Baptists And Federal Visionists Together?

Baptism, Election & the Covenant of GraceLet us define our terms. A Baptist is someone who believes that baptism is only validly administered to professing believers. He denies that the infant children of believers are the proper subjects of baptism. A Federal Visionist is someone who, among other things, holds that at the administration of baptism all the benefits of Christ, namely election, regeneration, faith, justification, union with Christ, and adoption are conferred temporararily. To be sure, most Baptists are not Federal Visionists. The Particular Reformed traditions especially, in contrast to the Federal Visionists, confess and teach a perfectly orthodox doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone. Nevertheless, most Baptists do have something common with Federal Vision theology: From the point of view of confessional Reformed theology, both movements collapse the divine decree into the outward administration of the covenant of grace, though for different reasons.

This connection has became evident to me over the years as I have found myself having the same sorts of discussions with my Baptist friends as I have had with my Federal Vision opponents. With both of them, if for different reasons, the discussion often turns to the two ways of being in the one covenant of grace. According to the classical Reformed theology, there are two ways of relating to the covenant of grace: externally and internally. I have tried to explain this distinction in Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace, which the publisher sells at cost. I have also sought to explain the historical-theological background of this distinction in the essay, “Baptism and the Benefits of Christ: The Double Mode of Communion,” which the publisher has graciously posted gratis. The reader will want to consult one or both of these for more details.

The Federal Visionist overtly, consciously conflates the eternal decree with the external administration of the covenant of grace. This is his fundamental error. Paedocommunion (the communing of infants, the theology and practice of which is utterly rejected by the Reformed churches), and the doctrine of baptismal regeneration are errors but they are also really only symptoms of this underlying problem. The Federal Vision theology posits two parallel systems: the system of the decree, which they render merely theoretical and the system of baptismal union with Christ, which is their operative theology. When considering baptism and the administration of the covenant, the decree and the administration become one in Federal Vision theology. They do this for a variety of reasons but one of the most important is their rejection of the biblical and historic Reformed distinction between the two ways of being in the one covenant of grace: external and internal. In Romans 2:28 Scripture says that “a Jew is one who is a Jew inwardly” and in Romans 9:6, “not all those who are of Israel are Israel.” Nevertheless, all those who are “of Israel” are in the external administration of the covenant of grace. This is precisely why Paul asks rhetorically, “What advantage has the Jew?” only to answer his own question, “Much in every way!” (Rom 3:1ff). This is why he repeats the same teaching in Romans 9:1–5 explaining that it was to the Jews, his brothers, his kinsmen “who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises…” (Rom 9:4; NASB). According to Paul the external administration of the covenant of grace is vitally important because it is through or, as I have been saying in the series “Engaging With 1689,” it is “in, with, and under” the external administration of the covenant of grace in both the typological periods and in the New Covenant that God the Spirit brings his elect to faith in Christ.

This is why the Reformed churches administer infant baptism. It is not because we are still in the clutches of the papacy nor is it because we believe that in baptism the Spirit necessarily brings infants to new life (baptismal regeneration). That is the doctrine of the papists, the confessional Lutherans, and others but it is not the teaching of the Reformed churches. We understand that the same command that God gave to Abraham to initiate outwardly believers and their children into the administration of the covenant of grace and the same promise he gave to Abraham, to be God to believers and to their children, is still in effect. This is why the Apostle Peter was able to say to Jewish men at Pentecost, “For the promise is to you and to your children and to as many as who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39) without explanation. Peter knew that those men would understand completely what he was saying, that the Abrahamic promise was always fundamentally a spiritual promise and that God is still administering his covenant of grace to believers and to their children, that he is still calling his elect to new life and to true faith through that outward administration.

Our Baptist friends, however, do not typically distinguish between the spiritual promises of the Abrahamic covenant and its typological and temporary accidents nor between the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic and Davidic covenants. Thus, they see them as more or less as one thing and succeeded by the New Covenant, which some Baptist traditions describe as “the covenant of grace” to which the Old Testament covenants were mere witnesses. For them, the New Covenant is the covenant of grace and there is no distinction in the New Covenant between the internal and the external, between the outward and the inward because, by the nature of the New Covenant, it is the eschatological (final) state come into history, in which the promises made to Jeremiah (31:31–33) are literally coming true. Those in the New Covenant have no need for anyone to say to them “know the Lord” because those professing believers who have been admitted outwardly to the New Covenant in baptism are those who have already been given new life and true faith. Thus, there is no administration of the New Covenant in the sense in which the Reformed understand that word and that idea. In most Baptist views, the New Covenant is the administration. Like the Federal Vision theology, if for different reasons, the New Covenant is the decree. I have become convinced that this conflation of the decree with the external administration is so basic to Baptist theology that my Baptist friends have a very difficult time understanding the Reformed understanding of the distinction between the divine decree and the external administration of the covenant of grace. Further, for those who have never seen the Reformed administration of the covenant of grace, the idea seems implausible. Thus, there remains a communication gap, in part, because there is an experience gap.

