Why Federal Vision is a Dangerous Error
by Mitch Cervinka

"Federal Vision" (FV), also known as "Auburn Avenue Theology" (AAT), is a modern heresy promoted by certain Presbyterian pastors, including Steve Schlissel, Douglas Wilson, Steve Wilkins, Peter Leithart, Rich Lusk and others.  This heresy was carefully analyzed recently by the Ad Interim Study Committee on Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theologies of the Presbyterian Church in America, which produced a report that very fairly and insightfully analyzes and exposes the errors inherent in FV theology.[1]  I heartily commend it for your consideration.

The essence of FV is that salvation must be viewed from two perspectives: 1) the "decretal/eternal" and 2) the "covenantal/historical".  When discussing the "decretal/eternal" perspective, the advocates of FV seem to affirm an orthodox understanding of historical/Biblical Reformed theology, such as represented by the Westminster Confession of Faith.  However, when discussing the "covenantal/historical" perspective, the FV advocate comes across as Arminian or Pelagian—teaching that water baptism truly unites us to Christ, that those who are truly united to Christ can later fall away and be lost, that elect people can fall away and be eternally lost, etc.

One of the great problems of FV, therefore, is that it describes salvation in two contradictory ways which can only confuse or mislead the people of God:

  1. it makes salvation appear to depend on our faithfulness rather than upon Christ's faithfulness

  2. it teaches us to trust in external performances and earthly relationships—water baptism and church membership—rather than in Christ alone for our salvation

  3. it gives false assurance to those who are not decretally elect

  4. it deprives those who are decretally elect of the assurance that is rightfully theirs in Christ

  5. it blurs the meaning of such important Biblical terms as "elect", "redeemed" and "regenerate"

  6. it places too much emphasis on the church as the agent of our salvation

  7. hence, it minimizes Christ as the object of our confident faith and deprives Him of the glory that is rightfully His

Because of the contradictory nature of these two "perspectives", the "covenantal/historical" teaching of FV obscures or nullifies its "decretal/eternal" teaching.  All that they affirm concerning the "decretal/eternal"—unconditional election, particular redemption, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints—is overturned by all that they teach concerning the "covenantal/historical" perspective—claiming that a person can fall away from election and from his redemption, and can successfully resist the grace of God so as not to persevere in faith and thus be eternally damned in hell.  The apostle provides an apt analogy ...

1 Corinthians 14:8 - And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?

When the advocate of FV complains that he truly does believe in the "decretal/eternal" perspective, and should therefore be accepted as an orthodox believer in the Reformed tradition, we must realize that this is but a half-truth.  He is only a part-time believer in the Reformed tradition.  The rest of the time, he denies sovereign grace by teaching that truly elect, truly regenerate believers can fall away from Christ and be eternally lost.  He is like a pastor who preaches the deity of Christ on the first and third Sundays of each month, and denies Christ's deity in his other sermons.  An inconsistent Calvinism is not orthodoxy!

Federal Vision claims that Scripture normally views election in the "covenantal/historical" sense.  Hence the "decretal/eternal" perspective is viewed as the Biblical exception rather than the rule—an intellectual curiosity having little practical application.  In Federal Vision, Biblical orthodoxy is trumped by a strained covenantalism that promotes outward conformity to water baptism and church attendance while downplaying any concern for genuine soul-transformation.  This is all too reminiscent of the rise of Liberalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when orthodoxy was viewed as outdated and provincial, and novel interpretive schemes were proposed to bring the Bible into conformity with the prevailing theological theories of the day.

The "Reformed" Reformers (e.g. Calvin, Knox, the Puritans, Dort, Westminster, etc.) clearly taught what FV refers to as the "decretal/eternal" perspective.  It is not so clear that they embraced the "covenantal/historical" perspective—certainly not in the same manner or degree that FV presents it.  In fact, they strongly denounced many of the teachings that FV affirms—upholding God's eternal, sovereign election as being eternal and immutable; denying that a truly regenerate person could totally or finally fall away from salvation, etc.  They made a clear distinction between hypocrites and true believers, and denied that membership in the visible church was equivalent to union with Christ.

