Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Reply to the Joint Federal Vision Profession: Part 3: How Do We Speak to the Visible Church?

articles in this series: part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6part 7part 8

by Wes White
[Editor's note: This series was originally posted in 2011 at Johannes Weslianus, the former site of PCA Pastor Wes White. Reprinted with permission]

How Do We Speak to the Visible Church?
We move on now to the section on the Decrees in the Joint FV Profession written by Doug Wilson and signed by PCA Pastor Jeff Meyers. The section on the decrees may be a little difficult for someone not familiar with the conversation to follow. I want to address three items in this section:

1. How do we speak to the visible Church?
2. What are the common operations of the Spirit?
3. Does the Bible speak of an election to temporary membership in the covenant?

In this article, we shall examine the first.

The FV Assertion
To begin with, Federal Visionists do claim to hold to an eternal election of certain individuals to eternal glory. They write:

God carries out this election in time, And at some time in the earthly life of each person so chosen, the Holy Spirit brings that person to life, and enables him to persevere in holiness to the end.

However, they also want to be able to use the same or similar language to describe those who are “within the covenant.” They deny that:

the unchangeable nature of these decrees prevents us from using the same language in covenantal ways as we describe our salvation from within that covenant. We further deny this covenantal usage is “pretend” language, even where the language and terminology sometimes overlap with the language of the decrees.

The Problem of Addressing the Visible Church
In sum, they are dealing with the point of contact between the fact of eternal election and our interaction with people in the Church.

This is an obvious problem that most Calvinists have wrestled with in one way or another. Since we do not know who the elect are, how do we speak to people both within and without the visible communion of the Church? Can we address other people as the elect?

The question here is not how do I know that I am elect, but, how can we speak of others as elect? In Ephesians 1, the Apostle Paul speaks to the Church there indiscriminately as being elect. How can he do this?

Again, the issue is also not whether we can ascribe certain benefits to everyone in the visible Church. All sides would agree with this. Rather, the question is, can we speak of anyone or to the Church in general as possessing eternal salvation?

The Reformed Answer
The Reformed answer has been that we can regard the visible Church in two ways. We can regard it by a judgment of charity or by a judgment of reflection.

This is described very well by the Huguenot theologian Jean Claude. He says that by a judgment of charity, we regard everyone in the visible Church as believers. On other hand, when we consider the issue we also know that this is not always the case:

By the judgment of reflection, having consulted the rules of Scripture, and the light of experience, we come to know that there are tares mixed with the wheat, and that it is past doubt, that among these outward professors, are abundance of hypocritical, superstitious . . . people (On the Conference with Mr. Bossuet, p. 33).

Although we treat the visible Church as consisting of true believers, we also know based on experience and Scripture that some of them will prove to have never been such.

This is also enshrined in the Canons of Dort, Head of Doctrine 3 & 4:15:

Further, with respect to those who outwardly profess their faith and amend their lives, we are bound, after the example of the apostles, to judge and speak of them in the most favorable manner; for the secret recesses of the heart are unknown to us.

Thus, Reformed theology has stated that we are to judge those in the visible Church favorably and with charity. However, we also recognize that this judgment often proves to be wrong.

This View is Based on Scripture
First, we observe from the Epistles and elsewhere that the Apostles do speak of the visible Church as consisting of elect individuals. The Apostles do not hesitate to speak of the election of others.

Second, the Apostles are also aware that this judgment may be incorrect. Thus, they address calls to conversion and self-examination to the visible Church (Rom. 8:9, 2 Cor. 13:5, 2 Pet. 1:9–10, Heb. 3:13, etc.).

Third, Christ and the Apostles speak of those who fall away as those who did not actually possess what they seemed to possess. “Whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken from him” (Lk. 8:18). “They are not all Israel who are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6). They are not of Christ’s sheep and are children of Satan (Jn. 8:37–44, 10:26–30). They are dogs and pigs (2 Pet. 2:22). And, the clearest statement is in 1 Jn. 2:19:

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.

