Note: The following is an in-house summary of the Federal Vision for our men’s theology discussion group. It is a summary, not a scholarly critique. It is intended to give some orientation to the doctrinal distinctives of the Federal Vision and to contrast them with traditional reformed orthodoxy. It is not intended to engage any of the individual proponents of the Federal Vision, and it intentionally paints with a broad brush. I am merely attempting to help the group see the proverbial forest, and not get lost in the trees.
The Federal Vision
As far as I can tell, the Federal Vision reacts to a misguided introspective quest for assurance among (particularly reformed) Christians. The quest is misguided not because it is introspective:
Such as truly believe in Christ, and endeavor to walk in all good conscience before him, may, without extraordinary revelation, by faith grounded upon the truth of God’s promises, and by the Spirit enabling them to discern in themselves those graces to which the promises of life are made, and bearing witness with their spirits that they are the children of God, be infallibly assured that they are in the estate of grace, and shall persevere therein unto salvation. (WLC 80)
Discerning fruits of the Spirit in one’s life is a key part of the quest for assurance. And the Spirit bears witness with our own spirits to assure us of our adoption. Introspection is not the actual problem. The real problem lies in the intention behind the quest for assurance. When we seek to be assured that we are elect so that we can relax our efforts. When we look to know that we are unconditionally elected (the U in TULIP), so that we can know that we will persevere (the P), we’ve taken the wrong perspective on reformed teaching and the wrong approach to the Christian life. So, while introspection isn’t the problem (faithless anxiety is), it is nevertheless the ‘problem’ the Federal Vision seeks to solve. At root, the Federal Vision is an attempt to ground our assurance without the subjectivity which comes with introspection.
An Objective Covenant
In its attempt to remove all things subjective from our Christian experience, the first thing the Federal Vision does is redefine covenant. Rejecting the traditional understanding of a covenant as a legal arrangement, the Federal Vision defines it as a relationship. The key point, however, is that this relationship is objective and verifiable. Either you are in the covenant or you are not, and you can easily tell. What’s more, others can tell whether you are in the covenant or not, too.
No Visible / Invisible Distinction
In order to arrive at an ‘objective’ covenant, the Federal Vision rejects the traditional distinction of the visible and invisible church. The invisible church, as you might imagine, is the church as God sees it, inasmuch as he knows our hearts, and inasmuch as he chose who would be in it from before the foundation of the earth (Eph. 1:4). It is invisible to us, not to God. The visible church, on the other hand, is the church as we see it. It is a relatively faithful representation of the invisible church, though somewhat more expansive.
The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (WCF 25.2)
Those who are in the invisible church can be found within the visible church (ordinarily, there may be exceptions, but they would be extraordinary), though there will also be found in the visible church some who have no place in the invisible church. There are tares among the wheat. Since there is no visible / invisible distinction in the Federal Vision, that is, since there is 100% correspondence between the visible church at any given time and the elect of God: All those who are saved belong to the visible church and only those who are saved belong to the visible church, assurance can be found in one’s belonging to the visible church.
Traditional Reformed Orthodoxy
“When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.” (WSC 12) This “covenant of life” is also often referred to as the “covenant of works”. Had Adam obeyed and sustained the probation, he would have been confirmed in life and entered into a consummation of his enjoyment of God. Instead, he sinned. And, since he was our representative, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all” as the saying goes: “[J]ust as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12 ESV). But God, having determined to show mercy to and save a number of those fallen, entered into a covenant of grace with them. Adam was a ‘type’ or pattern of the one to come (v. 14). And so there was an ectype, a fulfillment of the pattern of representation, in Christ. “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit … The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. (1 Cor. 15:45, 47). There are only two redemptive-historically significant men: Adam and Jesus. Both are representatives. In Adam (united to him by birth), we are guilty and sinful. In Christ (united to him by faith) we are forgiven and righteous (Rom 5:18-19). That is, Christ took our iniquity and gave us his righteousness (2 Cor 5:21). And we have access to this grace by faith alone (Gal 3:6–7; Rom 5:1; John 3:18; 5:24).
The Federal Vision rejects virtually every element of traditional orthodoxy. It rejects the covenant of works, insisting that God never required perfect obedience (cf. James 2:10; Rom 6:23). It also rejects the imputation of Christ’s righteousness — essentially, at best, placing the redeemed back in the garden under probation (though, of course, they’ve rejected this understanding of the garden). Since God’s justice demands that he only declare the righteous just, and since the Federal Vision rejects the imputation of an alien righteousness, the Christian is left to rely upon his own faithfulness. Gone is the wonder of the gospel, that God found a way to be just and still to justify the ungodly (Rom 3.26). And all hope and assurance would be gone, too, were it not for the externalization of one’s walk with Christ (objectification of the covenant).
Justification is no longer a once-for-all declaration of righteousness, upon which we base our obedience, striving in gratitude and love to be what God has declared us to be, viz., righteous. Rather, justification is something that happens at the end, when Christ returns. Those who hold on to the end will be justified. The Federal Vision has flipped or conflated justification and sanctification. And so, it has also flipped election.
Election is no longer an eternal reality in the decree of God, the foundation upon which our redemption is based: “[t]his is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” (John 6:39 ESV) No longer is the record of the elect and the reprobate determined in eternity “[Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” … “and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” (Luke 10:20; Rev 13:8 ESV) Instead, election is something discovered at the end, with justification.
One’s righteousness is found in his (visible) church membership. Hence the importance of baptism as a ground for assurance. At any given time, though, an individual’s status as elect or not, righteous or not, may change … and change back! And this is a pastoral solution to the need for assurance?! Only when we externalize our obedience and faith in church membership and participation in the sacraments can such a scheme give one a (faulty) sense of assurance.
What Can We Learn from the Federal Vision?
It is good to recognize, however true TULIP is, that we cannot crawl up on God’s shoulder and peer into the Lamb’s book of life. We should be wary of structuring our communication of the gospel entirely around the decree. We should be as profligate with the offer of grace, and as truly cautionary in our warnings as the scriptures are. Neither John 3:16 nor Hebrews 6:4-6 should be emptied of its power.
We should also recognize that, by orienting our communication of the gospel exclusively in the secret mind of God (the decree), we run the risk of encouraging the faithless anxiety that leads people toward such errors as the Federal Vision. Let us point people down the biblical paths to assurance that they can access. Nevertheless, it is important that we who truly rest in Christ were chosen in Him before the foundation of the world. It is important that Christ died particularly for the elect. But we ought to emphasize the reliability of God’s promises and point people to place there hope there. In other words, let us discourage faith in faith, and encourage faith in God.