the question of faith in the first covenant. Yet the condition of the first covenant was perfect obedience, and many would agree that every act of obedience to God involves faith in God. Faith in this sense was part of the perfect obedience which the covenant of works required as its condition. Good works under the covenant of grace are also fruits of faith (WCF 16.2), but they are not the second covenant’s equivalent to the perfect obedience required in the first covenant. After the entrance of sin, only “the perfect obedience and sacrifice” of Christ (WCF 8.5) can satisfy God’s justice. Under the covenant of grace, faith “is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love” (WCF 11.2). These differences between the roles of faith in the two covenants also demonstrate the strong dichotomy between the two covenants.

Conclusion

Perhaps there is no definition of the Federal Vision movement that we can agree on. Yet hopefully we can agree on the questions which the Federal Vision movement has raised. Hopefully we can also agree on what answers the Westminster Standards give to these questions, whether we agree with those answers or not.

 

Grover E. Gunn is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is serving as interim pastor of McDonald PCA in Collins, Miss. This article appeared on this blog and is used with permission.