Posted January 17, 2020
The present-day attack on the truth of the unconditional covenant and salvation, consisting in the slanderous smear of that doctrine as antinomian, has a definite source. That source is the current ascendency and near total victory of the federal vision heresy in virtually every Reformed and Presbyterian denomination and seminary in the United States and elsewhere in the world. This heresy teaches that the covenant of God is made and union with Christ is established with every baptized child. Salvation in that covenant and union with Christ are conditioned on the child’s faith and obedience of faith. The single greatest threat to Reformed churches is this pestilential heresy of the federal vision. This false doctrine is a threat to their very existence as churches of Christ in the world. This is because as part of its doctrine of the conditional covenant, the federal vision denies the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Justification by faith alone is the truth that God forgives the sins of all those who believe in Jesus Christ and imputes to them Christ’s righteousness by faith alone and declares the believing sinner worthy of eternal life. To corrupt this doctrine is to corrupt the heart of the gospel. The false teacher that corrupts this doctrine is anathema. The church that corrupts this doctrine has become false.
The federal vision denies that the justification of the sinner is by faith only without any works. It teaches that the sinner’s justification in the final judgment will be by works. The way the men of the federal vision promote this is devilishly clever. While paying lip-service to justification by faith, even justification by faith alone, they teach that the faith that justifies is a working faith that justifies with its works. Men like Norman Shepherd, Richard Lusk, Peter Leithart, Douglas Wilson, and James Jordan have introduced this false doctrine into Reformed and Presbyterian churches. This doctrine has overwhelmed these churches. It is the current, popular understanding of salvation.
It is crucial to understand and to be convinced of the fact that the federal vision’s starting point for its denial of justification by faith alone is the doctrine of the conditional covenant. The conditional covenant has had widespread—almost universal—acceptance in Reformed churches. The federal vision has aggressively developed this idea. The covenant is made with both elect and reprobate alike—with Jacob and Esau—so that God promises to be the God of Jacob as well as of Esau. In the covenant, God gives grace to everyone. The continuation of this covenant on earth and perfection of this covenant in heaven depend on the faith and faithful obedience of the covenant-member. For this reason the federal vision teaches that the covenant-member can, and often does, fall out of the covenant and perish. Furthermore, the final judgment will be based partly on the work of Christ and partly on the covenant-member’s faith and obedience by grace: what one does in the covenant by grace will be part of the basis for his salvation. For the federal vision, salvation must be based on the covenant-member’s works by grace, because the covenant is conditional.
In the face of this heresy, there has been no acknowledgment of the cause of the heresy in the doctrine of the conditional covenant, but only a deaf and stubborn defense of the conditional covenant, even while many impotently wring their hands about the federal vision’s denial of justification by faith alone.
The widespread acceptance of this false doctrine, chiefly its doctrinal foundation of the conditional covenant, is the source of the false charge of antinomianism raised against the unconditional covenant and unconditional salvation. The proponents of the federal vision are busy redefining the term antinomian. Not content to introduce false doctrine, they must also damn the truth as antinomian.
Mark Jones’ book Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? is playing its part in this deadly conflict. His attack is couched as a question, but he makes clear in his book that he does not believe it is an open question whether antinomians, defined as he has defined them, are unwelcome guests. By suspect theology and by associating it with the names of some reputed antinomians from former ages, Jones seeks to render the whole doctrine suspect and therefore its teaching and those who teach it dangerous to the church and the church’s holiness as insipient antinomianism.
Mark Jones has written a glowing foreward to the book By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, written by federal vision defender and theologian Richard Gaffin. Jones approvingly quotes from this book in his book Antinomianism. In his book Richard Gaffin vigorously defends the idea that justification is by faith and works. He does so in typical federal vision fashion, insisting that the faith that justifies, in that justification is never alone, is a faith that works. He does not merely insist that faith is never alone, so that the Abraham of Romans 4, “ungodly” in his justification, is also the Abraham of James 2, who shows his faith by his works, but rather that the Abraham of Romans 4 is the Abraham of James 2 who works for his justification. In Gaffin’s words:
In this regard, it is hardly gratuitous to suggest that the Abraham of James 2:21–24, as well as anyone, exemplifies the response of Romans 1:5 to the gospel promise of the covenant that was eventually fulfilled in Christ (vv. 2–4), the response of “the obedience of faith.” This Abraham, the Abraham of the obedience of faith, implicitly brackets and so qualifies everything Paul says about him and his faith elsewhere in Romans. In fact we may say, in Romans we in effect meet the Abraham of James both in [Romans] 1:5, before Abraham is introduced explicitly in chapter 4, and also after that in [Romans] 16:26. These two are not somehow different persons, nor does each function as a theological construct in tension with the other. They are one and the same, and we can never properly understand one without the other.
