"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 and others. This heresy was carefully analyzed in 2007 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. 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 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, Westiminster, 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 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.
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 taught 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 seduces 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 23:13-33, he pronounces "Woe" upon them no less than seven times, declaring them to be children of hell (Mat 23:15), "blind guides" and "blind fools" (Mat 23:16-17, 24), "hypocrites" (Mat 23:27, 29), comparing them to "whitewashed tombs", "full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness" (Mat 23:27), and asserting that they were "sons of those who murdered the prophets" (Mat 23:31). He concludes by calling them "serpents" and a "brood of vipers", declaring "how can you escape being sentenced to hell?" (Mat 23:33), and prophesying that they would kill, crucify and flog the "prophets, wise men and scribes" that He would later send to them (Mat 23:34-35). 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 apostatize 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. To respond
to this point, let us consider the various claims posted on the Auburn
Presbyterian Church website...
|AAC claim #1: The Bible ordinarily (though not always) views election through the lens of the covenant. This is why covenant members are addressed consistently as God's elect, even though some of those covenant members may apostatize, proving themselves in the end not to have been among the number of those whom God decreed to eternal salvation from before the foundation of the world. Thus, the basis for calling them God's "elect" was their standing as members of the Church (which is the body of Christ) and not some knowledge of God's secret decree. The visible Church is the place where the saints are "gathered and perfected" by means of "the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God" (WCF 25.3).|
The problem with the quotation above is that it gratuitously assumes that the covenant includes people who are not decretally elect. It is true that "The Bible ordinarily views election through the lens of the covenant", but what is meant by "the covenant"? When election is in view, scripture has in mind the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Grace is God's infallible promise to save a people for Himself, and those who are truly members of the Covenant of Grace are kept by the power of God unto salvation (1 Peter 1:5), and cannot possibly ever depart from the covenant.
WCF 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.
It is absolutely false, therefore, to claim that "some of those covenant members may apostatize". One of the precious blessings of the covenant is the saving faith that God gives and preserves by His omnipotent power and unending faithfulness. Our Lord assures us "I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand," and again "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." (John 10:28-29). The apostle affirms that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). These are covenant blessings that belong to every member of the Covenant of Grace without exception. If any member of the covenant apostatized, it would mean that God failed to preserve them—that He was either unfaithful or unable to preserve their faith.
The next statement builds on these errors: "Thus, the basis for calling them God's "elect" was their standing as members of the Church (which is the body of Christ) and not some knowledge of God's secret decree." In scripture, the term "Church" may refer to either the visible church or the invisible church. Those who framed this statement are confusing these two uses of the term. Yes, it is true that everyone in the invisible church may truly be called "God's elect". It is the invisible church which is identified in Scripture as "the Body of Christ." (Ephesians 1:23; 2:16; Colossians 1:18, 24). Yet, the framers of this statement seem to be using the term to mean the visible church, since they contrast it with "God's secret decree" and seem to think that this statement somehow follows naturally from their previous claim that covenant members may apostatize. Thus, their claim borders on equivocation—using a term that has two different meanings so as to confuse or mislead the hearer.
The quotation from the WCF has no apparent relevance to their argument. "The visible Church is the place where the saints are "gathered and perfected" by means of "the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God" " The WCF is not claiming that everyone in the visible Church actually is a saint, nor that everyone in the visible Church is "gathered and perfected" by "the ministry, oracles and ordinances of God". The visible church has the responsibility of gathering and nurturing the saints, but this by no means equates it with the Body of Christ. The invisible church is always present within any true visible church, and so the Body of Christ is always represented within a genuine visible church. However, neither the confession nor the scriptures equate the visible church with the Body of Christ, nor with the elect of God.
Scripture never explicitly identifies an elect person that fell away (other than Judas, whom Christ chose for discipleship, not for salvation—John 6:64; 6:70). 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 taught 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 apostatize, and a truly reprobate person will never persevere to the end. However, because the visible 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 apostatizing. They are also one of the means He uses to demonstrate that the apostates are without excuse for leaving.
