After the Federal Vision: The Return of Moralism

August, 2008 (rev 2012)


The Federal Vision is a self-named, proposed, radical, revision of the Reformed covenant theology, doctrine of salvation, and doctrine of the church. In place of the biblical doctrine of unconditional election, it proposes to add a second, historical, conditional election on the basis of grace and cooperation with grace. According to the so-called Federal Vision theology (hereafter FV), one is not only initiated into the covenant of grace through baptism but one is also conditionally united to Christ, conditionally justified, conditionally elected and adopted through baptism. One is said to keep these benefits through cooperating with grace and persevering. Ultimately, in the FV, the two elections collapse into one, conditional election. In that sense it is a sort of covenantal Arminianism.

On the doctrine of justification, most advocates of the the FV theology, teach justification (acceptance with God) on the basis of faith (trusting) and obedience or faithfulness. Thus, the FV rejects the Reformation doctrine of justification through faith alone (sola fide). Where Scripture and Reformed theology has good works as evidence and fruit of justification, the FV movement makes our good works a part of the instrument (faith) and thus a part of the ground (basis) of our justification. Some proponents (e.g., Douglas Wilson) profess to hold to the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, a historic Reformed doctrine, but when they define faith as “faithfulness” they effectively nullify the imputation of active obedience making it rhetorical dressing, having a form of piety but denying its power (2 Tim 2:5).

At the heart of the FV movement is its denial of the biblical distinction between those who are only outward members of the covenant of grace and those who are also inward members by grace alone (sola gratia), i.e., by unconditional divine favor alone, through faith alone. This conflation of inward and outward contradicts the biblical teaching in Romans 2:28.

Proponents of the FV theology often also advocate paedocommunion, i.e., the administration of the Lord’s Supper to infants. This practice is a confusion of the two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. According to Scripture, as understood by the Reformed churches, baptism is the divinely-appointed sign and seal of formal entrance in to the covenant people (Gen 17; Acts 2:39). The Lord’s Supper is the divinely appointed sign and seal that the benefits promised in baptism have been received by grace alone, through faith alone. When communion is given to infants, the signs of covenant initiation and covenant renewal are confused.

Not surprisingly, there was a great controversy in the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches for most of ten years leading up to 2007, when many of those communions began formally rejecting the FV theology as contrary God’s Word. Since that time many of the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches (e.g., the URCNA (and here, the PCA, the RPCNA, and the RCUS) and some Reformed seminaries have rejected the the FV theology.

The FV movement is merely the latest version of moralism. The word “moralism” refers broadly to any doctrine that teaches or implies that justification (acceptance by God) is by grace and cooperation with grace or that justification is through sanctification. Thus, it includes the FV theology but it also includes Roman Catholicism and other versions. For more on this see the volume, Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.


It is an historical fact that moralism (the confusion of justification with sanctification) never dies, it just goes dormant periodically. The Reformation defeated 1000 years of moralism only to see forms of it re-emerge in the Protestant churches even before Luther died.

It resurfaced in the Remonstrant theology, in Richard Baxter (and in those orthodox Reformed whom he influenced), in the Scottish neonomians in the 18th century, in the Oxford (Tractarian) movement in the 19th century, in Charles Finney, and has more or less dominated American Protestantism (whether “evangelical” or liberal) for most of American history. Over the last few years in the NAPARC world and in satellite groups, the orthodox have won several strategic victories in the courts and assemblies of the Reformed churches. The following denominations or federations have rejected the Federal Vision/NPP and related forms of moralism (justification by grace and cooperation with grace) in no particular order (from memory): The United Reformed Churches The Orthodox Presbyterian Church The Presbyterian Church in America The Bible Presbyterian Church The Reformed Church in the United States The Orthodox Christian Reformed Church The Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America The Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States It isn’t over, however.

Moralism always returns. One subtle version of moralism that seems to be gaining a foothold in the wake of the FV movement is the notion that that the proper response to the Roman criticism that the Reformation doctrine of justification is not the alien (extrinsic) righteousness of Christ imputed but some form of “union with Christ” whether Osiander’s “Christ in us” model or “We in Christ.” In either case, the move is to say, “Look, we have real, intrinsic righteousness. It is not infused but it is actual. Our critics cannot say that we do not believe in Spirit-wrought, intrinsic righteousness.”