Thus, the Bible warns us that those who fall away never had what they seem to have had.

This is not what the FV is Teaching
In contrast to the Reformed teaching, the FV ascribes election to eternal glory to no one. It ascribes a real but losable salvation to everyone who has been baptized. This salvation and election is not ascribed to them by a judgment of charity but as something that they objectively possess but may lose. When someone falls away, according to the FV, we should not say that our judgment must be revised but that they actually had a salvation that they lost.

Allow me to demonstrate each point:

1. They ascribe election to eternal glory to no one. I have demonstrated here that individuals should ask if they are elected to eternal glory, how much less would this be true of asking this about other people? [Editor's note: since the author's site is down, this link is no longer valid] Instead, what is ascribed to covenant members is not decretal election but is a language that “sometimes overlap[s] with the language of the decrees.” 

2. According to the Profession, they affirm that “all who are baptized are united to Christ in His covenantal life.” They want to ascribe to all the baptized an election and salvation that has overlap with eternal election. As the JFVP states, “This is not ‘pretend’ language.” John Barach, one of the signers of the profession noted in relation to Paul calling people elect, “Paul is not making a good guess or indulging in wishful thinking or even making a charitable judgment” (Auburn Avenue Theology, 153). Or, as Norman Shepherd said in The Call of Grace, “This is not some condescending judgment of charity.” Again, Steve Wilkins says, “It is not accurate to say that they merely ‘appeared’ to have these things but did not actually possess them” (Auburn Avenue Theology, 264). For the FV, you ascribe to all who are baptized a salvation that they actually and objectively possess.

3. This is even more evident from the way they speak about those who fall away. If you want to study this further, I would recommend the article that J. Mark Beach and I wrote to Joseph Minich and which The Christian Renewal refused to publish. However, let me add a few quotes here.

Steve Wilkins said:

The implication of these passages is that those who ultimately prove to be reprobate may be in covenant with God. They may enjoy for a season the blessings of the covenant, including the forgiveness of sins, adoption, possession of the kingdom, sanctification, etc., and yet apostatize and fall short of the grace of God (Auburn Avenue Theology, 264).

Rich Lusk said:

These non-elect covenant members are truly brought to Christ, united to him and the church in baptism, receive various gracious operations of the Holy Spirit, and may even be said to be loved by God for a time. . . (Covenant and Election FAQ).

The Joint FV Profession:

All who are baptized into the triune Name are united with Christ in His covenantal life, and so those who fall from that position of grace are indeed falling from grace.

This is very different from the way the Bible, the Confession, and the Reformed tradition describe those who fall away. On the FV view, there is no need for a judgment of charity since everyone in the visible Church possess salvation and since no one can know who will persevere in that salvation and who will lose it and be lost forever.

The Reformed idea that we address the Church by a judgment of charity but also recognize that we may have to revise our judgment if someone falls away, rests on the idea that salvation is given exclusively to the elect.

The Federal Vision denies that salvation is given only to the elect. Since that is the case, they do not need a judgment of charity. They ascribe an actual salvation to all and when someone falls away, they do not need to revise their judgment. They have a new objective judgment. According to the FV, that person had salvation but now they have lost it.

As R.C. Sproul, Jr., said in a recent issue of Tabletalk, the Federal Vision theology denies the perseverance of the saints. Rather, it teaches the apostasy of the saints.

Editor's note: Signers of the 2007 Joint Federal Vision Profession include:

Douglas Wilson (minister, CREC), Peter Leithart (minister, PCA), Jim Jordan (minister, teacher at large), Steve Wilkins (minister, PCA), Randy Booth (minister, CREC), John Barach (minister, CREC), Rich Lusk (minister, CREC), Jeff Meyers (minister, PCA), Tim Gallant (minister, CREC), Ralph Smith (minister, CREC), and Mark Horne (minister, PCA). Credentials were those held by the signers when the profession was released.

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