Also, since they give no Biblical examples in support of their claims, to illustrate where and how the Bible calls members of the visible church "God's elect", we are left to wonder which passages they had in mind, and whether their exegesis of those passages is valid.
|AAC claim #2: The Church is not merely a human community, and the Church's enactments of the means of grace are not merely human works. God works through the administration of the sacraments by the power of His Spirit and His word of promise (WCF 27.3). The Church herself is God's new creation, the city He promised to build for Abraham. The Church is not merely a means to salvation, a stepping-stone to a more ultimate goal. Rather, the Church herself is the historic manifestation of God's salvation (WCF 25.1,2), the partially-realized goal in history that will be brought to final fulfillment at the last day. When someone is united to the Church by baptism, he is incorporated into Christ and into His body; he becomes bone of Christ's bone and flesh of His flesh (Eph. 5:30). He becomes a member of "the house, family, and kingdom of God" (WCF 25.2). Until and unless that person breaks covenant, he is to be reckoned among God's elect and regenerate saints.|
Claim #2 continues to confuse the visible church with the invisible church, as if the term "church" did not have these distinct meanings. Jesus plainly says to those who claimed to be His disciples but denied Him by their works "I never knew you; Depart from me ... ." (Matthew 7:23). According to Jesus, at no time were they truly "elect" or members of the covenant.
While it is true that the church on earth is a new creation, and the city for which Abraham looked, it is so only in a premature, imperfect sense. The visible church is a mixed company consisting of genuine believers and also of those who vainly profess faith in Christ. When Christ returns to glorify His people, there will be no such mixture of regenerate and unregenerate, and then the visible church will consist solely of those who are decretally elect. At that time, and forever after, the visible church will be identical to the invisible church.
The church's ordinances are indeed important, but they do not impart covenant blessings apart from genuine faith and repentance. To claim otherwise is to promote the ancient heresy of formalism. Ordinances are no substitute for the spiritual realities they represent.
It is true that, as a practical matter, we must take a person's profession of faith at face value and presume them to be truly regenerate until we have compelling evidence to believe otherwise. This does not mean that such people were ever truly regenerate, but only that human judgment is fallible and appearances may be deceptive.
1 Samuel 16:7 - "... the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart."
If it is valid to designate such people as "elect", "regenerate" and "members of the covenant" based merely on their baptism and church membership, then is it also valid to regard Satan "an angel of light" merely because he appears to be so?
2 Corinthians 11:14 - ... even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.
|AAC claim #3: By baptism, one enters into covenantal union with Christ and is offered all his benefits (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:1ff; 2 Cor. 1:20). As Westminster Shorter Catechism #94 states, baptism signifies and seals "our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace." Baptism in itself does not, however, guarantee final salvation. What is offered in baptism may not be received because of unbelief. Or, it may only be embraced for a season and later rejected (Matt. 13:20-22; Luke 8:13-14). Those who "believe for a while" enjoy blessings and privileges of the covenant only for a time and only in part, since their temporary faith is not true to Christ, as evidenced by its eventual failure and lack of fruit (1 Cor. 10:1ff; Hebrews 6:4-6). By their unbelief they "trample underfoot the Son of God, count the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified an unholy thing, and do despite to the Spirit of grace" (Heb. 10:29) and thus bring greater condemnation upon themselves.|
Claim #3 confuses water baptism with the spiritual reality that is represented by water baptism. Water baptism does not make us members of the covenant. Rather, we were members of the covenant in eternity when God chose us in Christ. This becomes a subjective reality in time when the Holy Spirit regenerates our hearts, bringing forth true faith and lasting repentance. We are baptized into the church—the body of Christ—by the "One Spirit", and not by water ...
1 Corinthians 12:13 - For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Water baptism is but a symbol of the spiritual baptism that truly joins us to Christ and to other true believers.
Matthew 3:11 - ... I baptize you with water for repentance, 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 or covenant membership to the individual being baptized. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebrews 10:4), and it is equally impossible for water baptism to wash away sins except in a strictly symbolic sense (Acts 22:16).
According to 1 Corinthians 12:13, then, it is baptism with the Spirit (i.e. the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, as He comes to reside in our hearts and convert our souls) that makes us members of the church and manifests us as members of the Covenant of Grace. It the indwelling Spirit who brings forth the various graces of salvation, such as regeneration, faith, repentance, love for God and heartfelt obedience, and it is the Spirit who is God's regal seal of ownership.
Ephesians 1:13-14 - In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Mere professors in Christ do not possess this seal, even if they have been baptized with water and received into membership of the visible church.
|AAC claim #4: Included in His decree, however, is that some persons, not destined for final salvation, will be drawn to Christ and His people only for a time. These, for a season, enjoy real blessings, purchased for them by Christ's cross and applied to them by the Holy Spirit in his common operations through Word and Sacrament (Hebrews 6:4-6; Matthew 25:14ff; etc.).|
It is certainly true that, in the visible church, there will be unregenerate people who may for a season appear to be true believers, but who later fall away, revealing the truth that they were never regenerated by God's Spirit. John speaks of them in this way ...
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 makes it clear that these unregenerate people were "not of us" even though they assembled with the saints for a period of time. We are not to suppose that they were ever truly members of the covenant, nor truly elect, nor truly heirs of the promises of God. They went out, that it might become plain that they are not of us.