There is a strong hint of modern Lutheran theology (i.e. that a truly justified, regenerated person can lose his salvation) in FV.  It might be added that there is an even stronger hint of Roman Catholic theology in their claims that 1) membership in the visible church is synonymous with (genuine, spiritual) union with Christ, 2) one becomes (truly, spiritually) united with Christ by means of water baptism, 3) a true believer can later fall away from Christ and be eternally lost and (so it would seem) 4) no one can have true assurance of ultimate salvation in this life.[2]

We must understand that the faith-strengthening power of Reformed theology lies in its affirmation of the eternal, sovereign purpose and unalloyed grace of God in saving sinful, rebellious men.  When people are distracted from the gospel of God's sovereign grace and made to believe that their salvation depends on sacramentalism (receiving baptism) or legalism (their own ability to remain faithful), it takes their eyes away from Christ, the only Savior, and turns them to idolatrously trust in themselves and their own performances.

No true Calvinist has a problem with the "decretal/eternal" perspective—this perspective is plainly taught in Romans 8-11, Ephesians 2, and in numerous other passages of holy scripture, as well as in the various Reformed standards.  Clearly, it is FV's peculiar "covenantal/historical" perspective that appears to be so heretical and so inimical to the gospel of the grace of God.  What, then, are the reasons given for holding this "covenantal/historical" perspective?

Here are some of the reasons given:  1) Federal Vision opposes the revivalistic theology that bases the assurance of salvation on subjective experiences.  It seeks to replace such subjective, individualistic experiences with the objective fact of having received the ordinance of water baptism and being thereby accepted into membership in the visible church.   2) Federal Vision is concerned that, since we humans do not know God's eternal decrees, and cannot see into the human heart, we must accept at face value an individual's membership in the visible church so long as he faithfully perseveres in faith and good works.  3) The adherents of FV claim that FV is more faithful to scripture, asserting that the Bible "ordinarily views election through the lens of the covenant".

In response to the first reason, we must remember that the scribes and Pharisees were the objects of our Lord's harshest rebukes, even though they were generally regarded as the most faithful and most respected members of the Jewish religion.  Our Lord did not merely chasten them as wayward children, but condemned them as hell-destined reprobates.  For example, in Matthew 23 alone, he pronounces "Woe" upon them no less than seven times, declaring them to be children of hell (vs. 15), "blind guides" and "blind fools" (vss. 16-17, 24), "hypocrites" (vss. 27, 29), comparing them to "whitewashed tombs", "full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness" (vs. 27), and asserting that they were "sons of those who murdered the prophets".  He concludes by calling them "serpents" and a "brood of vipers", declaring "how can you escape being sentenced to hell?" (vs. 33), and prophesying that they would kill, crucify and flog the "prophets, wise men and scribes" that He would later send to them.  Surely, therefore, our Lord did not equate membership in the visible church with true faith or salvation.

To base your confidence on ordinances and membership in the visible church is an ancient error known as externalism.  When the apostle exhorts us to "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves," he does not tell us to look to our baptism or church membership as the basis for assurance.  Rather, he says "Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!" (2 Corinthians 13:5).  The true test of salvation is a changed heart, which is not as subjective as the FV proponents suggest, since it involves evaluating our character and attitudes against the objective standard of God's eternal, authoritative word.

In response to the second reason, I would reply that it is far safer to consistently affirm the truth of God's decretal/eternal election, and simply acknowledge that our human judgment of the spiritual condition of any given individual is limited and fallible, than to proclaim a theology where truly elect, truly regenerate saints can totally fall away and be forever lost.  Consider, for example, how the apostle John teaches us to understand apostasy...

1 John 2:19 - They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.

John asserts that "if they had been of us, they would have continued with us", assuring us that those who apostasize were never true members of Christ's church.  John carefully distinguishes between the outward relationship of having assembled with us, versus the vital relationship of being "of us", which is characterized by persevering faith.  Clearly, John had no illusions that these apostates had once been truly joined to Christ nor that they were once truly regenerate.

