A Form For Penitent Ex-Federal Visionaries

repentance“To all whom this these presents do come, I hereby declare that I really and heartily believe in form and substance what the Reformed churches confess, that God declares sinners righteous sola gratia, sola fide, only on the ground of the imputation of the whole and perfect obedience of Christ. I also confess that being caught up in the fever of the moment, I was attracted to the anti-revivalist rhetoric of the Federal Vision movement and my enthusiasm for their anti-revivalism and anti-subjectivism lead me to embrace doctrines and practices I now recognize to have been mistaken.

I confess now that I embraced the movement without fully understanding the implications of their theology and practice. I hereby repent of failing to distinguish the law and the gospel as Reformed folk have done for four-hundred years, of denying the covenant of works, of confusing it with the covenant of grace, of teaching viz. the ordo salutis, a temporary, conditional election alongside the eternal unconditional election and of sometimes conflating the two, of teaching temporary possession of baptismal benefits such as union with Christ, adoption, and justification that are said to be conditioned upon my faithfulness and thereby implicitly denying the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. I hereby repent of denying the visible/invisible distinction, of denying that there are two ways of being in the one covenant of grace, of attempting to revise the definition of faith in the act of justification to include Spirit-wrought sanctity.

I repent of trying to smuggle into the doctrine of justification the doctrine of condign merit whereby God reckons me righteous partly on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity, and of trying to smuggle into the doctrine of justification the doctrine of congruent merit whereby God is said to approve graciously of my best efforts to cooperate with grace toward justification. I repent of equivocating about justification as present and future in the same sense. I admit that all believers are fully justified now and shall be vindicated as such at the judgment. I repent of trying to enlarge faith in the act of justification to be more than simply “receiving and resting” on Christ and his finished work, of trying to include fruit and sanctity in the act of justification in either faith or the ground of justification rather than simply allowing them to be fruit and evidence of justification.

I repent of confusing baptism and the Lord’s Supper as signs and seals of initiation and renewal and thereby trying to commune infants and others before their catechizing and credible profession of faith. I repent of troubling the churches before bothering to learn the rudiments of Reformed theology, before learning the basic distinctions of the Reformed confession, of wasting the time of the church courts and assemblies, in forcing them to teach me in committee reports what I should have learned in seminary had I paid attention. Most heartily of all I repent of being confusing about the one thing about which a minister should never ever be confusing, about which our confessions are completely and utterly unambiguous, about which the entire Protestant Reformation agreed: how sinners are right before God.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

That should about do it.

Don’t say that I never did anything for you.

First published in 22 August, 2008.

32 comments

  1. In a word, yes. There’s a reason that the Heidelberg Catechism says:

    81. Who are to come to the table of the Lord?

    Those who are displeased with themselves for their sins, yet trust that these are forgiven them, and that their remaining infirmity is covered by the passion and death of Christ; who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to amend their life. But the impenitent and hypocrites eat and drink judgment to themselves.

    There is a reason that the Reformed churches required children to memorize and repeat the catechism as part of their profession of faith.

    There’s no reason for ostensibly Reformed folk to confuse the sign/seal of initiation in the visible covenant community and the sign/seal of renewal. Baptism recognizes one as a covenant child. We admit children (not infants) to the table when they demonstrate that they understand what it means to eat the body of Christ. Infants can’t meet this test. There’s no confusion about the Reformed understanding of the Supper.

  2. So you saying that 1 Corinthians 11 was written to be a test, a means of keeping some from the table? There is some intelligence test we should administer to the mentally-handicapped before letting them partake of the Table? Or maybe we should dig up some Baptist literature on the Age of Accountability so we can determine when covenant children are able to come? Oh wait, we baptize our children and tell them they are members of the covenant community until they probe otherwise, but we should treat them like unrepentant sinners (by withholding the cup of communion from them) until they pass our standards of reasoning? I see nothing in 1 Cor 11 that’s not everywhere else in the Bible, warnings to be serious and earnest that are nowhere else used as a gatekeeper. OT children took the Passover as soon as they could eat it and children of believers should do likewise.