One need not rely on my analysis to see the connection between Federal Vision theology and Baptist theology at this point. Take it from Peter Leithart, a quite visible proponent of the Federal Vision theology. Leithart was the long-time minister of Trinity Reformed Church (CREC, the ecclesiastical home of the Federal Vision) in Moscow, ID where he served with his ministerial and theological colleague Doug Wilson, the de facto and sometime de iure leader of the CREC and fellow Federal Visionist. Leithart was put on trial by his PCA presbytery for his Federal Vision theology but remarkably that body was unwilling to recognize what Leithart quite openly taught. See e.g., his argument that “apostasy happens.” In this piece and in the most recent essay, he reiterates the FV view that those who are baptized are actually, by virtue of their baptism, in union with Christ and that those who are actually united to Christ (not just outwardly identified) fall away. It is this conclusion of theirs that warrants calling them “covenantal Arminians.” For the FV, there is no distinction between the external administration and internal reality or membership. As that learned Federal Visionist, Rich Lusk argued some years ago (see Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, in the Federal Vision theology (as for Rome), baptism works “ex opera” [sic] (he meant ex opere), i.e., by the very act of administration the reality (i.e., new life, union with Christ etc) is necessarily conferred.

Now, Baptists do not confess nor do they ordinarily teach that baptism necessarily confers what it signifies. They baptize professing believers because, it is believed, that person professing faith already has what baptism signifies. Nevertheless, the Federal Visionists and the Baptists agree that the visible church is composed of those who have what baptism signifies. Both views more or less reject the internal/external distinction and thus, in their own ways, collapse the decree into the external administration and Leithart’s latest illustrates that internal connection between the two approaches and the distinction between them both and Reformed theology, piety, and practice.


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  1. At the heart of this matter is ecclesiology. As a reformed Baptist, and unlike the FV’s or paedobaptist I believe that the church is one body (in Christ) of the regenerated, born again, blood bought believers. Christ’s body is not divided and there is no proper way to make a distinction between a “visible” and “invisible” church without the spiritual work of election, calling, and regeneration. The work of men hands ie. water baptism is just that without the spiritual baptism applied by Christ alone behind the physical witness. I cannot understand how one can use John 1:12-13 and use it to defend monergistic salvation without realizing that including visibly unregenerate sons of Adam into the spiritual elect body through a visible sacrament is a violation of the very measure the verses limits. There is only one way into the body and the work of mens hands is not that way. Not by blood, nor will of the flesh, nor the will of man but of God.

  2. “In this piece and in the most recent essay, he reiterates the FV view that those who are baptized are actually, by virtue of their baptism, in union with Christ and that those who are actually united to Christ (not just outwardly identified) fall away.”

    Dr. Clark, do you mind clarifying where in Leithart’s most recent essay (“Baptists Are Right, Almost”) this is reiterated?

    • Cameron,

      See the line of argumentation beginning here:

      On Hebrews 6:4 (which Schreiner and Wright cite, oddly, as evidence that “no one can even be a partaker of the Holy Spirit . . . and not belong to the elect”), Calvin says: “he falls away who forsakes the word of God, who extinguishes its light, who deprives himself of the taste of the heavenly gift, who relinquishes the participation of the Spirit.” The apostate turns “from the Gospel of Christ, which they had previously embraced, and from the grace of God.”

      His interpretation of Calvin, btw, is completely wrong because he ignores the internal/external distinction in Calvin. See also the CPJ essay linked above.

  3. Dr Clark, could you please tell us where, in the Scripture, does it say that circumcision INITIATES its subject into the covenant? Where do you get the idea that the son of the believer is any less in the Covenant before circumcision than he is after? Why does God command that seven days pass in the life of the son of the Covenant before he is circumcised (Ans from Nature: It is dangerous to circumcise earlier – but then, why did God create mankind in such a way that it would not be safe to circumcise at birth? Ans because He wanted the seven day period)?
    What is the command in the New Testament concerning the time at which the child of the Covenant is to be baptized? Who said that “he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” applied only to converts from outside the Covenant and not to the children of the Covenant? Who said that “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest” did not apply as much to the children of believers as it does to converts from outside the visible church? If it doesn’t, can you please quote us a specific instruction in Scripture regarding the timing of baptism that, in preference to this, DOES apply to the children of believers?