Certainly it is true that the Reformation churches believe in Spirit-wrought, personal righteousness but none of them believe that it is any part of the ground or instrument of justification. We call this Spirit-wrought righteousness “sanctification” and, as we understand Scripture and Christian truth, it is the consequence or the fruit of of justification sola gratia, sola fide. The problem arises when, in defense of the Reformed doctrine of sanctification, one begins to try to make sanctity more than fruit or evidence of justification.

Any answer to the critics of the Reformation that attempts to satisfy them on their own grounds, that accepts the premise of the critics, is no longer an answer but a capitulation. However vocally one affirms justification sola gratia, sola fide, if one seeks add to that a doctrine of acceptance with God partly on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity/righteousness one has already given up the biblical and Reformation doctrine. Here we need only one text: Romans 4:5, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness….” Note carefully the phrase, “justifies the ungodly.” By this Paul rejects any doctrine that teaches or even implies that we are justified because we are sanctified. One cannot be “ungodly” and sanctified at the same time.

Moralism, however, reverses Paul’s clear teaching. It says that God can only justify the godly, therefore we must be godly in order to be justified. How can they do this and profess allegiance to Paul’s doctrine? Pelagius, doubtless the greatest of moralists, said that, in this verse, when Paul says “ungodly” he was only referring to the inital stage of justification. He wrote one’s, “initial faith is credited as righteousness to the end that one may be absolved of the past, justified for the present, and readied for future works of faith.” By “future works of faith” Pelagius was saying that though our past is addressed through faith, our future acceptance with God is on the basis of “works of faith.” This is essentially the FV system and virtually every other system of acceptance with God by faith and works (faithfulness).

According to Paul, however, Christ’s obedience covers our past and our future. This is what our Lord meant when he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Moralism says, “It is begun.” These are two different, mutually contradictory accounts of the faith.

As sinners accepted freely by only for Christ’s sake, we ought, by grace alone, through faith alone, struggle against sin, die to it daily, and seek to to be conformed to God’s law through the power of the Spirit, in union with Christ because we have been justified. Consider, e.g., 1 Corinthians 6:20, “for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” or Galatians 5 where Paul reminds believers that they have been graciously set free and then, in v. 13, reminds them that their new freedom is not a license to sin. Should we sin that God’s free, unconditional favor might abound? No! (Rom 6:1). This is Paul’s paradigm: God’s undeserved favor toward sinners, in Christ produces new life in us and that leads to gratitude and that is lived out by grace.

However well intended, the attempt to weld the biblical, Reformation doctrine of justification to the notion of an intrinsic ground of acceptance with God is as incoherent as it is unstable. It has two competing principles at work. The doctrine of salvation and the doctrine of the Christian life cannot serve two masters: acceptance on the basis of intrinsic sanctity/righteousness (however construed and for whatever reason) and acceptance with God on the basis of extrinsic righteousness imputed. It must love the one and hate the other.

The reality is that the Reformation cannot satisfy moralism and moralism is relentless and restless. It is always seeking whom it may devour. Moralism is not satisfied with the gospel mystery of sanctification, that it is the fruit and not the root of our justification. It seems so much more reasonable to say that we are justified because we are sanctified. That may be but on such a principle how much of Christianity would stand? Nothing. After all, how “reasonable” is it to say that Christ is one person with two natures or that God is one in three persons? On the ground of “reasonableness” (as some define it) the Socinians rejected Christ’s divinity, the Trinity, and the substitutionary atonement.

Moralism will only satisfied with total victory because it is opposed to the Gospel of free grace. Moralism will not give up because it does not really believe that we all, in Adam (Rom 5:12–21), are dead in sins and trespasses (Eph 2:1–4). Rather, it begins with the assumption that though we are sinful we are not so sinful that we cannot contribute (even if just a little) to our own acceptance with God. This premise is not always made explicit. It must be mined, as it were, but it is always there. Those who know the greatness of their sin and misery in Adam would never, could never imagine that anything they do, even by grace and cooperation with grace, could contribute at all to Christ’s finished work for us.