    • Robert: The Reformed have always made room for the mentally handicapped. My own son (step-son actually) was severely & profoundly handicapped. He was not even capable of physically partaking of the Supper. Yet the reality signified by that Supper was his. His mother and I are comforted by God’s covenantal promises and rejoice that he is with our Lord and Savior without ever a drop of communion wine or crumb of communion loaf. All the promises come to God’s children in God’s timing.

  3. Robert,

    Your problem is not with me but with the entire Reformed church. The Greek Orthodox Church, otoh, welcomes your agreement with them.

    Yes, 1 Cor 11 is a test of sorts. Yet, somehow the Reformed Churches have always been able to make allowances for the mentally handicapped on the grounds that they can never become capable. As they say, hard cases make bad law. Paul assumes ordinary rational capacity in 1 Cor 11.

    The Reformed distinction is between initiation and renewal. Baptism and the Supper are two different sacraments performing two distinct functions. The Baptist error is to conflate the two. Thus, ironically, it is the FV/paedocommunionists, mostly ex-fundamentalist Baptists, who continue to perpetuate the Baptist error by asking two sacraments to do the same thing, either making both signs of renewal (Baptist) or making both signs of initiation (Eastern Orthodoxy and Paedocommunion).

    • If 1 Cor 11 is a test, and I agree that it is, what is it testing, and how is it testing it? I think this is where the PC argument succeeds. It is certainly not testing knowledge of information.

      The requirement for catechism recitation is simply unbiblical, but that’s not surprising considering most Reformed denominations (at least, those with which I am familiar): the Bible’s requirements for being an elder certainly include knowledge of doctrine and Scripture, but the weight of the requirements are moral/character issues. Yet to make a man a pastor, we require a degree, passing a number of tests on Bible, history, etc., and then a sermon that is a compelling, humble, intelligent, interesting, witty, culturally relevant and self-depricating discussion on the Word of God. It’s all brains!

      What is Paul requiring in the “test” of 1 Cor 11? What is it to discern the body?

    • I did, but I still think Dr. Venema gets it wrong on 1 Cor. 11. However, even if I were to grant Dr. Venema’s reading of the text (which is, unhappily for me, the historic reading of the text), it wouldn’t change the fact that the WLC 167 makes no excuse for infants not improving their baptisms. In other words, everyone recognizes that there are certain things that an infant won’t do as an adult ought to do. But as they grow, are required to do to the best of their ability. Scripture does this also – the Bible nowhere condemns babies because they don’t worship God as the Scriptures demand, or prevents babies from eating because he doesn’t work. AND even if I were to grant the reading andthe argument, it wouldn’t change the fact that requiring memorization of a whole catechism is far more than the Bible requires, and amounts to adding requirements to Scripture that Scripture does not contain.

  4. Robert,

    I sympathize with your concerns. But, coupled with what RSC is saying, it has always seemed to me that the way to correct a form of intellectualism (that sadly goes mostly unadmitted) is not a rush to the Table but a restoration of catechesis.

    In my own Dutch Reformed environs it is joked that there is required a valid driver’s license and either a high school diploma/college degree before a covenant child may join us at the Table. Humor has a way of revealing truth, and many have a sense of the implict rationalism that can afflict. Answer? Paedocommunion. Whatever else is wrong with that solution, it seems to me an easy and natural one for those who have neglected catechesis in the first place.

  5. The answer to this is to catechize our children at an earlier age. Calvin thought that children should be able to memorize and recite his (massive) catechism by age 10! Read the various denominational reports on “why we’re losing our children.” They almost never say, “Maybe we should go back to the old Reformed practice.” It’s almost always some new measure (a program) or other (more youth groups, retreats, revivals, GEMS and the like).

