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Review of Federal Vision: Heresy at the Root

John Hooper


Federal Vision: Heresy at the Root
David J. Engelsma
Reformed Free Publishing Association, Michigan, USA, 2012
Hardback, 251pp
ISBN 978-1936054077
£8.80 (including P&P) (Click here to order from the CPRC Bookstore)

Federal vision is a teaching found within conservative paedobaptist churches, of both Presbyterian and (Dutch) Reformed tradition, in North America. It first appeared as far back as the mid-1970s when Prof. Norman Shepherd was a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a theological professor at Westminster Seminary. His teachings first came under suspicion in 1975 and after seven years of controversy he was removed from the Seminary, but it was not until 2000, when he published a book entitled The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism, that his beliefs came fully into the open. Over the years many others have joined Shepherd in promoting the federal vision.

This book by David J. Engelsma, Emeritus Professor of theology at the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, himself a paedobaptist of the Dutch Reformed tradition, is a stinging rebuttal of this teaching. The author is a plain-speaking man who writes for the believer in the pew with passion and a holy jealousy for the truth of the gospel. The first part of his book is an expanded version of a lecture he gave at a number of locations in the US, while the second and larger part is made up of answers to the many questions put by members of those audiences, answers in which he repeats, substantiates and expands the arguments he put forward in the lecture. The book closes with a sharp critique of a recent publication defending Shepherd’s theology, Trust and Obey, by Ian A. Hewitson.

Engelsma’s book joins others that have been written in response and opposition to federal vision theology, but in one important respect it is different. The main focus of most of the federal vision’s opponents is its doctrine of justification, which unashamedly is not the historic and biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, but a false doctrine of justification by faith and the works of faith. It is not surprising that Shepherd’s theology has led some to join the Roman Catholic Church, and that Engelsma condemns it as the enemy of the Reformation: "It is the enemy of the Reformation within the gates and, therefore, the most dangerous enemy of all" (p. 64). Even so, Engelsma contends that justification by faith and works is not the principle error of the federal vision heresy. It is not the root. To identify the root he directs us to the name by which this theology is known: federal vision, "federal" meaning "covenant." It is federal vision’s doctrine of the covenant that is the author’s chief target for it is from this root that its heretical doctrine of justification has grown. He explains,

This doctrine of a conditional covenant is the root of the federal vision. Justification by faith and works is the bitter fruit. According to Galatians 3:8, the main blessing of God’s covenant with Abraham is that "God would justify the heathen through faith." If the covenant itself is conditional, that is, dependent on our works, so also is justification conditional, that is, dependent on our works.

He goes on to widen the scope still further to include all the truths of the gospel restored at the Reformation:

But if justification is conditional, so also is every aspect of salvation conditional, for justification is the heart of the gospel. The fruit of the federal vision doctrine of a conditional covenant is the denial of all the doctrines of sovereign grace—the denial of sovereign grace in the covenant (pp. 40-41).

One of the federal vision men has written that water baptism is "covenantally efficacious" (pp. 89-90). The federal vision teaches that at baptism God establishes His covenant with every infant child of believing parents. They are all, at baptism, united to Christ in a living spiritual relationship, receiving all the blessings of Christ and of the covenant of grace, including the forgiveness of sins by His blood, justification and adoption into the family of God. The crucial point, according to the federal vision, is that the covenant and all the blessings that flow from it belong to those children conditionally. In other words, they can still be lost.

In the covenant, election is God’s choice of all the infants, conditionally. In the covenant, the atonement of the cross was for all the infants, conditionally. In the covenant, grace—saving grace—is for, and even in, all the infants alike, conditionally. In the covenant, all can fall away from Christ and salvation and perish, because God’s preservation is conditional (p. 41).

According to the federal vision, faith and obedience are conditions, prerequisites, works, upon which the justification, perseverance and eternal salvation of the sinner depend. Where there is no faith and no obedience of faith, the sinner, though once in the covenant and by the grace of God a recipient of all its wonderful blessings, falls away and finally is lost.

This teaching is a development of the erroneous covenant doctrine that has been taught by a number of Dutch Reformed theologians and churches from the early years of the nineteenth century to the present day. The seeds were sown and the root established almost two hundred years ago. The federal vision men themselves freely admit this (p. 31), acknowledging especially the influence of Dr. Klaas Schilder (1890-1952).