We come then to the third reason—the proponents of FV assert that scripture actually teaches the "covenantal/historical" perspective.  Here is a sample of their claims[3]...

In response to these claims, I would insist that Federal Vision misunderstands these passages, making numerous unwarranted assumptions.  Their excessive zeal for the covenant has impaired their hermeneutical judgment. For example, it is manifest that, when scripture says that the Spirit "came upon" Saul or David, it is not speaking of His work of regeneration, but of empowerment and gifting for ministry (i.e. as prophet, king or warrior).  The fact that David was a regenerate man does not justify taking the phrase "the Spirit rushed upon David" (1 Samuel 16:13) to mean that the Spirit came upon Him on this occasion so as to regenerate him.

Scripture never explicitly identifies an elect person that fell away (other than Judas, whom Christ chose for discipleship, not for salvation—John 6:64, 70).  It is true that scripture sometimes speaks of the church corporately as being "elect", or of being comprised of elect people.  However, this is to be understood in a general way, and not in a complete or exhaustive way.  It can mean that 1) elect people will normally be found within the church, 2) the church ought to be comprised only of elect individuals, 3) the church will ultimately be comprised only of elect people, or 4) the church, as an institution, was chosen and ordained by God to be the chief means by which His glory is proclaimed to the ends of the earth.  Any of these meanings is possible, and none requires us to believe that every individual member of the visible church is to be considered "truly elect".

Scripture says that Christ died for the "world" (John 3:16; 1 John 2:2), but this does not mean He died for every single individual in the world.  In the same way, it does not follow that when the church is addressed as "elect", it means to apply this term to every individual member of the church.  Jesus assured us that there would be tares among the wheat, and goats among the sheep, assuring us that there is always a difference in character between the truly regenerate and those who are not decretally elect. The tares are never actually wheat, but only appear to be so until they ripen. The goats are never actually sheep, and never have the character of sheep, but merely reside among the sheep.

Likewise, when scripture warns the church of apostasy, it is acknowledging that there are often both elect and reprobate among her number. A truly elect person will never totally apostasize, and a truly reprobate person will never persevere to the end. However, because the church is a mixed company, there will always be those who "went out from us" because "they were not of us" (1 John 2:19).  God's warnings are one of the means He uses, through His Holy Spirit, to keep His truly elect people from apostasizing.  They are also one of the means He uses to demonstrate that the apostates are totally without excuse for leaving.

Federal Vision has confused various aspects of the covenant of works with the covenant of grace.  The covenant of works is a covenant of human performance, whereas the covenant of grace depends solely upon Christ's performance for us.  Notice how Paul contrasts law and grace in Galatians 3 ...

Galatians 3:10-14 - For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them." Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for "The righteous shall live by faith." But the law is not of faith, rather "The one who does them shall live by them." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree"— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Under the covenant of works, we must maintain the terms of the covenant.  However, under the covenant of grace, Christ has graciously interposed to be our covenant-keeper, and He cannot fail to keep the covenant.  Since the covenant of grace depends on Christ's faithfulness, and not our own, there is no possible way for a person who is truly within the covenant of grace to "break covenant".  The breaking of the covenant is possible only if we are the ones who are attempting to keep the covenant, which means that we are not living in the covenant of grace, but in the covenant of works.  Any scripture that speaks of "covenant breaking" is therefore given in the context of the covenant of works.

It should be noted that, while the terms "covenant of works" and "covenant of grace" are not found in scripture, the concepts are quite Biblical.  Scripture repeatedly warns us that we cannot be saved by our works, but only by God's electing grace and mercy, through faith in Jesus Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-10; Romans 3:20, 27-28; 4:1-8; 9:11, 16; 10:9; 11:5-6; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5; Acts 16:31; etc.).

According to the claims made by FV, a person who is baptized and received into the church is thereby genuinely united to Christ and made a partaker of the various benefits of the New Covenant—even if he later renounces his faith in Christ and dies in unbelief.  FV would claim that, at one time, Christ knew this apostate individual as His own, but our Lord plainly denies this claim, saying:

Matthew 7:23 - ... 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'

Federal Vision says that Christ once truly "knew" the apostate, but our Lord says to them "I never knew you".  Thus, it is false to say that the apostate were ever truly united to Christ.  Water baptism has no power to unite anyone to Christ.

