Theonomy, Bahnsen, and the Federal Vision – Part 3

The grace conveyed in baptism is effectual only for the elect.

The Westminster Confession of Faith limits its “high view of the efficacy of baptism” to the elect alone. Further, Westminster Confession of Faith 28:6 states: “The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered.” That is, baptism does not bestow regeneration on every recipient. What baptism does it does only for the elect. The problem of overemphasizing the objective is that it leads to the very positions held by the Federal Vision proponents.

 

Larry Ball, replied to my two previous articles on the connection between Greg Bahnsen, theonomy and the Federal Vision in an article that was published on The Aquila Report. I read that article with great interest and even appreciation for some parts of it.  Ball is an evangelical reformed minister like myself and I have the utmost respect for his many years of service to the cause of Christ. He made one statement that illustrates the connection between theonomy and the Federal Vision better than I could ever have done otherwise. He wrote:

Just because a person has a high view of the efficacy of baptism (as does the Westminster Confession of Faith) in one place in one book does not mean that he denies the work of the Holy Spirit or that he is the father of sacramentalism.[i]

When I read those words, I envisioned Federal Visionists everywhere leaping with joy and exclaiming, “Yes, that is exactly right. The Westminster Confession of Faith does have a high view of the efficacy of baptism. That is what we have been saying. That is what our system is all about.” In fact, I have read almost those exact words by Federal Vision proponents in many books or articles. Yet, the phrase, “a high view of the efficacy of baptism,” is meaningless unless it is further defined. If it is understood to mean that baptism is effectual only for the elect, I wholeheartedly agree. If it is understood to teach that baptism confers the very grace of regeneration that it symbolizes, then I completely disagree. As Francis Turretin said:

Fourth, if the sacraments physically conveyed grace in themselves and conferred it by an inherent force, grace would be tied to the sacraments. This cannot be said without absurdity.[ii]

I am confident—even certain—that Ball does not agree with any form of baptismal regeneration or any ability of the sacraments to physically convey grace inasmuch as he considers the Federal Vision a problem. Yet, the assertion that the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches a high view of the efficacy of baptism supports the very connection between Bahnsen’s theonomy and the Federal Vision which I have asserted in my earlier articles. The connection is this:

Bahnsen’s theonomy places so much emphasis on obedience to the law that it over-emphasizes external and objective grace and under-emphasizes internal and subjective grace. It is a very small step from Bahnsen’s position on the objectivity of the sacraments to the Federal Vision’s position of restoring the objectivity of the covenant, particularly with respect to the sacraments.

Here is the truth. The Westminster Confession of Faith limits its “high view of the efficacy of baptism” to the elect alone. Further, Westminster Confession of Faith 28:6 states:

The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered.

That is, baptism does not bestow regeneration on every recipient. What baptism does it does only for the elect. The problem of overemphasizing the objective is that it leads to the very positions held by the Federal Vision proponents. As the PCA’s Report of the Ad-Interim Committee on Federal Vision, New Perspective, and the Auburn Avenue Theology stated:

Central to the FV understanding of “covenant” is their definition: “covenant” is defined as a vital relationship with the triune God. “To be in covenant is to be in real communion with God, attendant with real privileges and real blessings.” Coupled with this definition is their understanding of the “objectivity” of the covenant. “A covenant is also objective, like your marriage. It’s where the members of the covenant feel it’s there, or they believe it’s there, whether they even believe in the covenant or not.” As Douglas Wilson states, “We have noted repeatedly that baptism in water is objective, and it establishes an objective covenant relationship with the Lord of the covenant, Jesus Christ.” This concept of covenant objectivity includes the view that “every  baptized person is in covenant with God and is in union, then, with Christ and with the triune God.” This confluence of “covenant objectivity” through baptism and “real and vital union” with Christ produces significant confusion about the relationship between the “sign” and “thing signified” and the nature of children who are “in this respect” within the covenant of grace (WCF 27:2, LC 166).[iii]

The problem with someone saying that the Westminster Confession of Faith holds to a “high view of the efficacy of baptism” is that it blurs the essential issue concerning the sacraments: Are the sacraments efficacious for everyone who partakes of them or only for the elect? When Bahnsen moved towards the objectivity of the sacraments, he was moving in the same direction as the FV statements above. He was not there and I do not think he ever would have been, but he very clearly had a conflict in his system between evangelical theology and an over-emphasis on the objectivity of the covenant. In my book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision, I have a section that deals with the problem of objectifying baptismal efficacy. Here is what I wrote this section:

The Westminster Standards and Baptismal Efficacy

One of the most troubling aspects of the Federal Vision is its insistence that the Reformed creeds and the Westminster divines agree with its views on baptism or, at least, receive them as an acceptable interpretation of the Scripture. For instance, Rich Lusk, in an online article, “Baptismal Efficacy and the Reformed Tradition: Past. Present, and Future,” attempts to prove that the Reformers “held a robust view of baptismal efficacy”[iv] from which the modern Reformed churches have departed. Lusk’s views of the Reformed symbols is not held by A. A. Hodge, who wrote in his excellent commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith concerning baptismal regeneration:

