The Federal Vision and Union With Christ

The Reformed Reader

The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (OPC)

[Update note: see Lane @ Green Baggins’ helpful “sharpening” of my article below.  Thanks Lane!]

One area in which the Federal Vision is at odds with historic Reformed theology is the meaning of union with Christ.  This is obviously a huge topic; it’s impossible to discuss it all in a single post.  So for now I just want to point out one area of major difference.  The question is this: is union with Christ permanent or something that can be lost?  The Federal Vision movement says it is losable while Reformed theology says it is an eternal union.  The first three quotes below are representative of the Federal Vision; the last two quotes are from Reformed confessions.

Peter Leithart put it this way when discussing baptism and union with Christ in a blog post called “Infant Baptism” (Aug. 6, 2004):

“Apostasy is possible.  It is possible to be united to…

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The Gospel in the Narrow Sense, Herman Witsius

Covenant Nurture

The Economy of the Divine Covenants by Herman Witsius available here

The following selections are quoted below to show that Herman Witsius believed the Gospel to have a “narrow sense” in which it is to be understood.  To wit, “…the gospel strictly taken, consists of pure promises of grace and glory.”

Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 284

VIII. Divines explain themselves differently as to the CONDITIONS of the covenant of grace. We, for our part, agree with those who think, that the covenant of grace, to speak accurately, with respect to us, has no conditions properly so called: which sentiment we shall explain and establish in the following manner:

Vol. 1, Book III, Chapter I, p. 284

IX. A condition of a covenant, properly so called, is that action, which, being performed, gives a man a right to the reward.  But that such a condition cannot be required…

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Herman Witsius – Preaching of the Law and the Gospel

Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation

Christ_The_Lord_HortonYears ago, after having read John MacArthur books on the ‘Lordship Controversy’ I read Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation, edited by Michael Horton.  Finally, there was a book I could recommend on this controversy that shaped its arguments carefully from a Reformation perspective.  The contributors include a spectrum of Reformed and Lutheran writers and was very helpful to me.  Recently, Westminster Seminary California’s Office Hours dedicated an entire program to discuss with Michael Horton this controversy that continues to haunt even Reformed and Lutheran circles.  The podcast is available here

This excellent book is available through the Westminster Seminary California bookstore

Michael Horton wrote in the preface –

The purpose of this volume is not to provide an exhaustive defense of what we would regard as the biblical position on the ‘lordship salvation’ debate. Indeed both leading spokesmen on either side, Zane Hodges and John MacArthur, Jr., have offered some reason for discomfort over the terms lordship/no-lordship salvation. As James Boice, J.I. Packer, and others have argued in their works, no respected, mainstream Christian thinker, writer, or preacher has ever held such extreme and unusual views concerning the nature of the gospel and saving grace as Zane Hodges. In this book, there is no doubt that we are taking a firm stand against what I would rather label the “no-effective-grace” position. While Hodges insists that he is only following the Bible, apart from any theological system, it is clear that he is missing the point of the gospel itself–to make enemies friends, to reconcile sinners to God, to break the power of sin’s dominion, and to bring new and lasting life to those who before were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1).

It is, in part, because of that tendency, sometimes evidenced on both sides in this debate, to pretend that one is reading the Bible without any theological influences or biases, that motivated us to get involved in this sensitive and emotional issue. Both Hodges and MacArthur claim the Reformers for support. In our estimation, there is not the slightest support for Hodges and Ryrie to claim the Reformers’ favor for their novel views. The antinomians (that is, those who denied the necessity of Christian obedience) of the Puritan era so pressed the Reformers’ defense of justification to the the point where there was no place left for sanctification. However, the modern antinomianism, represented by Ryrie and Hodges chiefly, appears not to be motivated by an unbalanced fear that any talk of human responsibility will take away from God’s glory, but by fear that any talk of the effectiveness of grace will erode confidence in human responsibility and choice. In other words, the antinomians since the Reformation have erred by denying human cooperation to the point where every divine operation is while dependent on human willing and running, contrary to the words of the apostle Paul (Rom 9:16).

Nevertheless, this book is not merely an endorsement of John MacArthur’s position, either. We will argue that MacArthur at certain points risks confusion on some fundamental evangelical convictions, particularly, between justification and sanctification. It must be said, however, that MacArthur has been most gracious in considering our concerns and we have been in dialogue with him for some time now. Significant changes have been made, as he has fine-tuned his definitions and applied a more specific theological framework to his exegesis. Revisions will appear in forthcoming editions of The Gospel According to Jesus and we are grateful for MacArthur’s eagerness to discuss these issues. While other differences remain, there is a great deal of discussion taking place and there is every reason to believe that the chief differences lie in the realm of definitions and pastoral practice rather than substance. MacArthur’s humility has been a lesson to us and we hope that we will be able to show our critics the openness he has shown us.