This reveals one of the many exegetical errors on which Federal Vision is based.  Scripture never says that water baptism unites us to Christ.  None of the passages that speak of the saving benefits we receive through baptism ever mention water—rather, it is Spirit baptism alone that joins us to Christ...

1 Corinthians 12:13 - For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

We must understand the proper role of water baptism—it is an earthly symbol of the spiritual work of regeneration, and has no power whatever to effect the work it symbolizes. It is the spiritual work, and not the earthly symbol, that joins us to Christ.  Both are called "baptism", but it is essential that we distinguish the symbol from the reality.  John the Baptist taught his disciples to look beyond water baptism to the Lord Jesus, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit rather than with water...

Mark 1:8 - I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

Just as animal sacrifices and circumcision could not bring actual salvation to the Israelites (Hebrews 10:4; Galatians 5:2), so also water baptism has no power to save (1 Corinthians 1:14).  These are but symbols of the spiritual reality that can save.  Granted, water baptism is more than merely a symbol, for it serves as a seal of ownership when it is applied to a person who is (decretally) elect. Also, it confers to the church a certain measure of sanctifying grace by illustrating (and thereby teaching and reminding them of) the divine work it represents. However, these facts do not turn water baptism into a saving ordinance that confers some sort of actual salvation to the individual being baptized.

There is no reason to suppose that the people spoken of in Hebrews 6 were ever truly saved ...

Hebrews 6:4-6 - For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

These people were said to have been "once enlightened", to have "tasted the heavenly gift", to have "shared in the Holy Spirit" and to have "tasted the goodness of the word of God" and "the powers of the age to come", yet fell away.  The sense of the verse is not that these individuals had ever been regenerated, but that they had been given abundant external evidences and inducements (short of regeneration) that should have been sufficient to convince any spiritually sensible person to come to Christ in faith.  There is an "enlightenment" concerning the things of God that comes short of genuine loving trust in God.  The references to "the heavenly gift" and "the Holy Spirit" and "the powers of the age to come" have to do with miraculous signs and gifts, rather than a soul-changing work of the Spirit.  Signs and wonders were common in the early church, and were evidently given even to some who were not truly regenerate.  So also there are many who delight in "the goodness of the word of God", and yet deny the Redeemer to whom it points.  Therefore, none of the things said of these people proves that they had ever experienced genuine regeneration, and thus this is no proof that we should regard such people as ever having been "elect" or "united with Christ" in any saving sense.

Matthew Henry asserts that the people described in Hebrews 6:4 were never truly converted or justified ...

... These lengths hypocrites may go, and, after all, turn apostates. Now hence observe, [1.] These great things are spoken here of those who may fall away; yet it is not here said of them that they were truly converted, or that they were justified; there is more in true saving grace than in all that is here said of apostates. [2.] This therefore is no proof of the final apostasy of true saints. These indeed may fall frequently and foully, but yet they will not totally nor finally from God; the purpose and the power of God, the purchase and the prayer of Christ, the promise of the gospel, the everlasting covenant that God has made with them, ordered in all things and sure, the indwelling of the Spirit, and the immortal seed of the word, these are their security. But the tree that has not these roots will not stand.[4]

Notice especially Henry's observation that true saints "will not [fall] totally nor finally from God", and one of the reasons he adduces is that they are secure in "the everlasting covenant that God has made with them".  The Reformers and Puritans did not typically believe in a "covenant" relationship that does not guarantee salvation.  Rather, they affirmed repeatedly that God's covenant ensures the eternal salvation of those who are under the covenant, and that they can never totally nor finally fall away from it.

This observation is affirmed in the Westminster Confession of Faith ...

17:2 This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ; the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them; and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof.[5]

It is the very nature of the covenant of grace that the saints will certainly and infallibly persevere in the state of grace.  Federal Vision denies this clear statement when it asserts that genuine believers can and do fall away from the covenant and are eternally lost.