So long as such people are members of the visible church, it is often true that they enjoy certain secondary benefits belonging of the people of God, such as the friendships they make with true believers, weekly hearing the preaching of the Word of God and the harmony that comes from living in outward conformity to the law of God.
However, the primary benefits of the Covenant of Grace—genuine persevering faith and repentance, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life—belong only to those who are truly regenerated and sealed by the Holy Spirit, and this is not the case for those who later fall away. They were never "of us".
God can give temporal blessings to His hell-deserving creatures without Christ having to "purchase" those blessings for them. We know this because God gives certain temporal blessings to the fallen angels, yet Christ did not redeem the angels. God could have immediately thrown Satan and the fallen angels into hell the instant they rebelled against Him (Matthew 25:41). However, He has postponed their ultimate judgment until they have carried out their nefarious plan to raise up the antichrist and deceive the unbelieving world to follow him (Revelation 13:5, 12-17). Scripture is clear that Christ did not redeem the angels:
Hebrews 2:14-16 - Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.
To claim that the blessings enjoyed by false believers were "purchased for them by Christ's cross" is to misrepresent what Christ accomplished at the Cross. When Jesus died at Calvary, He was not merely somehow purchasing blessings for people. His death was not a commercial transaction, but a legal satisfaction. He took upon Himself the legal guilt of all our sins in order that God's justice might be satisfied and His wrath thereby averted.
The redemptive work of Christ is substitutionary and effective. He bore our guilt on the cross and paid the penalty for all our sins. If any person for whom Christ died is eventually lost, then how could anyone be saved? Either Christ bore the full penalty for all our sins, or else we must suffer that penalty ourselves in hell forever. Those who profess faith in Christ and later fall away do not receive any of the benefits of the work of Christ, for if they are punished in hell, then Christ did not bear their punishment on the cross. It is false and destructive to the Gospel to suggest that those who later fall away and are forever lost were ever in any sense purchased by the blood of Christ.
|AAC claim #5: For example, the same language that describes the Spirit coming upon Saul (1 Sam. 10:6) is used when the Spirit comes upon David (1 Sam. 16:13), Gideon (Jdg. 6:34), Jephthah (Jdg. 11:29), and Samson (Jdg. 14:6, 9; 15:14). Yet in four of these five cases (David, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson), the man in question was clearly given persevering faith and brought to final salvation by the Spirit's work (cf. Heb. 11:32). The Biblical narrative, however, appears to draw no distinction between Saul's initial experience of the Spirit and the experience of those who obtained final salvation.|
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.
It is often assumed that the Holy Spirit works miracles only through regenerated individuals. However, there are various examples in scripture of unregenerate people who were empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Balaam is a clear example of this. Balaam was not a member of the covenant. On the contrary, he was hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites as they were journeying from Sinai to the promised land (Numbers 23:7). Even so, scripture says "the LORD put a word in Balaam's mouth and said 'Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak.'" (Numbers 23:5; 23:16). Peter writes of those who followed the way of Balaam ...
2 Peter 2:15-17 - Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet's madness. These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved."
Another clear example is Judas Iscariot, who betrayed our Lord. Judas was one of the original twelve disciples whom Jesus sent out to preach the gospel and to "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons." (Matthew 10:4-5, 10:8). If Judas did not perform these miracles along with the other eleven, they would have known that he did not possess the same gifts of the Spirit they did. However, at the Last Supper, when Jesus announced that one of them would betray Him, none of them suspected Judas, but instead asked "Is it I, Lord?" (Matthew 26:22).
Examples such as these demonstrate that the Holy Spirit can use unregenerate people as prophets and healers, and that the working of miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit should not be regarded as proof of spiritual salvation. Besides regeneration, the Holy Spirit has varieties of workings and gifts and He has the sovereign right and ability to exercise these gifts even in non-elect people who are strangers to the Covenant of Grace and outside of Christ.
|AAC claim #6: All whom God has ordained to eternal life will surely be saved. But there is also another sense in which all those in the covenant are "saved." They have been delivered out of the world and brought into the glorious new creation of Christ (thus, the Scripture speaks of those who had "known the way of righteousness," "been cleansed from their former sins," "have tasted of the heavenly gift," etc.), but not all will persevere in that "salvation." Jesus spoke of those in the new covenant who were united to Him, but then cut off because they did not persevere in the fruit-bearing that is the evidence of a lively faith, by which we abide in Christ (John 15). Whatever the precise complexion and content of that union for those who do not persevere, nonetheless, if Jesus Himself is salvation, must we not conclude that being cut off from Him means being cut off the from source of salvation and, in that specific sense, from salvation itself?|
Those who are merely professors of Christ but not truly regenerate often give a superficial appearance of being saved. They may use the same vocabulary as genuinely regenerate people, and they may, for a time, reform their lives and their language. Peter cites Proverbs 26:11 to describe such people ...