Thus for Gaffin, Rome was right. James and Paul speak of justification in the same sense. The faith by which Abraham was justified in Romans 4 was the obedient faith of the Abraham of James 2, and he was justified by that obedient faith. Justification is after all by faith and the works of faith, because the faith that justifies is never alone in that justification, but works. For Gaffin, it not that faith, being justified, also works, but that in the matter of justification faith works.
Gaffin’s reference to Abraham is preposterous on the plainest reading of the Bible. The Abraham of Romans 4 and the Abraham of James 2 are indeed very different according to the doctrine under consideration in each passage. In Romans 4 the doctrine of justification is under consideration, as Gaffin readily admits, and there the apostle does not call Abraham obedient, but “ungodly.” The Abraham of Romans 4 was an “ungodly” Abraham. There is not a more thorough way to exclude the works of the believer from his justification than to call him “ungodly” in his justification. So far are his works excluded that in his justification he has only evil works, not only because he sinned but also because he corrupted all the good works that God gave him. Abraham was that because that is who God justifies, and that is what Abraham confessed about himself by faith before the judgment seat of God. God will not justify the righteous or the good. He will only justify the ungodly. He justifies and by that justification takes into his fellowship ungodly people, not obedient people. In James 2 the inevitability and necessity of works as the fruits and justification of faith are under discussion. The Abraham of James 2 is obedient, because that is what the justified believer is by faith, because the faith that justifies without its works is also a faith that works by love.
Defending his obvious corruption of the texts, Gaffin says further,
Paul does not teach a “faith alone” position, as I have sometimes heard it put. Rather, his is a “by faith alone” position. This is not just a verbal quibble; the “by” is all-important here. The faith by which sinners are justified, as it unites them to Christ and so secures for them all the benefits of salvation that there are in him, perseveres to the end and in persevering is never alone.
Gaffin puts himself out here as one who is scrupulous about grammar, but he uses his grammatical point to deny the truth. His point would be well taken if he were speaking merely about all the benefits that come to a believer in Christ. By faith the believer receives both Christ’s righteousness by imputation and his holiness worked in the believer by the Spirit. After all, according to 1 Corinthians 1:30, Christ is made both righteousness and sanctification to us. But Gaffin speaks about justification, which he indicates when he refers to the Reformation’s classic phrase about justification, “by faith alone.”
When the Reformation theologians said faith alone, they spoke about justification. Their position was, and that of the entire scripture and all the Reformed creeds is, that the believer is justified by faith alone, faith all by itself, so that without any of its works faith justifies. The Reformed creeds are crystal clear. For instance, article 24 of the Belgic Confession says, “It is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works.” “Howbeit [these works] are of no account towards our justification.”
They said that on the basis of scripture. Paul’s position regarding justification—and that of the Holy Ghost and the creeds—is exactly a “faith alone” position. Faith alone justifies, that is, believers are justified by faith alone without any of faith’s works. This position Gaffin is intent on overthrowing by his grammatical quibble, so that with the word “by” he can still make faith the only instrument of justification and appear orthodox, all the while including in faith all of faith’s obedience and perseverance as part of the faith that justifies, the ground of justification, and without which faith cannot justify.
In the foreward to Gaffin’s book, Mark Jones endorsed the book as “deeply influential” for his own theology. By his endorsement of By Faith, Not by Sight as “deeply influential” for his own theology, Jones shows that he dwells comfortably among the men of the federal vision camp.
Gaffin’s book Jones also connects with his own views on antinomianism. Jones views By Faith, Not by Sight as important and necessary as an “implicit critique of a sort of antinomianism current in the church today, whereby the gospel (or salvation) is understood—practically, if not theoretically—almost exclusively in terms of justification.”
This minimization of justification is also present throughout Jones’ book Antinomianism, when he says repeatedly about antinomians, “The gospel was, in their view, synonymous with justification.” He criticizes as indicative of such a view the statement, “Yea let us know for certainty, that free justification is the very head, heart, and soul of all Christian religion and true worship of God.” If saying this is indicative of antinomian tendencies, both Luther and Calvin had antinomian leanings, because Luther called justification the article of the standing church and Calvin called it the main hinge on which all religion turns.
