Bad Fruit of a Bad Tree
Norman Shepherd leaves a trail of controversy that goes back at least as early as the 1970s. In 1977 charges were filed against him in the
The exclusive ground of the justification of the believer in the state of justification is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, but his obedience … is necessary to his continuing in a state of justification (Thesis 21).
At the very outset of his book, Shepherd is unashamedly open about his belief that his brand of covenant theology is the solution to “the problem of faith and works,” or the problem of how to relate faith and works, a problem which Shepherd claims is one of the “unresolved questions” of “the Protestant Reformation.”
Wright, like Shepherd, favors overturning the Protestant Reformation. He advocates Protestants uniting with the heretical Roman Catholic church—unsurprisingly, given his erroneous view of salvation:
The doctrine of justification ... is not merely a doctrine which Catholic and Protestant might just be able to agree on, as a result of hard ecumenical endeavor. It is itself the ecumenical doctrine, the doctrine that rebukes all our petty and often culture-bound church groupings, and which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong together in the one family…the doctrine of justification is in fact the great ecumenical doctrine.
Greg L. Bahnsen warned of Jordan's method long ago. Back in 1994, he called Jordan's interpretive maximalism
one of the most dangerous things in the theological world today that might entice otherwise evangelical and Reformed people. ... One must always be concerned when a certain method is so ambiguous as to allow for conflicting conclusions or arbitrary conclusions to be drawn from it. I have maintained for quite a long time that Jordan’s approach to the Bible is a matter of rhetorical and creative flourish on his part and does not reduce to principles of interpretation which are public or objective and predictable, and for that reason you can go just about anywhere once you try to interpret the Bible in the manner observed in his publications. It’s just a matter of whose creativity you are going to follow this week. That really concerns me as a theologian. ... [O]nce you have a method of biblical interpretation which, as long as you’re creative enough, permits you to go just about anywhere you wish, then yes I do think that his interpretive maximalism is tied to his rather bizarre views that have been tagged “sacramental” and “high church” and so forth.
Yes, we do have the same obligation that Adam (and Abraham, and Moses, and David, and Jesus) had, namely, the obedience of faith. And, yes, covenant faithfulness is the way to salvation, for the “doers of the law will be justified” at the final judgment. But this is all done in union with Christ, so that “our” covenant faithfulness is dependent on the work of the Spirit of Christ in us, and our covenant faithfulness is about faith, trusting the Spirit to will and to do according to His good pleasure.
|Reversing the Reformation: the Federal Vision's false gospel opposes|
the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, returning to the
Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by works.
A False Gospel
While the Federal Visionists would acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the ground of salvation, they deny that faith is the alone instrument of justification. And that is the issue in Galatians—the Judaizers denied the sufficiency of “hearing with faith” for justification.
Faith as the Sole Instrument of Justification
Contrary to the Federal Vision, Scripture very clearly speaks of faith as the alone instrument of justification. Once one believes in the saving work of Christ, God declares that person righteous and his sins forgiven (Romans 4:1-12). No religious rite or work is necessary for salvation; thus Scripture goes out of the way to say that Abraham—the exemplar of faith—was saved through faith alone, and not through religious rites (in Abraham's case, circumcision—baptism's predecessor) nor works:
What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?
For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.
For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.
Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.
But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.
Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works,
Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.
Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.
How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision.
And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also:
And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised. (Romans 4:1-12, KJV)
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? (Galatians 3:1-6)
In differing with the sufficiency of “hearing with faith,” it is a different gospel. Those who hold to it are under a curse. Their only hope is the sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness and sacrificial death, received through faith alone. One is not saved by water and his own works, but by blood (namely, the blood of Christ) and Christ's works.
"Faith Alone" does not Promote Disobedience
As for the common allegation by legalists that the doctrine of justification by faith alone promotes disobedience to God's law—nothing could be further from the truth. Those whom God has given the gift of faith also receive from God the gift of sanctification:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
The Joint Federal Vision Profession
In the Profession's section “Justification by Faith Alone,” saving faith is called “a living, active, and personally loyal faith.”
