A pastor wrote recently to ask how he should introduce his elders to the fact that there are supporters of the FV in his denomination (federation). It’s a good question. It can be discouraging to hear about things such as the FV. When a man becomes an elder he probably is thinking about caring for his local congregation. He probably isn’t thinking about serious—even grave—doctrinal error in his congregation or in the broader federation (denomination) of churches. After all, it’s not as if we don’t confess a particular understanding of the gospel, justification, and salvation. It’s not as if we haven’t reached a consensus about the basic outlines of covenant theology. He believes it and he might just assume that everyone else does too.
An elder might be forgiven for expecting ministers to be faithful to what we confess, to what we have subscribed but it’s naive to think that ministers aren’t subject to theological temptations. They are. Sometimes they begin with a bad foundation, they just aren’t well grounded in the truth or deeply grounded in the Scripture, catechism, and confession. Sometimes they have a good foundation but they drift from it because they want to be “hip;” they are taken with dangerous ideas cleverly and well expressed. Sometimes they are arrogant. They think they know and understand more than they really do.
Whatever the exact reason it’s clear that the Federal Vision movement is a sort of theological cancer. It corrupts truth and, like cancer, it makes healthy things (e.g., the doctrine of election, covenant theology, or the necessity of sanctification) into harmful things. Left untreated, this theological cancer, like the biological kind, will spread and make the patient (the churches) sick unto death. Like cancer, the FV is not always easy to distinguish from healthy tissue. Once it has emerged and been treated (as it has been in the URCs in 2004 and 2007) it can re- emerge. It may be that denominations and federations that have been diagnosed as having the FV cancer may never be cured. They may only be in remission.
So, how does a pastor break the bad news to his elders? Well, a pastor talks to his elders and even to his congregation the way that a good physician talks to his patient: plainly and patiently. “I’m sorry to say that I have some bad news. You have a very serious form of cancer. The good news, however, is that it is treatable and if it is treated aggressively you’ll live a normal life. If left untreated, however, it will only become worse and eventually you will die.”
As it happens, the URCs received preliminary treatment for the FV cancer in 2004, after a minister was found to have preached at least one sermon advocating the FV doctrine that, at the judgment, believers shall stand before God partly on the basis of intrinsic, Spirit-wrought sanctity. This sermon was rejected as confusing and Synod adopted a three-point statement affirming justification sola fide and the imputation of Christ’s active obedience as the ground of our acceptance with God. In 2007, Synod undertook more serious treatment of the disease by adopting pastoral advice in the form of Nine Points. They also instituted a study committee to consider how the URCs should respond to the FV challenge to the gospel. The doctors did good work in their study.
Some in the URCs, however, seem to think that the patient is out of the woods. Others may even think that what the Synod treated as cancer in 2004 and 2007 and which the study committee formally diagnosed as cancer in its report is not really dangerous at all and that it requires no treatment. Some think that the treatment is too radical, too harsh. It’s not unusual for a patient to reject a doctor’s diagnosis. It’s called being “in denial.” It’s a little unusual for a patient to remain in denial, however. If he does he will likely die. A good doctor will risk the patient’s wrath and press the case for treatment. “Look here, you have cancer. It’s treatable but if you pretend that you don’t have a disease it will only get worse and at some point we won’t be able to treat it.”
The Lord and Savior of his church will not lose any of those who are his, whom he has loved from all eternity, for whom he laid down his life but he preserves his church through means and chief among those means are the keys of the kingdom: the preaching of the good news and church discipline. The good news is that Jesus the Savior obeyed for his people, died for his people, and was raised for their justification. Church discipline is, in large measure, insisting that the church remain faithful to the good news and chastening those who depart from or corrupt it.
May the Lord grant us the courage this summer once again to see ourselves for what we are, the gospel for what it is and the grace to believe and act on it.
[This post first appeared on the HB in 2010]