Romanists and Ritualists have inferred that the sign is inseparable from the grace signified, and that these spiritual effects are due to the outward ordinance. Hence the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. But it must be observed that the Scriptures do not assert these spiritual attributes of water baptism in itself considered, but of water baptism as the sign or emblem of baptism by the Holy Ghost. These spiritual attributes belong only to the baptism by the Spirit, and they accompany the sign only when the sign is accompanied by that which it signifies. It does not follow, however, that the sign is inseparable from the grace. The grace is sovereign; and experience teaches us that it is often absent from the sign, and the sign is least frequently honoured by the presence of the grace when it is itself most implicitly relied upon.[v]

There are three words used by the Westminster Standards concerning the sacraments: signify, seal, and exhibit. Of the three words, exhibit is probably the most important for this controversy concerning baptismal regeneration. William S. Barker, who was a defense expert witness at the trial of Peter Leithart, is certainly correct when he says that the seventeenth-century meaning of the word exhibit (from the Latin exhibere) was ‘to convey.’ Yet, Barker missed the mark when he stated:

There is a sense in which in baptism the sacrament not only signifies and seals but conveys something to the recipient of the sacrament.[vi]

Is it true that “something” is always conveyed to “the recipient” of the sacrament of baptism? Was it the intention of the writers of the Westminster Standards to communicate that idea by using the term “exhibit” concerning the sacraments? One of the Scottish Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly was George Gillespie, who wrote the following words concerning the intended meaning of the word exhibit by the Westminster divines:

I answer, That exhibition which they speak of, is not the giving of grace where it is not (as is manifested by the afore-quoted testimonies), but an exhibition to believers—a real, effectual, lively application of Christ, and of all His benefits, to every one that believeth, for the strengthening, confirming, and comforting of the soul. . . Our divines do not say that the sacraments are exhibitive ordinances, wherein grace is communicated to those who have none of it, to unconverted or unbelieving persons. . .

Protestant writers do not only oppose the opus operatum and the causalitas physica and insita but they oppose (as is manifest by the testimonies already cited[vii]) all causality or working of the first grace of conversion and faith in or by the sacraments, supposing always a man to be a believer and within the covenant of grace before the sacrament, and that he is not made such, nor translated to the state of grace in or by the sacrament.[viii]

Gillespie’s statements are determinative of the sense in which the word exhibit was meant by the authors of the Westminster Standards.[ix] They viewed the exhibition of the grace to be given only to those who were already recipients of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Nothing is exhibited in the sacrament which is not first conveyed to the soul through the work of the Spirit. In this respect, Barker’s suggestion that “something” is conveyed in baptism to every “recipient” is contrary to the intended meaning of the word exhibit by the Westminster divines, as testified by one of its commissioners.

In another part of his commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, A. A. Hodge wrote the following concerning this exhibition of grace:

The sacraments were designed to “apply”—i.e., actually to convey—to believers the benefits of the new covenant. If they are “seals” of the covenant, they must of course, as a legal form of investiture, actually convey the grace represented to those to whom it belongs. Thus a deed conveys an estate, or the key handed over in the presence of witnesses the possession of a house from the owner to the renter. Our confession is explicit and emphatic on this subject. The old English word “exhibit,” there used, does not mean to show forth; but in the sense of the Latin exhibere, from which it is derived, to administer, to apply. . .

So that this grace-conferring virtue depends on two things: (1.) The sovereign will and power of the Holy Spirit. (2.) The lively faith of the recipient.[x]

Hodge, like Gillespie and Cunningham, unequivocally states that the sacraments convey grace only to those who are first recipients of the work of the Holy Spirit and have a lively faith in Christ for their salvation. The grace is conveyed to believers—it is not conveyed in order to initiate faith or as a spark of new life to those who are spiritually dead.

There are several other Reformed theologians who take the same view as Gillespie, Hodge, and Cunningham. For instance, Robert Shaw, in his commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, wrote:

That the sacraments themselves cannot confer saving grace is evident; for if they had this power in themselves, they would be equally effectual to all who receive them.[xi]

Federal Vision proponents also wrongly assert that the Scots Confession of Faith (1560) holds a high view of the efficacy of baptism. Gillespie, who hailed from Scotland, certainly disagreed. He quoted from that Confession in his work, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, to prove that no reformed confession or creed had ever taught baptismal regeneration or any such high view of the efficacy of baptism. Over the past 5 years, I have spent thousands of hours reading, researching, and discerning the baptismal views of the great reformed theologians and the reformed creeds. I agree with Gillespie that no reformed confession or creed teaches a high view of the efficacy of baptism. I can also confidently assert without any equivocation that no first-rate reformed theologian in the history of the Church has ever held to any such “high view of the efficacy of baptism”. On the other hand, most theologians who have taught a high view of the efficacy of baptism have, sooner or later, become guilty of sacramentalism.