Scripture itself often teaches us that the true believer is secure in Christ and cannot totally fall away and perish.  For example, our Lord taught ...

John 10:28-30 - I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one."

Here, our Lord is speaking of specific people (His "sheep") who were characterized by knowing Christ's voice and instictively following Him (John 10:4-5, 14, 16).  This is not some future hypothetical group of disciples that managed to persevere to the judgment day, but people who, in this life, can be recognized as sheep.  It is these whom Jesus says will never perish.  Moreover, He gives the reason why they cannot perish—they are being held omnipotently by Himself and by His Father.  In order for the sheep to perish, someone would have to overpower God Almighty, which is impossible.

Again, Peter declares ...

1 Peter 1:3-5 - Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

According to Peter, our inheritance is imperishable, and we are being guarded by God's power—His omnipotent power—through faith (i.e. faith as the instrument by which God is omnipotently guarding and keeping us)—for a salvation that will be revealed in the last time.  Thus, the salvation of which Peter here speaks consists not merely in the salvation blessings we experience in this present life, but in the ultimate blessings that will be ours at the end of time.  Our ultimate salvation is guarded by God's omnipotent power as He upholds our faith to the end.

In conclusion, it is destructive of the gospel to affirm the truth of sovereign grace with one breath, and to deny it (via the "covenantal/historical perspective") with the next.  A context-sensitive theology (i.e. where the doctrine taught depends on the context of "decretal/eternal" or "covenantal/historical") such as this can only be confusing to the hearers who hear seeming (or perhaps real!) contradictions taught to them.  God's people need to be taught with clarity that salvation is by sovereign grace alone.  Regeneration is a real act of God's Spirit and "You must be born again" (John 3:7) is a message that every person needs to hear.  This refers not to water baptism, but to a miraculous work of God that radically changes the human heart, imparting a deep love for God and a lasting faith that perseveres to the very end. God's people need to know and have the utmost confidence that Christ alone is the Savior, and that our salvation depends upon Him alone. Only then will we have the freedom and confidence to serve God without guilt or fear.

Romans 8:15 - For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!"

It is destructive to the gospel to say that a person who was once joined to Christ may later fall away and be lost.  This makes Christ out to be a Savior who does not actually save.  This makes salvation depend, not solely on Christ's faithfulness and merit, but on some merit or faithfulness of our own.  Even when we qualify such statements by saying that it is God who gives the faith or who causes us to persevere, we deny the perfection of Christ's redemptive work to suggest that anyone who was once "saved" by Christ could ultimately be lost.  If those for whom Christ died will not necessarily be saved, then we cannot point to Christ as the perfect Savior who can be trusted to eternally save those who come to Him in genuine faith.  Instead, we are teaching people to trust in themselves—in their own faithfulness and ability to persevere.  Any gospel that takes our eyes away from Christ is heresy.  Any gospel that teaches us that Christ can only save us if we do our part, is heresy.  We must constantly reaffirm the Reformers' banner of "Sola Gratia" — GRACE ALONE!

[1] The Report of Ad Interim Study Committee on Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theologies may be read at http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/07-fvreport.html. [Return to text]
[2] Another evidence that FV represents a return to Papism is that many of its adherents are attracted to the "New Perspectives" teachings of N.T. Wright, who interprets the Pauline doctrine of justification to be ecclesial rather than soteriological, claiming that by "justify", Paul intended primarily "participation in the covenant".  He downplays forensic justification and openly denies the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the condemned sinner—doctrines that were at the heart of the Reformers' rejection of the Roman church, and for which they were willing to suffer and die.  If Wright is correct, then where is the scriptural basis for the Reformation? [Return to text]
[3] These excerpts were taken from the summary statement provided on the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church website at: www.auburnavenue.org/documents/summary-statement-on-baptism.htm [Return to text]
[4] Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Hebrews 6:4. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/henry/mhc6.Heb.vii.html [Return to text]
[5] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 17, Article 3. http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html?body=/documents/wcf_with_proofs/ch_XVII.html [Return to text]

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