The URCNA Committee Report On The Federal Vision

4. Justification by the Instrument of an “Obedient Faith”
In the writings of FV authors, however, faith, even in respect to its instrumentality for justification, is defined differently. Norman Shepherd, for example, persistently speaks of the instrument of justification as a “living,” “obedient” faith (or “faithfulness”). Rather than distinguishing between faith as instrument of justification and the works that such faith produces, Shepherd insists that faith justifies by virtue of the obedience it produces. The “works” that are excluded, when we speak of justification “by faith alone,” are only those works that are performed in order to “merit” acceptance and favor with God. Once the whole idea of “merit” or “meritorious” works is rejected, we may speak of one “method of justification” that holds for Adam (and all men in Adam) before the Fall, for Christ himself, and for all believers. The one method of justification in the covenant relationship before the Fall and after the Fall involves God’s crediting the believer’s obedient faith for righteousness. Though Shepherd acknowledges that there is an additional factor in the post-Fall state, namely, the provision for the believer’s forgiveness on the basis of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, he maintains that justification always is obtained by way of an active, obedient faith. It is by way of the obedience of faith that the believer finds, maintains, and ultimately enjoys acceptance and favor with God. The problem with this understanding of faith in relation to justification is that it commits what Ursinus in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism calls a “fallacy of composition.” Though it may be true that justifying faith is “not alone,” it is not true that the works of faith belong to faith as an instrument of justification. The contrast between faith and works in respect to the believer’s justification is absolute (Rom. 3:27; 4:6, 13; 9:11; 11:6; Gal. 2:16; Tit. 3:5; Eph. 2:9). No human works, not even those “fruits of thankfulness” that God graciously rewards in the believer, play any role instrumental to the justification of believers. All of our works are unable to meet the standard of perfect righteousness that is revealed in the holy law of God. Such works cannot be the whole or the part of our righteousness before God. They merit nothing so far as our righteousness before God is concerned. The persistent and studied ambiguity of FV authors like Norman Shepherd compromises this truth in the most fundamental manner. By redefining faith in its instrumental role for justification to include the non-meritorious works that true faith produces, human works are made to be constitutive of the way believers are justified.

5. The Role of Baptism as an Instrument of Justification
One of the recurring themes in the writings of FV authors is an emphasis upon the efficacy of the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of baptism, in the communication of the grace of Christ to His people. Some authors even use the language of “baptismal regeneration” to underscore the constitutive significance of baptism, not only as a sign and seal of the covenant promise in Christ, but as the instrument that actually effects saving union with Christ and all His benefits. All those who are baptized, head-for-head, are not merely to be regarded as recipients of the gospel promise in an “objective” sense; they actually possess immediately, on account of their baptism, all that the sacrament visibly declares and confirms. The consequence of this unqualified and exaggerated view of baptismal efficacy for the doctrine of justification is not difficult to ascertain. Because baptized believers and their children are savingly united to Christ and therefore in possession of the grace that the sacrament attests, the grace of justification may also be viewed as a grace conferred by the sacrament itself. In the writings of FV authors, it is sometimes asserted that all those who are embraced by the administration of the covenant should be regarded as already possessing the fullness of salvation in Christ.

The FV emphasis upon the efficacy of baptism is difficult to distinguish from the traditional Roman Catholic view. Like the Roman Catholic doctrine, it distorts the relation between the Word and sacraments as “means of grace.” In the biblical and Reformed view, the Holy Spirit uses principally the preaching of the Word and promise of the gospel to produce faith and thereby savingly join believers with Christ. The sacraments are appointed as a means whereby the Spirit confirms and strengthens faith. However, ordinarily neither the Word nor the sacraments work effectively as “means of grace” apart from the response of faith that they produce and confirm. Without the response of faith, which the Holy Spirit authors through the use of these means, we may not say that every recipient of the gospel promise or sacramental sign and seal of that promise is in possession of the grace of Christ. In the confessional and biblical understanding of justification, faith is the sole instrument whereby the grace of free justification is received. Though the sacraments are not to be disparaged or diminished in their importance as a means of grace, we may not ascribe to baptism a kind of instrumental efficacy apart from the proper use of the sacrament in the way of faith. The inevitable fruit of the FV emphasis upon the efficacy of the sacrament of baptism is the advocacy of a quasi-Roman Catholic doctrine of baptism as an instrument of justification. However, the biblical and confessional doctrine of justification ascribes such instrumentality to faith alone. Baptism does not confer the grace of justification apart from faith in the gospel promised, which is produced by the Spirit through the Word.