  6. Scott,

    Exactly. “Just Say No” to church subculture.

    http://confessionalouthouse.wordpress.com/2008/08/26/just-say-no/

    But if you don’t mind, I’ll take a pass on the notion that one time and place ought to ape another. All in due time. For now, I relish a six-year-old stumbling through the word “justification.” For any with one like mine who struggles with its pronunication, tell them to think of explaining your last boring trip to Grandma’s house as “just a vacation.”

  7. RSC: Say you’ve got some 8 year old whose memorized the Catechism and knows they’re saved and looks to their baptism as a sign that they are Christs’. Then they start acting up and are unrepentant towards their parents and in Sunday School. When you have them before some church meeting and you rightly want to tell them that their soul is in danger, how are you going to back it up? They’re already excluded from the fellowship of believers because they don’t partake of the same cup. I don’t think this is confusing the point of the individual sacraments to say we are withholding one of them from this child and it is _you_ who are advocating a Baptist like age-of-accountability.

    Now feel free to tell me what denomination I would be happier in as your Reformed tradition tolerates no difference of opinion.

  8. Robert,

    No baptized covenant child is excluded from the fellowship. That’s a false premise. The table is the sign and seal of renewal but the grace received in the preaching of the Word is the same grace. Yes, we want our children to receive the benefits of the sign/seal of confirmation (HC 65), we want the Spirit to use the sacrament to strengthen their union with Christ and to strengthen their assurance, but not before they have demonstrated that they understand that the table is a sign/seal of renewal and as there is jeopardy attached.

    Having raised two children who have made profession of faith, the drama you describe was entirely missing and unnecessary. My children wanted to come to the table and we wanted them to come. We catechized them and presented to them to the elders when they were ready. The elders heard their profession of faith and admitted them to the table.

    They rejoiced and we rejoiced with them.

    It’s not for me to tell you where you ought to go if you cannot stomach the Reformed faith and practice. I’m only asking folks to stop practicing E. Orthodoxy and calling it “Reformed.”

  9. I’ll continue to be Reformed and Presbyterian here in the Northwest Prebytery of the PCA, where differences of opinion by godly men over non-salvific issues don’t garner the h-bombs from contentious theology snobs.

    • Robert – I’m not sure how old you are or what your position is in the church..? The words you’re publicly wielding and the attitude behind it is frightening.

      Dr. Clark is simply holding FV pastors to the confession they are duty-bound to uphold. As you know, withholding communion from children has been part and parcel of the Reformed understanding of scripture for 450 years, so you are arguing not with him but with Calvin, Olivianus, Ursinus, de Bres, et al. The purpose of the confession is to keep order in the Church and protect the sheep from error or heresy. If you want a church that doesn’t hold its pastors to what they have vowed to teach their congregations, go check out the PCUSA.

      I have struggled with this issue, I might add — but it is not for me to overturn the doctrine of an entire church body. It ought to make us tremble to stir up strife over this. If there is a doctrine that is at odds with scripture in our confessions, the means of changing it is by fearfully, carefully exegeting God’s Word in accord with our brothers not assuming ourselves better than anyone, in full submission to authority, in the process set forth by the governing body. Disagreeing with the afore mentioned ought to give us great pause, especially before lambasting ministers publicly.

  10. It appears that the tide has turned against the FV. I hope that it’s days are numbered and it will go the way of the dodo bird. However, the damage it has done pastorally speaking will continue to plague Reformed communities for years to come.

  11. We have a young man in our congregation, new to the Reformed faith, who has latched onto Greg Bahnsen, theonomy, and Vision Forum, who throws up the language of the FVers when challenged what he is learning is contrary to the Reformed faith. Do you have any general advice, Pastor Johnson, on how to approach such a guy pastorally?

