A Federal Vision Late Entry

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I am happy to announce an impending rapprochement on Federal Vision issues, albeit a rapprochement that is still surrounded with a few remaining confusions. I trust that I will be able to remove those confusions below. Wish me luck, everybody.

In a class for RTS Charlotte, Kevin De Young spent some time on Federal Vision issues in the clip embedded below. He says:

“If you’re in the PCA and you’re seeking ordination, I would recommend if on the floor of the presbytery someone asks, “What do you think about Federal Vision?” say, “I do not agree with Federal Vision” and then explain. That’s what the presbyters are generally looking for.”


But the reason I think we are closing in on a rapprochement is that Kevin outlines the core beliefs of FV theology, and I agreed with him on almost all of them—and have done so explicitly and repeatedly, over the course of many years. He may not have intended it, but he sure enough gave me a clean bill of health, for which I am most grateful. The one place where there remains genuine disagreement is with child communion—but Kevin said here that there are good people who differ with him on that. So that need not be a disruption.

So the reason I think there are remaining confusions is that Kevin apparently does not know about my agreement with “almost all of them.” He associates my name very closely with the FV, but then for some reason does not attribute my teaching to the FV. He is using the broad description “FV” as a shibboleth, applying it wholesale to anyone associated with FV—most predominantly me.

But our impending reconciliation should be based on this. I pronounce it sibboleth, the very same way Kevin does. I do have friends who don’t say it that way, true enough, but then again, so does Kevin (e.g. Lig Duncan, John Piper).

A Quick List of Areas of Agreement

You can check it out yourself below. From 0:53 to 1:18, Kevin outlines the core beliefs of FV, which will give me an opportunity to touch on the big ticket items:

Kevin says: FV “resists the traditional distinctions between internal and external or objective and subjective distinctions of the covenant (covenant as legal administration vs. covenant as communion of life).” Doug Wilson says “it’s all covenant objectivity.”

My response would be to deny that it is all objectivity. I wrote an entire book dedicated to defending the absolute necessity of the new birth (Against the Church), referring to an internal transformation of the heart. “And this is why I keep going on about the absolute need for regeneration and the cross of Jesus Christ. It is only a work of the Spirit that can give us new hearts. Christian civilization is absolutely necessary, but without those new hearts, Christian standards of civilization are intolerable, as can be easily verified” (Mere Christendom, pp. 226-227).

Kevin argues that for FV advocates, the covenant is entirely objective, while the historic Reformed position teaches that there is an objective component and a subjective component. Again, I agree that the covenant is an objective reality, and that faithfulness to the covenant is subjectively owned. In the CREC exam, I was asked, “Are there subjective elements of the covenant? If so, what are some?” My reply was: “Yes, certainly. The most important would be faith.”

So agreement #1: Kevin says that the covenant has an objective aspect and a subjective aspect. I agree.

Kevin says that FV rejects the covenant of works. But I affirm the covenant of works— although I prefer to call it the covenant of life, or the covenant of creation. But I am not mono-covenantal. The covenant with our first parents in the Garden was a distinct covenant from the covenant of grace, and it was a covenant conditioned on strict and perpetual obedience, a condition which Adam broke.

So agreement #2: Kevin says there are two covenants, one prior to the Fall, conditioned on strict obedience, and one after the Fall, a covenant of unmerited grace. I agree.

Kevin says that FV rejects the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. But I affirm the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, and insist, together with Machen, that “there is no hope without it.” This is how I put it twelve years ago. “Classic Reformed theology calls it the active obedience of Christ. What it means, simply, is Christ for us. In your salvation, you were not given a fraction of Christ, but rather were given all that He ever did . . . In the life of Jesus, Israel finally does it right, and He does it right on behalf of all Israel, all who are gathered to Him by faith” (God Rest Ye Merry, p. 50, 2012).

So agreement #3: Kevin affirms the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. So do I.

Kevin says that in FV theology, works are a condition of final justification, and not corroborating evidence that the person has been justified. This is yet another point of agreement between Kevin and me. As I put it way back in 2007, “I hold that if any of my good works attempted to contribute to my justification before God, then they should be slathered with bacon grease and thrown into hell” (The Auburn Avenue Chronicles, p. 398).

So agreement #4: Kevin says that good works are a corroborating evidence of justification. I agree.

Kevin says that FV equates covenant and election, thus making someone’s elect status as unsure as their covenant status would be. If someone can be excommunicated, for example, that would mean their election is also up for grabs. This is yet another place where I agree with Kevin. Election and covenant membership are not the same thing at all.

“To pummel the point (if I may), I have taught (in very clear and divers ways) that the grace given to the decretally elect at the point of the effectual call is grace that is qualitatively different than the common operations of the Spirit enjoyed (for a season) by the unregenerate covenant member. I have heaped this point up in a rumpled pile and have danced around it, gesticulating with enthusiasm. I have made a big building out of this point and put a blinking neon sign on top of it. If this point were an overpass, I have spray-painted my agreement with it in bright green letters at least eighteen inches high. With my white chef’s hat on, I have wheeled this point out of the kitchen on a cart, poured brandy all over it, and set it on fire. If the point were a pudding, I would have added three eggs beyond what the recipe called for. To summarize briefly, this is not something I have somehow neglected to say” (The Auburn Avenue Chronicles, pp. 155).

So agreement #5: Kevin says that covenant membership and election are not the same thing at all. I agree.

Kevin says that FV muddies the visible/invisible church distinction. But I affirm that distinction. I also use the historical/eschatological distinction to point to the same two groups of people. “The entire company of the elect, the whole number of them, invisible now to everyone but God alone, will be made manifest to everyone at the eschaton, and that church will be without spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. And that eschatological church I define as the ‘whole number of the elect’” (The Auburn Avenue Chronicles, p. 225).

In the CREC examination of my views, I said this:

“The church militant is the church on earth. The church triumphant is in heaven. The historic church is the church on earth, in history. The eschatological church is that same church at the culmination of history, at the Eschaton. My terminology for this is historical/eschatological, but it answers to Augustine’s division of pilgrim/eschatological. And if by invisible/visible you mean the church on earth, and the company of the elect, I can certainly live with that.” 

So agreement #6: Kevin affirms the visible/invisible church distinction. So do I.

Kevin says that for FV advocates, sacraments have a saving and regenerating efficacy of their own, rather than being a confirming grace. In the CREC exam, I was asked how the sacraments communicate grace, and I said: “They communicate grace through the instrumentality of faith. Worthy receivers have that faith because it was given to them by God, lest any should boast. Unworthy receivers do not have faith, and hence they are under the weight of a greater condemnation.”

So agreement #7: Kevin says that the sacraments have no saving power of their own. I thoroughly agree.

Kevin says that because of how FV identifies election with covenant membership, this necessarily unsettles the saints when it comes to assurance of salvation. I agree that identifying election with covenant membership would have exactly this tendency. But as stated above, I do not identify the two, and follow the classic Reformed understanding of assurance of salvation. In “Reformed” Is Not Enough, I devote an entire chapter to the theme of assurance. “God does not want His children to lack an assurance of their standing before Him; He wants us to know what He has given to us. This is a command that can actually be obeyed” (RINE, p. 125).

So agreement #8: Kevin says that believers can be assured of their eternal salvation. I agree.

So as I consider Kevin’s summary of the tenets of the FV, the only place where we have a straightforward, flat-out disagreement is with child communion. So according to this metric that he has set out concerning FV, if I agree with him, then I must not be FV. If he agrees with me, then he is FV. The disagreement over child communion might necessitate laboring in different denominations, but an evangelical ecumenism can certainly shake hands across a denominational divide—Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians, say, or Lutherans and Presbyterians. Why not this? Why not here?

The central difference that I would have with Kevin, therefore, would not be a doctrinal one. It would be with regard to his reasoning that associates my name with FV while at the same time disassociating my teaching from the FV. So which is it? If I am still FV, despite all of this, then it should be necessary to allow that there are numerous FV adherents who are fully orthodox, and robustly Westminsterian. But if I am not FV, then why is he associating my name with it at all?

Friends, Associations, and Third Year Seminarians

I would be more than willing to shake hands with Kevin, and call it good. And as should be apparent from the foregoing, there are no doctrinal reasons that would prevent this.

It is quite true that I have not denounced a number of my friends (the FV oatmeal stouts), and I continue to not denounce them. I think they are more Augustinian than Calvinist, and would love to persuade them, but that is another issue. But my failure to denounce my friends is paralleled by Kevin not denouncing John Piper. You may recall that Piper has insisted on an affectional dimension to saving faith, which has been sharply criticized by Fesko and Waters. And incidentally, while we are here, the Westminster describes saving faith as “lively” (WCF 16.2). One of the things that a living eye does is see. And life is not a reward for the “work” of seeing.

And Kevin has not denounced Lig Duncan for that did-not-age-well foreword to Woke Church, a book that gave away the reformational store. So while friendships can be challenging, they are not the same thing as confessional statements.

Last comment. The political battle over FV was won by the anti-FV forces. They obtained a bunch of denominational statements which they can point to and say, “See? Heresy. The thing is settled.” For the men who were involved in that political effort, it would take an enormous amount of humility to walk anything back. I don’t see any indications that this is going to happen.

But we are in a different world now. There are many young pastors out there, and third-year seminarians, for whom an honest review of the controversy will cost them little or nothing. They can afford to review all the evidence. In this respect, it is like the Marrow controversy in Scotland. The Reformed church of the day condemned them stoutly . . . but Reformed history vindicated them.