2 Peter 2:22 -What the true proverb says has happened to them: "The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire."
This proverb describes accurately the case of such false professors—they are not sheep who turned into dogs or hogs. Rather, they were dogs or hogs all along who put on an act, but their true nature will eventually manifest itself. It is like holding your breath under water, pretending to be a fish—eventually you have to come up for air.
Examples such as this do not justify calling such people "truly elect" or "members of the covenant", for that was never their true character. Once again, we recall the words of our Lord "I never knew you ... depart from Me" (Matthew 7:23), and the words of John "... they went out from us because they were not of us ..." (1 John 2:19).
When scripture speaks of people falling away from the faith, or of fruitless branches being broken off, or of the people of God "breaking covenant", it is using the language of appearance. People may, for a time, falsely profess faith in Christ, or may do works of the law in order to receive the praise of men (John 12:43) or for other impure motives. Such people outwardly appear to be saved, but such appearances are deceiving and do not reflect the individual's true state in God's sight. We do no service to the truth of God to insist that such lying appearances be regarded as the true condition of the individual.
|AAC claim #7: The Bible often speaks of salvation in relational and covenantal categories. "Salvation" is a matter of being rightly related to God through Christ. But relationships are not static, unchanging entities. They are fluid and dynamic. Our salvation covenant with the Lord is like a marriage. If we continue to rest upon Christ in faith, we will live with Him happily ever after. If we break the marriage covenant, He will divorce us. It is probably unwise and pastorally inept, especially for tender consciences, to speak of this in terms of "losing one's salvation," but it seems contrary to Scripture to say that nothing at all is lost. To draw such a conclusion appears to deny the reality of the covenant and the blessedness that is said to belong even to those who ultimately prove themselves reprobate (Heb. 10:26ff).|
Claim #7 is based on an Old Testament understanding of "covenant" which no longer applies to the new covenant established by Christ. Hebrews 8:7-13 quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34, teaching us that Christ has brought in a new covenant which is, in many ways, superior to the old covenant of Sinai. The old covenant was a covenant of human performance, but the new covenant depends solely on the work of God.
7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
8 For he finds fault with them when he says: "Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,
9 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more."
13 In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
It is impossible for anyone to break this covenant, for it depends solely on God's power and faithfulness. The fault with the first covenant is that it was based on human performance: "they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord" (verse 9). The second covenant, in contrast, is a covenant whereby God promises to save and preserve His people. Four times, God declares "I will ...", affirming that He will (1) put His laws into our minds and will write them on our hearts, and He will (2) be our God and we will be His people (verse 10), and He will (3) be merciful to our iniquities and (4) will remember our sins no more (verse 12). Here, all is of God, and He is the one ensuring that we will continue in His covenant. There is no possibility, therefore, that we might "break" this covenant, and the writer of Hebrews therefore concludes that the second covenant has made the first covenant obsolete.
Covenant keeping was indeed "fluid and dynamic" under the old covenant, because it depended upon man's effort and faithfulness to "keep covenant". But, by its superior, monergistic nature, the new covenant depends solely upon God, and it is therefore the case that the only way for this covenant to be broken is for God to be unfaithful to His promise to preserve His covenant people.
Assuredly, the new covenant belongs to those who exhibit faith in Christ. However, that faith is given and preserved by a faithful God who is working powerfully in their hearts and will not allow them to fall away from Christ. The spurious self-generated "faith" of unregenerates who merely profess faith in Christ is not the faith that validates or fulfills the covenant. Such people cannot properly be said to be partakers of the covenant, for they do not possess the divinely-empowered living faith that produces godly fruit which shows them to be heirs and members of the covenant.
James 2:17-19 - So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!
John the Baptist would not honor such a barren faith, but refused baptism to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him, desiring to be baptized. He would not permit them to be numbered among the members of the covenant.
Matthew 3:5-9 - Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.
There is no reason to suppose that the people described in Hebrews 6:4-6 were ever truly saved, for the writer subsequently addresses his readers, saying "Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation." (Hebrews 6:9), signifying that the "things" discussed in Hebrews 6:4-6 do not "belong to salvation" ...
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 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 (see John 5:39-40). 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 "members of the covenant" or "united with Christ" in any true 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. 
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 teach 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.
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. 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!
Footnotes:The Report of Ad Interim Study Committee on Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theologies may be read at https://web.archive.org/web/20190316201838/http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/07-fvreport.html. [Return to text]