It is one thing to say to my wife, “I trust you.” It is something entirely different to say, “I will be loyal to you.” The former is about what I receive from my wife; the latter is what I give. When we turn faith into faithfulness, justification becomes about what we give to God instead of what we receive from Him.Indeed, saving faith receives from Christ, which results in salvation—while works-righteousness has to do with giving to Christ in order to earn salvation. Saving faith is not an ongoing process of works implied in “personal loyalty”—but a moment in time where, because of Christ, God declares one righteous and his sins forgiven. In short, one is not saved by his own loyalty to God, but by Christ’s loyalty to God. As we stated before, however, obedience to God is the fruit of saving faith—but never, as the Federal Vision makes it, the root.
But the FV Profession asserts that faith is at least present "at the moment of the effectual call," and that faith includes works at the outset ("We deny that faith is ever alone"). In short, the implication is that before someone can be justified by faith, works are necessary.
Here again we see that the Federal Vision rejects faith as a sufficient instrument of justification, as the profession holds that water baptism makes one "united with Christ" and brings a person to a "position of grace."
But the works for salvation don't end here; this position can be lost, as one can "fall from that position of grace." But falling from a position of grace is only possible if salvation depends on man, and not on Christ. Christ's perfect obedience and sacrifice make falling from saving grace impossible.
|Statements by Federal|
Visionists about salvation
are more Popish than
Advocating baptismal regeneration
Wilson argues that water baptismal saves (and misunderstands both Lane and the Westminster Confession in the process):
But I was heartened to see Lane move closer to the Westminsterian position on baptism than other FV critics have been thus far willing to do. He repeats some of the qualifiers that the Confession gives (those to whom the grace belongs, in His appointed time), but he does appear to acknowledge that this baptismal grace is saving grace, and not just sanctifying grace. It is hard to do otherwise when the Confession says that the grace promised in the sign and seal of baptism (covenant of grace, ingrafting, regeneration, remission of sins, and commitment to walk in newness of life) is really exhibited and conferred on that group of people demarked by all the qualifiers. And for the record, I agree with all those qualifiers. I also agree with exhibited and conferred. Me and the
Westminsterdivines, we're like that.
While Wilson's so-called "living faith" (with its works) cannot be the ground of justification, it is still, with its works, the "instrument of our justification":
Neither can the living faith that gives rise to all these actions be the ground of our justification. But it is obedient in its life, and in that living condition it is the instrument of our justification.
Advocating baptismal regeneration
For Leithart, water baptism makes one a child of God:
If the church is the family of God, baptism, by inducting people into the church, makes them children of their heavenly Father.Advocating salvation by works
See our previous quote from Leithart, where he affirms justification by works.
Advocating baptismal regeneration
Wilkins denies the visible/invisible church distinction, and holds that water baptism unites one to Christ:
Modern Presbyterian theology has made a distinction between external membership and real membership in the covenant. Obviously, by baptism we become members of the church, but to be a member of the church is to be a member of the body of Christ and biblically speaking, that means that the baptized are united to Christ.Holding that some true Christians will be lost
Wilkins states that one can be saved (have forgiveness of sins, etc.) and yet fall away:
[The apostate] 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. The apostate, thus, forsakes the grace of God that was given to him by virtue of his union with Christ. It is not accurate to say that they only "appeared" to have these things but did not actually have them ... 
Advocating baptismal regeneration
For Barach, everyone baptized by water is saved:
Every baptized person is in covenant with God and is in union then with Christ and with the triune God.
For Barach, some who are truly saved will end up losing their salvation:
According to Scripture, not everyone who is in the covenant has been predestined to eternal glory with Christ. God establishes His covenant with believers and their households, including some who will later apostatize and be cut off from covenantal fellowship with Him. Put another way, all those who are baptized are genuinely baptized into Christ (Gal. 3:27), are brought into Christ’s body, the church (1 Cor. 12:13), and are members of God’s covenant, at least until they are cut off, whether by Christ’s church (excommunication) or directly by Christ (death as judgment).
Advocating baptismal regeneration
For Lusk, water baptism is an instrument of justification:
Baptism has reference to justification precisely because God has promised to make Christ available in the rite (as well as the other means of grace).Advocating salvation by works
Lusk twists the meaning of Matthew 7:24 to make works a condition of salvation:
When Jesus describes two paths—one leading to life, the other to death—he isn't propounding a hypothetical way of salvation by walking the narrow path of obedience (Mat. 7:24). Rather, he is demanding obedience as a non-negotiable condition of salvation.