There are two views that have prevailed in the Church concerning the sacraments. One is the high view of the efficacy of the sacraments. The second is the view that the grace of the sacraments is conveyed only to the elect by the Spirit. Neither view denies the work of the Holy Spirit altogether. The first view ties the work of the Spirit to the sacraments and is, thereby, sacramentalism. In the second view, the Holy Spirit is not tied to the time of the administration of the sacraments, but He is sovereign in working grace when and where and how and to whom He pleases. The high view of the efficacy of baptism is the view of the Scholastics; of Thomas Aquinas; of Pelagius; of Trent and Catholicism; and, of High Church Protestants. But it is not the view of the Westminster Confession of Faith or reformed theology. Therefore, Bahnsen’s shift towards the objectivity of the sacraments and a high view of the efficacy of them was a shift away from reformed theology and a shift towards sacramentalism. It pains me to have to write that because I loved the man and he was my friend. Yet, my study convinces me beyond a shadow of a doubt that a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments is sacramentalism. As Philip Schaff wrote concerning the Schoolmen:

In defining what a sacrament is—quid est sacramentum—the Schoolmen started with Augustine’s definition that a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace, but went beyond him in the degree of efficiency they ascribe to it. Beginning with Hugo, they assert in unmistakable language that the sacraments, or outward symbols, contain and confer grace—continere et conferre gratiam—the language afterwards used by the Council of Trent. They have a virtue in themselves.[xii]

The essential issue is, as Schaff opined, the degree of efficiency that is ascribed to the sacraments. A high view of the efficacy of baptism ascribes too much efficiency to them and makes the Spirit subordinate to the sacraments. The sacraments are then viewed as having a virtue in themselves which is, as Turretin said above, an absurd position. That is not the position of reformed theology and monergistic soteriology. That is the position of sacramentalism.

Conclusion

As a former theonomist myself, I know very well that one can be an evangelical and hold to monergism and reformed soteriology while also holding to theonomy. I did so for 4 years and I know many others who have done so for shorter or longer periods. For myself, I was always aware in my heart that there was a conflict in my system between theonomy and evangelical theology. I now consider theonomy to be erroneous, but not heresy. The Federal Vision is heresy, not just erroneous. There is a bridge between them for some theonomists and that bridge is the objectivity of the sacraments and an over-emphasis on objective grace. Evangelical theonomists are on the right side of the bridge, the safe side, and they need to stay there. They also need to distance themselves from an imbalanced view of grace which emphasizes objective grace more than subjective grace. Yet, Federal Visionists are on the wrong side of the bridge, the side of heresy. Not every theonomist will become a Federal Visionist. Not every Federal Visionist is a former theonomist. But the connection between them, once again, is the objectivity of the sacraments.

I sent these articles to The Aquila Report about theonomy to make one point above all else. That point is that the PCA persecuted evangelical theonomists in her midst ( I know many examples), but has provided safe harbor for proponents of the Federal Vision. After the trial of Louisiana Presbytery concerning the Steve Wilkins case, there has been a seismic shift in the PCA concerning the Federal Vision. I could give several illustrations of that fact, but I will not do so. Why is it acceptable in the PCA for ministers to remain in good standing while teaching that the water of baptism bestows all the benefits of Christ to every recipient and to teach that we are not finally justified until the end of our lives on the basis of the totality of our lives? Yet, evangelical theonomists who teach that the judicial laws are still normative in society today are persecuted? Inquiring minds want to know. In my opinion, the PCA has made the wrong choice and that choice will destroy evangelicalism within her at some point unless radical surgery is performed.

Dewey Roberts is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, Fla. He is the author of Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision

[i] Larry Ball, “A Rejoinder to Theonomy, Bahnsen, and the Federal Vision,” in The Aquila Report, July 31, 2016.

[ii] James T. Dennison, ed., George Musgrave Giger, trans., Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 3 (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 1997), 365.

[iii] Accessed on August 1, 2016 at: http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/07-fvreport.pdf

[iv] Rich Lusk, “Baptismal Efficacy and the Reformed Tradition: Past, Present, and Future,” accessed on July 29, 2015 at: http://www.hornes.org/theologia/rich-lusk/baptismal-efficacy-the-reformed-tradition-past-present-future.

[v] A. A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith: A Handbook of Christian Doctrine Expounding the Westminster Confession (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1961), 330.

[vi] Record of the Case, Standing Judicial Commission, 2012-05, 595.

[vii] In his work, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, Gillespie quoted from Calvin, Bullinger, Ursinus, Musculus, Bucer, Hommius, Aretus, Vossius, the Scottish Confession, the Synod of Dort, the Belgic Confession, Pareaus, and others to prove that baptismal regeneration is not and never was the view of Calvinists.  See the next endnote.

[viii] George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1985), 233.

[ix] Cf. also Cunningham, Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p. 280.

[x] Hodge, Confession of Faith, 331-332.

[xi] Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Standards (Inverness, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1974), 281.

[xii] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume V: The Middle Ages (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981), 704.