articles in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8
by Wes White
This series was originally posted in 2011 atJohannes Weslianus, the former site of PCA Pastor Wes White. Reprinted with permission]
I have written extensively on the issue of the covenant of works on this blog, and so I am not going to say a lot on this issue. What I want to do is to say what the issue is and what the issue is not in the Federal Vision’s denial of the covenant of works.
- The problem is not a disagreement with the terminology of the covenant of works. I do not believe that someone who merely disagrees with the terminology of the covenant of works is outside of the system of doctrine in our Standards. Someone can hold to the substance of the doctrine without using these words. I think the General Assembly’s Federal Vision committee was very wise in condemning this error with the following words:
Those who reject the bi-covenantal structure of Scripture as represented in the Westminster Standards (i.e., his views do not merely take issue with the terminology, but the essence of the first/second covenant framework) contrary to those Standards.
- The issue is not whether there was any grace at all in the covenant of works. Grace simply means gift. There were a lot of gifts that Adam did not merit, including creation itself. I have no problem using the word grace in this way, and I personally think that those who want to say that there was no grace in any way in the covenant of works are using this word in a unique way that is different from its normal usage.
- The issue is not whether man’s works are capable in and of themselves of meriting eternal life. They certainly cannot. As Herman Witsius says:
Such a perfect observance of the laws of the covenant, quite to the period which God had fixed for probation, had given man a right to the reward. Not from any intrinsic proportion of the work to the reward, as the grosser Papists proudly boast; but from God’s covenant, and engagement which was no ways unbecoming him to enter into (, I:vi.25).
I could reproduce quotes like this a hundred times over. This has always been the view of the Reformed Church.
Now, in the history of the Reformed Church, there have been those who did not use or rejected the terminology of the covenant of works. It was common amongst the German Reformed in the time of David Pareus to reject or not make use of the terminology of the covenant of works.
However, this gives a good illustration of what the real difference is. The real distinction that the Reformed theologians have always made and which the Federal Vision men reject is the distinction between the manner of justification before the fall and after the fall. In classic Reformed theology, before the fall, man would be declared righteous by actually doing the law and meriting that justification. Adam could not have been justified before the throne of God unless he merited (i.e. truly deserved) such acquittal and justification by a perfect obedience to the moral law.
Just to give one example of this view, I offer Henry Alting, whose son, Jacob, opposed the terminology of the covenant of works in the
in the 17th
century. Henry does not use the term “covenant of works” and may have denied it
himself. Nevertheless, he said this: Netherlands
The use of the moral law in the state of integrity was that man might be justified by it and that, being justified, he might live by it. For whoever fulfills the law is justified (Rom. ) and whoever does it lives by it (Lev. 18:5) (, Pars 1, p. 110).
He goes on to say in his discussion of justification:
We are not treating here of legal righteousness, which is a total conformity with the law . . . but of Gospel righteousness, which is imputed to the believer for justification. For by the works of the law no flesh will be justified (Rom. ) (p. 232).
Thus, Alting makes a clear distinction between the way of justification before the fall and the way of justification after the fall.
And this is precisely where the Federal Vision fails. They collapse the way of justification before and after the fall.
Now, if they said we are justified by works before and after the fall, then everyone would see that this is the case. Instead, they say we are justified by faith before and after the fall and so confuse people, but the result is the same. Faith becomes faithfulness, and the works that are excluded from our justification, for the Federal Vision, are not good works. You can see this demonstrated and .
Protestants always used the term faith alone to say that we are not justified by our own obedience. Faith could never be faithfulness or obedience because it meant that the ground of our justification was the obedience to another. Justification by faith means that Christ is the meritorious cause of our justification. We get the justification that He deserved (2 Cor. ). All that was left to do was to receive that righteousness by faith alone. In the Scriptures and Protestant teaching, faith justified because it was by the merit of another.
Consequently, Protestant theology could never say, as the FV does, that justification was by faith before the fall. That would be to undue the entire system of Reformed theology. It would be to confuse that which it was most necessary to distinguish in order to be justified: law and Gospel (cf. Gal. 5:2–4).
Many of those who are not FV want to believe that the FV is not really that bad. They do not want to say that the FV is an entirely different system of doctrine. But prominent Federal Visionist Jeff Meyers has understood this better than some of his non-FV colleagues. He wrote on the Wrightsaid group:
I do think the latest scholarly work in biblical theology demands that we go back and redo a great deal of the
were written when people still thought of the covenant as a contract and
believed that “merit” had some role to play in our covenantal relations with
God. The whole bi-polar covenant of works/grace schema has got to go. And if
that goes, the whole ‘system’ must be reworked. Westminster
If you love the system of doctrine in the Westminster Standards, please believe Jeff Meyers. He is seeking to rework the whole system. If you don’t want to rework the system but believe that it is the system of doctrine contained in the Scriptures, then it is time to oppose the continued existence of this alien system within our own denomination.
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.