1. FV Distinctives and the Doctrine of Justification
In our summary of a number of distinctive themes in the FV movement, we identified several that are of particular significance for the doctrine of justification. In our judgment, the following FV themes have implications that are inconsistent with the Scriptural and confessional view of justification:

a. The FV insistence upon the close connection, even coincidence, between election and covenant, which leads to the unqualified claim that all members of the covenant community enjoy the gospel blessing of justification in Christ.

b. The FV claim that all members of the church are savingly united to Christ, even though some do not persevere in the way of faith and obedience and lose the grace of justification through apostasy.

c. The FV emphasis that the obligations of believers in the covenant of grace parallel the obligations of Adam in his fellowship with God before the fall, thereby undermining the sheer graciousness of the believer’s justification and salvation in Christ.

d. The FV denial of the meritorious character of Christ’s work as Mediator, who fulfills all the obligations of the law on behalf of His people and secures their inheritance of eternal life.

e. The FV tendency to reduce justification to the forgiveness of sins, which is based upon the imputation of Christ’s passive obedience alone.

f. The FV emphasis upon a “living” or “obedient” faith in the definition of its role as the instrument for receiving the grace of justification in Christ.

g. The FV teaching that the sacrament of baptism effectively incorporates all of its recipients into Christ, and puts them in possession of all the benefits of His saving work, including justification.

h. The FV insistence that all covenant children be admitted to the Lord’s Supper without having professed the kind of faith that is able to discern the body of Christ, remember His sacrifice upon the cross, and proclaim His death until He comes again.

i. The FV attempt to resolve the problem of assurance by an appeal to the “objectivity” of church membership and the sacrament of baptism, while insisting that some believers may lose their salvation because of a non persevering faith.