This is why moralism will never be entirely vanquished in this life. It may go publicly, temporarily dormant for a time but it always returns. This is why we must never say to ourselves or to each other, “We all know what the gospel is, now let us go on to the Christian life.” The minute we say that we’ve lost the foundation of the house and the power of the Christian life. It is like saying, “We all know how to breathe, so let us forget about breathing and get to exercising.” People who say that have never exercised. If you want to live a Christian life, start with the declaration of the good news. How do we confront sin in our lives? We reckon with the law. How is sin defeated? By the gospel and only by the gospel. The law has no power to defeat sin. The law only has power to convict and guide. The law is like railroad tracks. To go off the tracks is destruction but the tracks do not move the train. Only God the Spirit empowers the Christian to live Christianly and he does so only through the frequent and faithful declaration of the good news to sinners.

Christian, when you stand here the moralists will call you antinomian. Do not be intimidated. Just as they redefine the gospel to become grace and cooperation with grace, so too they have redefined “antinomian” to mean, “any one who denies any form of acceptance with God on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity or righteousness.” In truth, antinomianism is denial of the third use of the law, i.e., that the moral law (e.g., Exodus 20; Matt 22:37–40) is the abiding norm of the Christian life. No Reformed Christian can deny the third use of the law and still be faithful to God’s Word and the Reformed confessions.

How should we regard those who advocate moralism? After a conflict, like the FV controversy, we might be tempted to take the position to let bygones be bygones. After all, conflict is difficult and painful and we want to make it go away. That would be a mistake. First, in some ecclesiastical bodies there are ongoing disciplinary cases concerning the FV doctrine. Even though denominations have adopted statements and received reports, the FV movement exists and is promoted in some denominations (e.g., in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches) and there are ongoing ecclesiastical cases involving the FV doctrines in others.

Consider the case of Richard Baxter (1615–91), who sponsored a crisis in the doctrine of justification. His 1649 Aphorismes of Justification taught quite clearly that faith justifies because it obeys (thesis 74). Where the orthodox (e.g., Westminster Larger Catechism, 70–73) had been explicit that only Christ’s obedience is the ground and that, in the act of justification, faith’s only virtue is that it trusts Christ’s finished work. Baxter’s revision of the doctrine of justification prompted sharp responses from John Owen, who’s 1677 treatise On the Doctrine of Justification By Faith was, in effect, an extended repudiation of Baxter (The Works of John Owen, 16 vols (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust), vol. 5).*

Despite this history, Baxter is still widely regarded as a “Reformed” theologian, if only on the basis of his widely read volume, The Reformed Pastor. Baxter’s theology, however, is better measured by the effect of his doctrine on his congregation in Kidderminster. Today, Baxter’s parish church is a Unitarian meeting house that proudly houses his pulpit and his collected works. There are logical connections between Baxter and Unitarianism. J. I. Packer has noted the effect of Baxter’s sub-Reformed doctrine of the atonement and its connection to the rise of Unitarianism. There is also a logical connection between Baxter’s moralism and Unitarianism. Both are grounded in rationalism. Because, however, we have politely papered over Baxter’s defection from the Reformation and the consequences of his errors, evangelicals today are surprised to learn the history and connection. Kidderminster should stand as a monument to the dangers of moralism. Thus, we too should resist the contemporary urge to rehabilitate the advocates of moralism, whether they be repainted as defenders of the faith against the New Atheists, or leaders of the homeschooling movement, or defenders of socio-political conservatism.

How then should we reply to moralism? The only reply is twofold: First, preach the law. Though it is counter-intuitive, the first thing that every moralist needs to hear is the law. People become moralists because they do not really believe that they are sinners and because they think, like Saul of Tarsus, that are masters of the law (rather than being mastered by the law). They need to be knocked to the ground by the holy glory of Christ (Acts 9:3). They need to become sinners (Luther), as it were, i.e., they need to realize their true condition. They also lack a true knowledge of the righteousness and holiness and wrath of God and thus they lack a proper fear of God’s holy wrath. When they have heard the thunder of the law in all it is unmitigated, holy, and just demand for perfect, perpetual, and personal righteousness, then should we announce to them the sweet gospel message.

We can no more satisfy moralism on its own grounds than Paul could satisfy the pagans at the Areopagus (Acts 17). He preached the (natural) law and the foolish (supernatural) gospel of the resurrection. Some believed, most did not. That’s all we can hope. Moralism will be back. Bank on it. The conflict between grace and moralism is not over because it can never be over until history is over.


*This paragraph taken from R. Scott Clark, ed. Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry..

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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