    • Richard,

      Not that you asked me … but:

      I think it is really important to make distinctions when talking with a young man like this. Instead of “warning” him about Dr. Bahnsen as though he were toxic, it is better to say something like this:

      “Our goal is to follow Jesus Christ and not even one of His choicest saints. In my judgment, Dr. Bahnsen will really help you do this in the area of apologetics. Indeed, Dr. Bahnsen was one of the outstanding apologists of our generation. On the other hand, I believe Dr. Bahsen will lead you away from the truth in the area of civil ethics. This isn’t to be hyper-critical of Bahnsen. After all, we all have areas of significant deficiency in our theology. Thankfully, Jesus hasn’t simply left us to ourselves but has made us members of His church. For this reason it is wise to start with, and give significant deference to, the consensus of the Reformed Confessions (See WCF 19:3) over the views of any individual teacher. It is only after we understand the Confessions and the arguments for them that we should even consider, with great reluctance and humility, trying to convince the rest of our brothers in Christ that the Reformed Confessions are in error at one point or another.”

      It may also be helpful to find those areas in Dr. Bahnsen’s theology where he was at odds with the modern FV movement and to present these to the young man you are seeking to help.

      Best wishes,

      David

    • David,

      There may have been areas where he was at odds with what became the FV movement but he was a strong supporter of Norm Shepherd’s theology (so testifies his son). This has been documented repeatedly.

    • Dr. Clark,

      I agree. I am simply addressing a practical issue in dealing with a young man who may see himself as walking in the footsteps of someone they admire. For example, I am pretty sure that Dr. Bahnsen taught that necessity of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification (which has become optional among the FV). By showing that there are some differences – I would hope that this would serve as an encouragement toward being more critical of current FV leaders.

      If that is not the right tack, I still stand by my other claim that it is good to be able to recognize where someone you disagree with excels (e.g. Bahnsen in apologetics) so that the young man can realize that we are not simply speaking out of a party spirit.

      David

    • I agree re partisanhip. Amen. I also think, however, that the same quest that gives us the FV also gives us theonomy. Further, I wonder if it hasn’t affected his appropriation of Van Til?

      Sent from my iPhone

  12. Somehow, the words “Thomas” and “Cranmer” come to mind when reading this post. I wonder why.

  13. Richard
    Send him over to Wes White’s blog. Wes has posted a number of critiques of the FV from a pastor’s perspective. After that have him go through the stuff Scott has here on the HB.

  14. What’s wrong with anti-revivalism? Anti-revivalism is anti-confessional as much as FV is.

  15. With regard to the issue of paedocommunion, it might be helpful to point out that for Presbyterians who confess the Westminster Larger Catechism, admission to the Lord’s Supper is conditioned upon the prospective communicants being ‘of years and ability to examine themselves.’ (WLC 177) The Scriptures require that ‘a man examine himself,’ and with such self examination, so to partake. (1 Cor. 11.28-29) The biblical requirements of that self-examination are rightly described earlier in the Larger Catechism at Q&A 171. This definitely necessitates a level of spiritual maturity.

    When we as Elders examine someone for admission to the Lord’s Table, we are required to ascertain three things to the best of our ability: first, that the individual is a baptised member in good standing of the visible church; second, that the individual has made a credible profession of faith; and third, that the individual is of years and ability to examine himself. This is simply what the Scriptures require and what we confess. Thankfully, the BCO of the PCA is quite explicit in this regard (BCO ch. 6, especially 6-2, and 6-4).

    It should be noted that this Confessional position properly distinguishes between a genuine profession of faith, and the growth in grace (i.e., spiritual maturity for self-examination) which is requisite for admission to the Lord’s Supper.

  16. I am sorry I missed this piece when it came out back in’08. The insights into what’s wrong with the FV (and paedocommunion) are keen and undimmed by the delightfully satirical aspects of this “confession.”

    There has been and there is continuing serious division sown in the Reformed churches with “anti-revivalist” and “anti-subjectivist” rhetoric. While we we’re at it, maybe it’s time to call for a moratorium on “anti-crypto-baptist” rhetoric as well, as in slamming brothers and sisters who recoil from certain sacramental, liturgical and monocovenantal novelties as somehow “Baptyterian” (a particularly ugly neologism that deserves to die).

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