Such a denigration of justification and a minimization of the reality that it is salvation and that the whole doctrine of the sinner’s gracious salvation turns on it as on a hinge are not Reformed at all. The Belgic Confession teaches in article 23: “We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied.” The Reformed have no problem equating salvation and justification and summarizing the whole doctrine of salvation by that single truth. The problem with real antinomians is not that they view salvation in terms of justification, but that they do not have a clue what justification is because they are careless and profane men and not believers at all. It is impossible that this doctrine, preached and emphasized to the hilt in the churches, will ever make any believer careless or profane.
By his endorsement of Gaffin’s book and its heretical theology of justification, Mark Jones shows himself no friend, but an enemy, of the Reformed doctrines of grace. He pays lip-service to the doctrine that by association and words he denies. It also shows that his book on antinomianism stands in the service of that false doctrine by taking up the old tactic of the enemies of the doctrines of grace against the truth. The Reformed faith, churches, and believers do not need a proponent of works’ righteousness telling them who their enemies are or what constitutes an antinomian, any more than Paul needed the Judaizers to teach him about works.
In his war on the truth, specifically justification by faith alone, Jones also speaks about the role of works in the believer’s salvation.
To that I will turn next time.
 Richard B. Gaffin, By Faith, Not By Sight, 2nd ed. (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 118–19.
 Ibid., 119.
 Jones, in ibid., vii.
 Ibid., xii.
 Jones, Antinomianism, 40.
This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.
In a blog post entitled “Federal Vision No Mas,” Douglas Wilson says that he no longer will identify himself with the movement in Reformed and Presbyterian circles known as the federal vision.
Wilson is the pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, proponent of classical Christian education, and for many years has been identified as one of the prominent theologians promoting the federal vision.
Why this change? Why try to distance yourself from a movement that you have vigorously promoted for years?
The reason is that Wilson believes many critics of the federal vision have been unable to distinguish between the subtle theological differences within the movement. Wilson has tried to describe the range of differences within the movement to the range of differences in craft beer. Some proponents of the federal vision are a dark “oatmeal stout federal vision.” Others are a light “amber ale federal vision.” He places himself in the “amber ale” category.
In spite of his efforts to make this clear, Wilson believes that critics simply haven’t understood the differences. He has some respect for a handful of “fair-minded” critics (he mentions Rick Phillips, Cal Beisner, and Richard Gaffin). But there were others who were “bigoted.” In the past Wilson responded to these “ignorant” critics by defending the federal vision to the hilt. But he feels now that he made a mistake, because he made it sound as if all federal visionists were the same. He should have distinguished the motives of “loyalty” and “manly principle” from “stubbornness and cussedness,” and dealt more with the “fair-minded” group.
But now Wilson sees the error of his ways. And he believes that the only way to make clear that he differs from other federal visionists on certain things is by disavowing the name federal vision. He mentions, for example, differences that he has with the theology of Peter Leithart, another defender of the federal vision.
Wilson does not have a new name yet for his theology, but merely wants to “remain a Westminster Puritan within an irenic river of historical Reformed orthodoxy.”
This is good news, right? Cause for rejoicing in Zion?
Notice what Wilson is doing here. He is merely changing the name of what he believes. As he puts it, “This statement represents a change in what I will call what I believe” (emphasis his).
This is emphatically not a change in what Wilson believes. This is no repudiation of what he has written and taught in the past. He will continue to promote the same things he has before, but now simply without attaching to it the name federal vision. He says, “It does not represent any substantial shift or sea change in the content of what I believe” (again, emphasis his). He adds, “I would still want [to] affirm everything I signed off on in the Federal Vision statement.”
Wilson even mentions specifically one of the doctrines that he will continue to teach: the objectivity of the covenant. By this he means a covenant established with all the children of believers, head for head, at the moment of their baptism. To put it baldly, he will continue to teach the fundamental doctrine of the federal vision movement, the doctrine from which the movement takes its very name (“federal” means covenant), but he simply won’t call it federal vision.
Wilson’s attempt to distance himself from the federal vision without distancing himself from the core doctrines of the federal vision means nothing. Whether or not Wilson wants to identify with the name federal vision, in the end, means little. The name is of minor importance. What is important is the content of his teaching. And that hasn’t changed. It is still false doctrine. Sure, there may be differences between Wilson and other men of the federal vision on certain points. But in the fundamentals they continue to promote false doctrine.
What is needed by Wilson is not a repudiation of the name, but a wholesale repudiation of the doctrines of the federal vision.
Until then, just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so false doctrine by any other would still stink.
Or, to use a different figure, a wolf might repudiate the pack, but does that make him any less a threat to the sheep?
Let the flock remain on her guard, with her eye on the Shepherd.
This post was written by Rev. Joshua Engelsma, pastor of Doon Protestant Reformed Church in Doon, Iowa. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Engelsma, please do so in the comment section.