Against this teaching, Engelsma inveighs with devastating effect. Against the federal vision’s doctrine of a covenant promise that is made by God to all the children of believers alike but fails in some because they do not perform conditions, he counters with a sharp and compelling vindication of the unconditional nature of the covenant. Believers’ children in the covenant are there, and remain in the covenant, not by fulfilling conditions but by the sovereign grace of God alone. "What determines the objects of covenant mercy is eternal, unconditional, gracious election in Christ" (p. 148). They are in the covenant according to their eternal election in Christ the covenant Head and their eternal union with the one true Seed of the covenant; they are in the covenant because they are redeemed by the blood of His cross; and they are in the covenant in fulfilment of a promise that is sure and can never fail for God’s covenant promise is a promise with power. In the covenant, election is God’s choice of some of the infants, unconditionally. In the covenant, the atonement of the cross is for those elect infants, unconditionally. In the covenant, grace—saving grace—is for, and even in, the elect infants, unconditionally. In the covenant, all are eternally safe in the arms of Christ and can never fall away because God’s preservation of them is unconditional. Engelsma demonstrates that to teach otherwise, as the federal vision men do, is to rob believers of their assurance and God of His glory. And he has no time for the charge of antinomianism that some might try to hurl against him.

As I write this, I have beside me Thomas Boston’s A View of the Covenant of Grace, first published in 1734, and on these crucial points he and Engelsma are at one. The text Boston puts at the head of his work makes his position clear: "I have made a covenant with my chosen" (Ps. 89:3). The covenant was made with Christ as the representative of His seed, the elect. As for faith and obedience, they are not conditions but are

benefits promised in the covenant … and, in virtue of the promises of the covenant, they are produced in the elect: therefore they cannot be the condition of the covenant. And elect infants are saved, though they are neither capable of believing nor of obeying (p. 65).

I have struggled for many years with the question of the place of believers’ children in the covenant of grace, with all its ramifications, and still do, but I find it hard to see how anyone who really believes and loves the doctrine of election and who understands Romans 9:6-33, and other related passages of Scripture, could teach any other covenant than an unconditional covenant. If there is one message that comes across loud and clear from this book it is that we dare not, we may not, cut loose the covenant from election. Scripture will not allow it. If there are babies, infant children of believing parents, in the covenant—and who would contend that there are not?—then they are there by the grace of sovereign election alone, and by that grace they can never go lost. Surely this is basic to the gospel. God’s covenant grace is His saving power so that to know the one is to know the other, and by that grace issue forth spiritual life, faith, repentance, obedience and good works.

As for believers’ children who tragically live and die in unbelief, Engelsma directs us straight to Romans 9:6 and explains that such are not, and never were, the true Israel of God but "are merely 'of Israel,' whereas others are 'Israel'" (p. 58), as exemplified by Esau. They were never in the covenant. They were never in union with Christ, never redeemed by His blood, never recipients of God’s covenant promise and grace. In short, they were never elect. But this teaching, "the federal vision hates with a passion and rejects. It teaches the only alternative: The covenant, covenant grace, and covenant salvation depend on conditions that the children must perform, that is, on the will and works of the children" (p. 131).

I have tried to summarize here very briefly the federal vision theology and Prof. Engelsma’s opposition to it, and I hope I have been fair to both, but how can the federal vision and a book like this one be of any relevance to Christians in the UK? After all, it’s about an American problem, isn’t it? Yes it is, primarily, but the saying that "when America sneezes, Britain catches cold" is not without foundation, for it would not be the first time that false doctrine has crossed the Atlantic to wreak its havoc here. I notice that already one of the federal vision books from which Engelsma quotes is published in the UK, by Paternoster. And while it is true that federal vision theology has not yet made an impact here, it is well known that its close bed-fellow, the New Perspective on Paul, finds one of its most ardent advocates in the person of N. T. (Tom) Wright, former Bishop of Durham.

But isn’t federal vision yesterday’s problem, even in America? Has it not been dealt with already by other able men? Only in part. We should heed Engelsma’s warning: "The danger of federal vision remains. It is more dangerous because now, supposedly overcome, it is being ignored" (p. 20). It is still being defended and promoted, and according to Engelsma, the "root" is still not being acknowledged and addressed. He complains that "no Reformed theologian, denomination, or study committee report has taken hold of the federal vision at its root. None has so much as addressed the root of the heresy" (p. 22). Why is this, I wonder?

But surely all this is just a paedobaptist problem, and we don’t have many of them over here. This too is true, but Engelsma’s book is relevant to both parties for while federal vision itself has not made an impact here, we all need to beware of the dangers. Whether federal vision or not, whether Reformed or not, whether paedobaptist or not, all would do well to read this book because the questions it forces us to consider are whether the covenant of grace is conditional or not, whether salvation is conditional or not, and whether our final perseverance in that salvation is conditional or not. At heart the controversy is an age old question, Who is sovereign: God or man? Or as one Baptist minister has written, in an introduction to a modern reprint of Boston’s work, "if faith is made the proper condition, the free covenant of grace turns into a conditional covenant of works. This destroys the gospel" (Malcolm Watts).