Advocating atonement by law
For Schlissel, forgiveness of sins is found in the law:
The very idea of a first, second, and third use of the law is illegal and unbiblical. It demands that the law conform to what we want from it, and if it doesn’t do so then we will have none of it. But the law itself is to be our life. “This is your life,” God says. “In the law I have given you atonement. In the law I have given you promises of forgiveness. In the law I have given you the way to live. In the law I have given you the key to life. In the law you will find grace abounding to the chief of sinners.”
Confusing faith and obedienceWe turn it around and say, “No, we will have none of this! That’s law as opposed to Gospel.”
Schlissel holds that faith and works are one and the same:
Nothing in the Bible teaches a kind of faith that does not obey. Obedience and faith are the same thing, biblically speaking. To submit to God’s Word is what it means to believe. To believe is to obey.
Several Reformed denominations have condemned the Federal Vision. The following are those we are aware of, although there could be more. Included are official statements, as well as reports for further study on the Federal Vision:
- The Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States (RPCUS)
A Call to Repentance
- The Reformed Church in the
(RCUS) United States
RCUS Study Committee on the Federal Vision's Doctrine of Justification
- Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States (WPCUS)
The Westminster Presbyterian Covenant of Union (point 2)
- Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly (RPCGA)
RPCGA Statement on Justification (Refers to the Federal Vision as "Auburn Avenue Theology")
- The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Report on Justification
The Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCA)
United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA)
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church (OCRC)
Statement Concerning the Federal Vision
Note that a condemnation does not necessarily mean that the best efforts have been made to oppose the Federal Vision. The Federal Vision has leavened the PCA, where the arch-Federal Visionist Peter Leithart was exonerated from teaching heresy.
The Spurious Connection of Theonomy to the Federal Vision
Since this is a pro-theonomy site, it would be appropriate to address the common slander that associates theonomy with the Federal Vision.Many resort to guilt by association attacks, saying, “see all those theonomists within Federal Vision circles! This proves theonomy promotes, or at least leads to, salvation by works!”
There are so many logical problems with this argument, it is hard to know where to begin. Here are some reasons why attempts to connect theonomy with the Federal Vision are fallacious:
- A guilt-by-association argument is a logical fallacy
- We would expect any biblical doctrine to have some adherents who also hold to heretical views. Do we attack the biblical doctrine of the Trinity since Roman Catholics adhere to this doctrine, while at the same time holding to heretical doctrines as well?
- It is wicked to blame sin, such as the Federal Vision heresy, on God’s commands (theonomy). We can’t blame legitimate laws of God (such as upheld by theonomists, not to say that theonomists get all laws right) for man’s perversion of them (by teaching that they play a role in salvation).
- Advocates of the most biblical theologies will have wolves in their midst (Acts 20:29, 30)
- There are tons of heresies outside of theonomy circles
- The Federal Vision is rampant in non-theonomic circles as well. The argument, then, can be reversed against theonomy critics, to say that not holding to theonomy leads to the Federal Vision heresy.
- The men who perhaps had the most direct influence on the Federal Vision are two non-theonomists (Norman Shepherd and N.T. Wright) and two former theonomists (James Jordan and Peter Leithart).
- A while back, five contributors to the anti-theonomy book "Theonomy: A Reformed Critique" signed the "Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together" document. This document was for either Federal Visionists or Federal Vision sympathizers.
- The first denomination to condemn the Federal Vision was the theonomic RPCUS
- Some of the most outspoken critics of the Federal Vision are theonomists. John Otis of the RPCUS has written the largest critique of the Federal Vision that I am aware of, titled Danger in the Camp. Brian Schwertley of the WPCUS has also written a very pointed critique of the Federal Vision, titled Auburn Avenue Theology: A Biblical Critique.
- Those who claim that theonomy leads to Federal Vision turn around and claim to hold to Reformed theology—which historically advocates theonomy. The Westminster divines were theonomists. John Calvin was a theonomist. Heinrich Bullinger was a theonomist. John Owen was a theonomist. John Gill was a theonomist. We could go on and on. See the Theonomy Library's ever-expanding historical section.
Granted, not all of the most influential theonomists have condemned the Federal Vision for the heresy that it is. Their silence has done a disservice to the Gospel. But it should also be noted that some of the more theologically-grounded influential theonomists have very adamantly opposed the Federal Vision; two major examples are Joe Morecraft and Brian Schwertley.