2. The F V Distortion of the Doctrine of Justification In the judgment of our Committee, the seriousness of the errors of the FV
movement is most apparent in relation to the doctrine of justification. Though it is never satisfactory for office-bearers in Reformed churches to formulate their views in a confusing manner, or in a way that hardly seems consistent with the Confession’s summary of Scriptural teaching, confusion and inconsistency on the doctrine of justification by those who hold to the Reformed Confessions is inexcusable. It is the opinion of our Committee that, on the doctrine of justification, the FV movement has not only contributed to confusion in the churches but also failed to guard the gospel of free justification on the basis of Christ’s work alone from serious error. We agree with those Presbyterian and Reformed churches that have issued similar reports, and that have called FV proponents to repentance, urging them to proclaim and promote the biblical truths of the Reformation. Only in this way will the churches be built up in the most holy faith, once for all entrusted to the saints, and God be glorified in the salvation of His people.The doctrine of justification is more than simply one biblical teaching among many. Justification is, as Calvin termed it, the “main hinge of the Christian religion.” It is “the article of the standing and falling of the church” (Luther: articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae). Though the grace of free justification does not encompass the whole of the message of the gospel, it does lie at its core. Unless sinners are restored to favor and acceptance with God upon the basis of the works and merits of Christ alone, they will ever remain liable to condemnation and death. Guilty, disobedient sinners have no hope for restored communion with the living God apart from the perfect work of Christ as Mediator on their behalf. The glory of Christ’s work on behalf of His people is that He has “fully satisfied for all their sins.” Every obligation “under the law” has been met for believers by the obedience, satisfaction, and righteousness of Christ. The gospel promise of free justification in Christ is, indeed, what Calvin termed the “main hinge” of the Christian religion. Consequently, when the Heidelberg Catechism raises the question, “What profit is there now that you believe all this?” (that is, the Christian faith as it is summarized in the words of the Apostles Creed), the answer is: “I am righteous before God in Christ, and an heir of eternal life.” For Reformed believers and churches, no truth is more precious or worthy of more ardent defense. In the words of John Calvin, “For this is the key which openeth whatsoever is requisite to our salvation; this is the means to decide all controversies; this is the foundation of all true religion; to be short, this is that setteth open the heavens unto us.” In our survey of the revisions to the doctrine of justification that are advocated by writers of the FV, we have identified several serious errors that imperil this gospel of free acceptance in Christ. The justification of believers is diminished to refer only to the forgiveness of sins. Rather than a rich and fulsome pronouncement of the believer’s positive righteousness before God, justification is reduced to the pronouncement that the believer is no longer regarded to be guilty. Because justification means only the forgiveness of sins, it does not include the glorious pronouncement that all the requirements of obedience to the law have been met in Christ and are the believer’s through gracious imputation. The denial of the imputation of Christ’s entire obedience for justification, which is an inevitable consequence of this reductionist view of justification, has a most undesirable, yet unsurprising, consequence: believers must maintain and secure their justification before God in the way of the obedience of faith or by means of a living, obedient faith. The good works that faith produces by the ministry of the Holy Spirit are inserted into faith as the instrument of justification. Therefore, by denying the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, believers are merely restored to the position Adam, the original representative head of the human race, possessed before the Fall into sin. In order to maintain and secure their justification before God, believers find themselves under the same obligation that existed in the original covenant relationship between God and man before the Fall. The irony of the FV denial of Christ’s fulfillment of all the requirements of the law on behalf of His people, is that it turns the gospel into a renewed and restored form of the original covenant between the Triune God and His people. To use the language of the Reformed tradition, the covenant of grace becomes a “covenant of works,” and the gospel is transformed into a new “law.” By the standard of biblical and confessional teaching, this reformulation of the doctrine of justification by FV writers stands condemned. Contrary to the biblical teaching, which ascribes everything necessary to justification to the works and merits of Christ, the unwillingness of some FV writers to affirm the imputation of Christ’s entire obedience for justification leaves believers “under the law” so far as their justification before God is concerned. Rather than a radical contrast between justification by grace alone through faith alone, apart from works of any kind, a distinction is drawn between “meritorious” works, which play no role in justification, and “non meritorious” works, which do play a role in justification. To the degree that Christ’s works and merits in their entirety are excluded from the basis for the believer’s justification, to that degree the works of faith are included within faith as an instrument for justification. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that this reformulation of the doctrine of justification diminishes the work of Christ and enlarges the role played by the works of believers (cf. Gal. 2:21b, “For if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”). Furthermore, the assurance of favor and acceptance with God, which the confessional teaching undergirds, is undermined in the formulations of FV proponents. Rather than resting entirely in the perfect righteousness of Christ, believers are encouraged to think that their covenantal faithfulness plays some role “in order to” their justification before God. As a result, the testimony of the gospel is compromised and the confident assurance of believers in God’s justifying verdict is undermined. The church must proclaim clearly that justification is “by grace alone through faith alone,” for only then will she truly give glory “to God alone.”

URCNA Report On Federal Vision (2009)

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  1. Hi Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for sharing this quote.

    Regarding section four above, it seems that the URCNA is saying:

    FV: Justification by obedient faith alone.
    URCNA (and the Bible): Justification by faith alone.

    Is my understanding correct?

    I am very thankful for the URCNA’s work. If I am understanding them correctly, this statement can bring great help and health to all branches of Christ’s Church.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for your continued work on this subject. About 3 to 4 weeks ago I had a conversation with a NAPARC elder on the subject of Federal Vision theology. In a nutshell I was told that this issue is really not that big of a deal and that none or very few of the Federal Vision Leaders actually hold to or subscribe to these distortions the doctrine of justification by faith they are being accused of. It is fair to say that he had a general soft-pedaling attitude towards federal vision theology and the new perspectives on Paul. He stated that men like Peter Leithart do not subscribe to what they are accused of and in fact they do not believe that we are justified by our faithfulness or our obedience and that FV leaders are very careful to make that clear. He went on to say….that FV leaders are simply saying that our works and obedience matter lest we grow lax, etc. When I pointed out the fact that having read many of the federal vision Leaders directly myself and that they do in fact over emphasize and put the locus of spotlight on our works and obediance, that they do in fact have this issue (justification) wrong, I was told in a rather condescending way …. “Well, overemphasis is not a heresy.” He all but stated that he thinks it’s A-OK for us to put the primary focus of the Christian life, whether on the topic of justification or any other issue of Christian life on what we do, our obedience, our faithfulness. (basically seemed to have this attitude that if we give them too much grace they will become antinomians) He seemed A OK with that. When I pointed out the fact that often times a type of federal vision theology manifests itself via well intentioned ministry slogans like… “We need to do the gospel or we need to be the gospel” and other such Neo- social gospel zeitgeist again I was met with an attitude of dismissal. I could go on but for the sake of time I think you get the point.