Nevertheless since we are reviewing a position, and not a person, and most readers of this volume will have read the earlier edition of The Gospel According to Jesus, we have retained our criticisms on these points for the reader’s benefit, noting MacArthur’s revisions at the appropriate places. Let me also say that John has graciously allowed me to read the draft of his book, The Gospel According to the Apostles, which should be released about the same time as this volume. The sequel is clear, precise, and cautious, and it ought to correct the misunderstandings not only of those like Hodges, who have misrepresented MacArthur’s position through caricature and hyperbole, but even perhaps the misguided zeal of some “lordship salvation” disciples as well.

It is because both positions claim to be echoes of the Reformation that we thought the debate was in need of a more historical treatment. For that reason, one will not find in Christ the Lord a comprehensive exegetical treatment. While there are chapters devoted to covering the biblical material (which is, after all, our “only rule of faith and practice”), the book has a decidedly historical tone to it. It is offered unabashedly as a “Reformation response” to the positions thus far presented, not because the Reformers and their successors were infallible, but because evangelical Protestantism owes a debt of gratitude to them for digging the gold out of the rich spiritual veins through the centuries so that we could learn from those who have gone before us. Theology, preaching, teaching, counseling, and pastoral care are not done in a vacuum; we are all influenced and shaped by our own traditions, upbringing, seminary education, and church curricula, and these are all shaped by certain theological systems. It is the goal of this book to help rub the sleep from our eyes, to drive away the naive assumption that we can just be “Bible teachers” without careful theological reflection from a particular systematic point of view.

The Reformers were certainly not infallible–they would be the last to say they were–but they were wise, wiser than any of us around these days. And we would be poor stewards of the inheritance God has given us through them if we did not at least attempt to gain their counsel on these important debates.

Michael Horton

Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation

Contributors include:
– W. Robert Godfrey
– Michael Horton
– Alister McGrath
– Kim Riddlebarger
– Rick Ritchie
– Rod Rosenbladt
– Paul Schaefer
– Robert Strimple

More Office Hours programs are available here:

How a Pastor Should Respond to Criticism

In a piece on THE PERILS OF SELF PROMOTION: 8 Mistakes of Seminarians & Young Pastors by Christopher J. Gordon, he wisely writes the following in a section on  Are You Questioning Me?

Always be willing to ask for forgiveness and be humble. If you ever get to the point where you cannot accept or receive any criticism, pride has overcome you. We will sin and make many mistakes along the way, and the willingness to seek for reconciliation is a big qualification of a servant. There will always be antagonists in the church, and I believe God allows for these thorns in the flesh to keep us humble. We should see in these thorns a representation of ourselves in how we have treated the Lord, being reminded of his unfailing love for us.

I never accepted criticism well in my early years. A seasoned pastor once reminded me that he was often roasted at the Sunday lunch by his parishioners and that I should get used to this about the ministry, lest I start acting like a cult leader. I never forgot that advice.

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Reaching the Reached

A_Better_Way_HortonHave you ever felt as though the leadership in your congregation is more concerned about “outreach” and being “missional” than proclaiming the comfort of the Gospel to those that gather week after week in your local congregation?  Is the church failing to minister to you or your family effectively?  The Gospel should be proclaimed every Lord’s Day to comfort weary saints on this journey.  As Rod Rosenbladt often says, “Even Christians need the Gospel”.  In a section titled, Reaching the Reached from A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship, Michael Horton writes:

In many churches, believers have brought their children to the Lord and are raising them in the fear and knowledge of God. But instead of feeding them in fulfilling its covenantal obligations, the church too often redirects the supply to the unchurched. And the sad reality is that the unchurched are often professing Christians who are in many cases returning to church only if there are no obligations placed upon them. It is church members who first need to be regularly evangelized, regularly brought low and raised up, regularly fed on God’s great work in Christ throughout redemptive history. Well-taught, well-connected, and well-cared for congregations will be outward-looking, eager to reach others with the gospel, and dedicated to acts of service towards neighbors. They will not need canned evangelistic speeches. They will be able (with their newfound time as a result of fewer church programs) to express their faith confidently and with a genuineness that comes from having been liberated by learning more about God and his word.

Michael Horton pp. 233-234 A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship