Forty Three Years Of Federal Vision Theology

On this date in 1546 Martin Luther completed his Christian pilgrimage on this earth. This year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (October 31, 1517). It’s appropriate then, that confessional Protestants do in our time what Luther did in his: continually recover the gospel from the hands of the moralists.


Among the more remarkable facts of the modern history of conservative and confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) church life over the last 50 years is that during most of this last half century the P&R world has been persistently roiled over the doctrine that J. H. Alsted (1588–1638) called “article of the standing or falling of the church.” Judging by the orthodox Reformed theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries, such a controversy would seem unlikely. There was remarkable consistency among them on this point. Polity (episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational) varied. The vocabulary they used to describe the biblical covenants varied and developed during the period (though one sees much substantial continuity). Indeed, despite the sharp disagreements that existed between the Lutheran and Reformed theologians over the implications of (what the Reformed numbered as) the second commandment, the principle of worship, the two natures of Christ, baptism, and the Supper, among other things, the Reformed believed they were confessing the same same doctrine of justification confessed in Augsburg Confession art. 4 (1530).

Whatever formal diversity existed within the most significant Reformed voices, during the classical period of Reformed theology, we may be sure of the substantial agreement among the Reformed churches since the all the Reformed confessions confess the very same doctrine of justification, i.e., the free declaration by God that sinners are regarded as righteous only for the sake of Christ’s righteousness, his condign merits imputed to believers received only through faith, trusting, resting, and receiving in Christ and in his finished work. This is the doctrine of the Reformed confessions, e.g., the Genevan Confession (1536), the Belgic Confession (1560), the Scots Confession (1560), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the Canons of Dort (1619), and the Westminster Standards (1648).

Nevertheless, as I noted in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry there has been, since almost the beginning of the Reformation, a dissonant sound in the Protestant orchestra whenever the gospel is played: moralism. Almost from the beginning there were those who feared that the good news of free acceptance, indeed, of free salvation (justification, sanctification, and glorification) would lead to carelessness in the Christian life and even antinomianism. There were some who did take the opportunity of the recovery of the gospel to promote the antinomian heresy. Of course, Luther and the Reformed rejected antinomianism in all its forms as an offense to the law and an abuse of the gospel. Should we sin that grace may abound? May it never be! (Rom 6:1).

Nevertheless, despite the clarity of the Reformed theologians and churches on this essential (sine qua non) doctrine, despite their clarity on the moral and logical necessity of progressive (if only partial in this life) sanctification as the natural fruit of justification (e.g., Belgic Confession art. 24) there have always been those who have sought to corrupt the Reformed doctrine of justification either by changing the ground (Christ’s perfect righteousness for us) or by changing the instrument (faith trusting, resting in, and receiving Christ) of justification. Richard Baxter (1615–91) is perhaps the greatest example of such and yet he is regularly hailed among Reformed (and Reformed-ish) types as a “model pastor.” Whatever one might learn from Baxter’s diligence in catechesis and visitation, it was all vitiated by his flat denial of the gospel. That his congregation is today Unitarian stands as a warning to those who would follow in his footsteps. Rationalism is a totalitarian mistress. There are no half-measures with her.

In our own time we have our own Baxter: Norman Shepherd, a theologian who taught in a confessional Reformed seminary for decades and who still regarded by some influential Reformed theologians as a model theologian. In the academic year 1974–75, in his systematic theology course on the application of redemption, he proposed that sinners are justified through faith and works. That was the language he used and defended in white papers to the faculty. Later, under criticism, he modified his language to speak of justification through “faithfulness,” but to the same effect. Further, he argued that baptism confers upon each baptized person the benefits of Christ (see also, Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace). Thus, he argued, we should consider a baptized person “covenantally” (temporarily, conditionally) elect, justified, adopted, etc. These benefits, he argued, were conferred provisionally in baptism and retained by grace and cooperation with grace.

If the reader is aware of the history of theology he might recognize this approach as remarkably close to the medieval theology rejected heartily by the Reformation and essentially that of the Remonstrants in the 17th century. It is covenantal Arminianism. Like the Arminians in 1610, Shepherd suggested that a believer could fall away. His use of covenant as a way to revolutionize the Reformed doctrine of salvation was immediately rejected by a minority of the faculty and eventually rejected by a majority of the board and he was dismissed from the seminary. Shepherd was tried in the Philadelphia Presbytery of the OPC but quite remarkably presbytery was unable to see how his doctrine contradicted God’s Word as confessed in the Westminster Standards. He was dismissed to the Christian Reformed Church before charges could be laid against him again.

The controversy simmered below the surface until the late 90s, when he retired from the ministry and began speaking at conferences on covenant and justification, where he advanced the same views that he had argued in the first phase of the controversy. In 2000 he published The Call of Grace (see this review and response) and thereafter aligned himself with the movement that was coalescing around his teaching and around the Auburn Avenue conferences. We know this movement as the (self-described) Federal Vision movement. In a series of publications in the years after he continued to develop the same ideas making explicit what had been implicit in the 1970s, e.g., his denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.

The Federal Vision theology is Norman Shepherd’s theology and Norman Shepherd’s theology is the Federal Vision theology. In all phases of the controversy over the past 43 years his defenders have tried to position him as a defender of orthodoxy. E.g., one OPC minister wrote a poem lauding him as “The Last Reformed Theologian.” Another argued to me that Shepherd had been “railroaded” by “broad evangelicals” bent on introducing antinomianism and “easy-believism” into P & R churches. Anyone who knows Shepherd’s opponents will see the falsity of this characterization. It was confessionalists who have opposed him most ardently. Advocates of “easy-believism” or “cheap grace,” to the degree they exist in the confessional P & R world, have been, if anything, indifferent to Shepherd and the FV theology. Another defense of Shepherd has been to say that he only arguing that good works are the necessary consequence of justification. Were that the question there would have been no controversy. The necessity of good works as the fruit of justification was never in question.

Still, the antinomianism represented by e.g., Tullian Tchividjian et al has apparently provided sufficient warrant for some in the P & R world to look the other way when leading critics of Tchividjian et al have sounded Shepherdite/FV notes. One such is the teaching that Adam, Israel, and Jesus had faith and works and so must we, thereby flattening out the sharp and essential distinction between Jesus as our obedient Mediator and us and between his general faith and our saving faith in him, and between his works for us and our works out of gratitude for grace received and in union with the risen Christ. The Board of Trustees recognized this facet of Shepherd’s teaching in 1982. Two decades later, in his review of The Call of Grace, Cornelis Venema noted that Shepherd’s theology reduces Christ to “little more than a model believer.”

Another Shepherdite/FV note that has been sounded again, in quarters not typically identified with the FV, is the notion that there is such a thing as “covenantal justification” that may be lost. Just in the past few days I have had messages on social media about this very thing. It was only a decade ago, however, that the United Reformed Churches in North America adopted Nine Points of pastoral advice on the FV theology, the fifth point of which rejects the error of those:

Who teach that a person can be historically, conditionally elect, regenerated, savingly united to Christ, justified, and adopted by virtue of participation in the outward administration of the covenant of grace but may lose these benefits through lack of covenantal faithfulness (CD, I, V);

In the sixth point synod rejected the errors of those who:

Who teach that all baptized persons are in the covenant of grace in precisely the same way such that there is no distinction between those who have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace by baptism and those who are united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone (HC 21, 60; BC 29);

Both of these rejections of error address the notion of “covenantal justification.” We recognize no such thing as a temporary state of justification. Scripture teaches and thus we confess that there is but one justification, by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). No one, by virtue of their outward participation in the administration of the covenant of grace has what the sacraments signify and seal. We reject the notion that everyone in the external administration of the covenant grace has the benefits of the covenant of grace or that there is any such thing as a temporary possession of them.

In its 2010 report on the Federal Vision theology and the doctrine of justification, the URCNA synodical committee again recognized the notion of “covenantal justification” as a distinctive of the FV theology and rejected it:

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 (p. 57).

Let us be clear: the doctrine that there is a so-called “covenantal justification” is an unmistakable mark of the theology of Norman Shepherd and the FV theology. There is no sense in which “covenantal justification” is either biblical or congruent with the Reformed confession. Antinomianism is a genuine problem for all confessional Protestants but our concern over it and our proper desire to see Christ’s people grow in grace and in conformity to Christ should neither blind us to nor cause us to seek to justify serious errors even in those whose work we might otherwise admire or support.

We will not see the sort of sanctity for which we long among God’s people if we distort, corrupt, or lose the very engine of sanctity: the holy and pure good news that

  • God the Son became incarnate for sinners as the only Savior and Mediator;
  • that he was under the law for the sake of his elect;
  • that all of his righteousness is credited to all who believe;
  • that the Holy Spirit efficaciously calls, regenerates, and applies work of the Holy Spirit to the elect;
  • that true faith, through which alone we receive Christ and his benefits is the gift of the Spirit
  • that all of the elect shall be united mystically by the Spirit to the risen Christ and adopted as sons;
  • that none of those for whom Christ died shall ever be lost.

The notion that, in the doctrine of the application of redemption, there are such things as a temporary election or temporary justification attack the gospel and the assurance of faith that is the property of every believer.

God’s Word as we confess it is clear, however:

We believe that our blessedness lies in the forgiveness of our sins because of Jesus Christ, and that in it our righteousness before God is contained, as David and Paul teach us when they declare that man blessed to whom God grants righteousness apart from works.

And the same apostle says that we are justified “freely” or “by grace” through redemption in Jesus Christ. And therefore we cling to this foundation, which is firm forever, giving all glory to God, humbling ourselves, and recognizing ourselves as we are; not claiming a thing for ourselves or our merits and leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified, which is ours when we believe in him.

That is enough to cover all our sins and to make us confident, freeing the conscience from the fear, dread, and terror of God’s approach, without doing what our first father, Adam, did, who trembled as he tried to cover himself with fig leaves.

In fact, if we had to appear before God relying—no matter how little—on ourselves or some other creature, then, alas, we would be swallowed up.

Therefore everyone must say with David: “Lord, do not enter into judgment with your servants, for before you no living person shall be justified.”

We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a “new man,” causing him to live the “new life” and freeing him from the slavery of sin.

Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned. So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls “faith working through love,” which leads a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word.

These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification—for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.

So then, we do good works, but nor for merit—for what would we merit? Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he who “works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure”60—thus keeping in mind what is written: “When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.’ ”

Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works—but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts. Moreover, although we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work.

So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior (Belgic Confession articles 23–24).

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  1. Thank you for this article. I have been saying this all along: Shepherdite/Federal Vision theology is a significant move away from confessional Reformed theology. Anyone who has studied the matter carefully knows that the two theologies have nothing in common when it comes to how one is justified before God AND how one is kept justified before God in the Christian life. In fact, Shepherdite/Federal Vision theology has more in common with Wesleyanism with an element of Reformed predestinarian theology mixed into the bowl. One notable FV writer even wrote awhile back that it is possible for a reprobate member of the visible church to be temporarily forgiven, adopted, spiritually resurrected, etc. without the gift of perseverance. This is a clear contradiction to the Westminster Confession of Faith, XI.5.

    Anyway, the fact that a good number of notable Reformed scholars and pastors over the years have rejected this aberrant teaching within Reformed/Calvinistic evangelicalism is a sign that the P & R tradition is still not out of tune with the past confessional standards. If a good number of well-read Reformed scholars and pastors have serious issues with this relatively new theology in the P & R tradition it means that we still have discerning leaders in the tradition who know what the confessions really teach and, more importantly, what the Scriptures teach on this matter.

    • Mark (and others), would you consider that perhaps the FV mixes in a good bit of Romanism?

      It strikes me that a lot of FV types move on to a sort of Tractarian-style Anglicanism, Romanism, or Eastern Orthodoxy.

  2. Dr. Clark, keep it up. I was lukewarm about the dangers of the FV until I started reading your biblically, confesionally, and hisorically rooted writings. Praise the Lord!

    • It is a persistent movement. Size? It’s hard to tell. It doesn’t seem like a large movement but it has some influential teachers. The churches associated with the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches has a number of FV ministers, 3 of whom are quite visible. There is a smattering if FV-sympathetic preachers in denominations that reject it.

  3. WTS 1983 grad; I had Mr. Shepherd his last semester teaching at Philly (Dr. Robert Letham stepped in, he was great, so clear in his teaching). So I was there at the end of his tenure. He was defended by Dr. Gaffin and Dr. Lillback. Dr. Lillback spoke in chapel during this time using insights he had gained from his doctorate studies in covenant theology; his comments were clearly designed to defend Shepherds position. I was sitting in the auditorium with Dr. Clowney.
    Peter came up to us afterward and asked Dr. Clowney what he thought of his ideas. All of his answer I remember was the conclusion: “He has lost me.”
    In fairness I don’t know what Gaffin and Lillback think now. Beale teaches in his NT BT tome a nuanced view of the public declaration of the righteous for their works at the End that I can live with Biblically.
    I was also there when Clowney brought in Dr. Sinclair Ferguson. Amazing grace I had him my M.Div year for Doct. of HS.
    I believe the Whole Christ by Dr. Ferguson is the most important practical/pastoral clarification of the gospel in my generation.

  4. Having attended Westminster Philly from 76-80 I recall Mr. Shepherd with both fondness and frustration. But finally now with deep disappointment and sadness. It seems his influence remained despite his departure. I appreciate the clearing of the air in your fine essay. It seems no matter where we are located on the historical map we continue to face the two premier questions of the Reformation: What is the Gospel? What is pure worship?

    • David,

      Thanks for this. I understand that those who were present for the controversy see things variously but the outcome of seems clear.

      Calvin’s two principal priorities were the recovery of pure worship (the rule of worship or the RPW) and the doctrine of justification (as he said in his response to the Adultero Interim).

  5. Are sympathy for Federal Vision theology and teaching in church-sponsored Bible studies and Sunday School sufficient make-or-break issues for membership in a church fellowship? We are just now wrestling with this question: wonderful church, glorious worship as pure as I’ve ever experienced, good family fellowship, but Federal Vision theology, Norm Shepherd and some of his followers, N.T. Wright, and questions about covenant, works and grace appear in church teaching. We would appreciate your comments, because we must decide soon.

    • Lola,

      If the doctrine of justification is the “article of the standing or falling of the church” (and it is!) then yes, this is a make or break issue. I understand your quandary. It is wonderful to find Reformed worship and good fellowship but if the FV or NPP are taught or tolerated, that is a major problem and a warning sign of other, underlying problems.

      Perhaps it is that the session or consistory (minister(s) and elders) are unaware of the presence of FV/NPP materials and teaching. Before you do anything you should approach them gently and humbly (but with the quiet authority and clarity of the Word of God as we confess it) to see how they respond. Perhaps they will be horrified and glad to know so that they can take corrective steps. If it turns out, however, that they support the FV or NPP doctrines then your sad course is clear.

      May the Lord bless you as you, the congregation, and its leadership as you work through these issues.

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