    So here are my questions for you, what do you attribute this seemingly indifferent attitude that so many elders, pastors and theologians within the Reformed community have towards this important topic of justification as it relates to the federal vision issue? This despite the fact that so many NAPARC churches wrote study committee papers. Why do so many within the reformed community read (assuming they are) a Leithart or other Federal Vision leader and see something completely different than what you and I are clearly reading? I think I have some pretty sound answers to these questions of why NAPARC has no teeth to these “committee reports” but I would love to hear your take on it.

    • E (which was one of Elvis’ nicknames),

      In my experience when people downplay the significance of the FV error it stems from one or two things: 1) ignorance and/or 2) sympathy with the FV. More than once I’ve had conversations with those who denied that the FV was an issue when it turned out that they were sympathetic.

      It was a mighty struggle to get busy pastors and elders to pay attention. It took more than a decade. The FV are not always clear about what they are saying and that makes it even more difficult. It seems increasingly difficult to get people to read generally and I suppose pastors and elders are not immune to that cultural shift.

      Leithart could hardly have been plainer about his FV sympathies. Anyone who denies that he is a federal visionist just hasn’t been paying attention.

    • Dr. Clark,
      Do you have some readily available talking point quotes that clearly show Peter Leithart distorted view on justification? Or a previous blog post of yours that shows such ….. again in ready available format? I’ve heard and give speeches and I have read many things about him online but it would be nice to have some quick talking points to pass on to this elder and then let them dig from there.

  3. Thank you. The URCNA report points out important issues with the FV (which isn’t covenantal).

  4. It seems that those who do not subscribe whole-hog to FV are still far more comfortable with any errors that deviate into the realm of self-righteousness, rather than into the realm of lawlessness; as if God is still somehow more pleased with neonomian error than He is with antinomianism. Of course, there are probably just as many who prefer the error of overdoing the ‘Jesus + nothing = everything’ to the point of permissive licentiousness. Either way it seems another yet another path to destruction motivated by the whole ‘lesser of two evils’ ideal.

  5. Sounds like this is a good time to quote Krauth again:

    “When error is admitted into the Church, it will be found that the stages of its progress are always three. It begins by asking toleration. Its friends say to the majority: You need not be afraid of us; we are few, and weak; only let us alone; we shall not disturb the faith of the others. The Church has her standards of doctrine; of course we shall never interfere with them; we only ask for ourselves to be spared interference with our private opinions. Indulged in this for a time, error goes on to assert equal rights. Truth and error are two balancing forces. The Church shall do nothing which looks like deciding between them; that would be partiality. It is bigotry to assert any superior right for the truth. We are to agree to differ, and any favoring of the truth, because it is truth, is partisanship. What the friends of truth and error hold in common is fundamental. Anything on which they differ is ipso facto non-essential. Anybody who makes account of such a thing is a disturber of the peace of the church. Truth and error are two co-ordinate powers, and the great secret of church-statesmanship is to preserve the balance between them. From this point error soon goes on to its natural end, which is to assert supremacy. Truth started with tolerating; it comes to be merely tolerated, and then only for a time. Error claims a preference for its judgments on all disputed points. It puts men into positions, not as at first in spite of their departure from the Church’s faith, but in consequence of it. Their recommendation is that they repudiate the faith, and position is given them to teach others to repudiate it, and to make them skillful in combating it.”

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