Unholy Alliances with Federal Visionists in the Name of Cultural Dominion
Theonomists who are willing to ignore the Federal Vision's dangerous doctrines because some Federal Visionists claim to advocate Christian cultural dominion should seriously reconsider. In Galatians, the Apostle Paul does not endorse working with the Judaizers (the Federal Visionists of that day) in order to overturn the paganism of the Roman Empire. Instead, he anathematizes them.
It is also self-defeating, in the name of Christian civilization, to align with someone who claims to support it, but who undermines some of its foundational doctrines. In a Christian society, promoters of heresy would be suppressed by the state as subversives. And so what sense does it make to ally with natural enemies of the Christian state, who would overthrow it from within? On the other hand, if we look forward to the state someday opposing promoters of heresy, how much more should we verbally oppose heresy right now?
Moreover, the wolf within the fold (those within Christian circles who promote heresy) is more dangerous than the wolf outside of the fold (e.g., the tyrannical secular state). While the latter may persecute the body, the former leads the soul astray to everlasting torment. Let's not let reformation of society (as important as it is) trump the salvation of souls.
A Plea for all Christians to Oppose the Federal Vision
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we implore you to take this threat against the Gospel seriously, and honor our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by taking a stand against the Federal Vision: "earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 1:3b, KJV).
Use the power of God's word to slay the beast that is the Federal Vision by exposing its leaders and refuting its errors—and in the process, rescue Christ's lambs from the slaughter. As Scripture says, "as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40b), and "Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee" (1 Timothy 4:16, KJV).
Theonomists against the Federal Vision
Federal Vision Theology Compared with Biblical Christianity by Brian Schwertley
Roman Catholicism and Federal Vision Theology Compared with Protestantism by Brian Schwertley
Federal Vision Debate: John Otis versus Steve Schlissel
Norman Shepherd's Federal Vision Double-Talk by John Otis
Steve Wilkins' Dangerous Federal Vision Theology (part 1, part 2) by John Otis
A Reply to the Joint Federal Vision Profession by Wes White
Peter Leithart and the PCA's Failure to Deal with the Federal Vision by Sean Gerety
The Federal Vision Threat to Reformed Baptists by Steve C. Halbrook
Greg Bahnsen is not in the Federal Vision Camp by John M. Otis
Auburn Avenue Theology: A Biblical Critique by Brian Schwertley
The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis by Guy Prentiss Waters
Danger in the Camp: An Analysis and Refutation of the Heresies of the Federal Vision by John M. Otis
RCUS Study Committee on the Federal Vision's Doctrine of Justification
Report on Justification (OPC)
Report of Ad Interim Study Committee on Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theology (PCA)
Report of the Synodical Study Committee on the Federal Vision and Justification (URCNA)
Statement Concerning the Federal Vision (OCRC)
 Wes White, "Sola Fide or Sola Fidelity? (All To Him I Owe or Trust and Obey)," The Aquila Report (February 23, 2011). Retrieved April 23, 2014 from http://theaquilareport.com/sola-fide-or-sola-fidelity-all-to-him-i-owe-or-trust-and-obey.
 See Lane's clarifications in Lane Keister, "The Lord's Supper and the Sacrament of Baptism," Green Baggins (December 16, 2008). Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2008/12/16/.
 For an excellent historical analysis demonstrating that the Westminster Confession does not advocate baptismal regeneration, see D. Patrick Ramsey, Baptismal Regeneration and the Westminster Confession of Faith, at http://patrickspensees.wordpress.com/2011/01/07/baptismal-regeneration-and-the-wcf/.
 Colloquium on the Federal Vision, 263-266. Cited in Otis, Danger in the Camp, 213.
 John Barach, Covenant and History, tape 3, 2002 Auburn Avenue Pastors' Conference. The RPCUS transcription of the 2002 AAPC, p. 46-47. Cited in Otis, Danger in the Camp, 226.
 John Barach, Covenant and Election, 150. Cited in Otis, Danger in the Camp, 231.
 Rich Lusk, Do I Believe in Baptismal Regeneration? Cited in Otis, Danger in the Camp, 373.
 Rich Lusk, Future Justification to the Doers of the Law (2003). Cited in Otis, Danger in the Camp, 290.
 Steve Schlissel, “Auburn Pastors Conference 2002—Covenant Series: Covenant Reading” (January 2002), 11.