    • Anthony,

      I have done it already. I gave you links to an article and a pamphlet. See the picture in the article above? Click on it. See the underlined/highlighted links? Click on them. Read those. Get back to me.

  4. Hello Dr. Clark,

    I don’t think you really dealt with the main contention Baptists (and Congregationalists!) would make in this post, and thus your attempt to link FV & Baptists fails. Baptists simply assert that no one has a right to New Covenant ordinances who is not a believer. I’ll lay it out in propositions, so that I am clear.

    1. To have a right to baptism (think legal), one must make a profession of faith in Jesus Christ.
    2. No one has the right to lie.
    3. Therefore a person making false profession has no right to baptism.

    Some people may be baptized who have no right to baptism (de facto/de juro). These persons’ baptisms are to be disregarded if we become aware that they were not de juro.

    This entire series of propositions is logically consistent. You’d have to prove that the profession required for baptism isn’t one which can be assessed as true/false in order to give any unconverted person a right to baptism. The FV create the elect via their ordinances. The Baptists say only the elect have a right to the ordinances. Apparently, the Reformed say that election has no meaningful relation to administration of the ordinances.

    Beyond that, I have a critique of this: “the New Covenant is the decree.”

    Granting that the internal/external distinction is legitimate (as Reformed paedobaptists define it), what a) is the condition which must be met to be internally interested in the CoG, and b) what does the CoG give to persons only externally in the CoG that they don’t already have in the [broken] CoW?

    • Both Baptists and FV see baptism as a declaration that the person being baptized is regenerate. Both blame the recipient when the declaration turns out to be false. The fact is that, in both cases, the assumption that the person was regenerate is wrong. By contrast, the Reformed make no assumption that the recipient is regenerate, here baptism is simply a declaration that the recipient has become an outward member of the Church, and as such receives the privileges of the administration of the means of grace provided under the covenant of grace. This is the means by which God ordinarily saves His elect. Only God knows who the elect are, but their response of true faith to the means of grace reveals them and makes them inner members of the Church. To be included in the Church outwardly, is therefore a great privilege in providing access to the means of grace whereby the benefits of the covenant of grace administered. Yet it remains for the working of the Spirit to make those means effective in regeneration before the recipient is born again into inward membership in the Church.

      • Angela,

        Lets try to make this simple.

        Does someone have a right to make a false profession of faith?

        If not, then how can a false profession of faith give you a RIGHT (think legal) to baptism?

        And if you didn’t have a RIGHT (think legal) to baptism, then how is your baptism valid?

        It was illegal.

        The logic is simple. Your going to have to disprove one of those points.

    • Craig, no one has a right to baptism in the Reformed understanding! Baptism is the gracious covenant sign of outward initiation into the covenant community, where the means of grace is administered! Baptism, in the Reformed understanding is a means of grace through a sign that is a visible form of the Word, that says, if you believe what this sign represents: that Christ’s blood and righteousness make you clean and righteous in the presence of God, you are washed, through the Spirit, by the waters of regeneration and born again into inner membership in the Church.

      • Angela,

        So to be clear, your church doesn’t require a profession of faith from adults prior to baptism?

        If it does, your going to have to give a reason why one is required.

        If no one has a right to baptism, then no one should be baptized… Alternatively, if you mean to suggest everyone has a right to baptism, then it would be fair to say that anybody who comes by the church office and asks to be baptized, even if they also explicitly deny, say, the Trinity at the same time, should be baptized, since they have a right to it?

        Baptism is a sacrament, meaning it is utterly useless to a person who isn’t elect… Unless you’d like to claim that baptism is a means of grace to a reprobate?

        Also, while I’m at it, regeneration precedes faith, not the other way around.

        But really, answer the question, does giving a false profession give someone a right to baptism?

        Your avoiding the question, but you can’t, cause your church requires a profession of something…?

    • Craig, if an adult wants to be baptized in a Reformed church, they must first give a credible profession of faith, but then the children of this person would also be baptized because the promise is to you and your children. Baptism is a sign, it does not automatically confer what it represents, we are not saying the children are now regenerate believers. Faith in what it represents, makes it true for the believer.

      • Angela,

        Your wasting a lot of breath equivocating on the words right and grace. The Covenant of Works wasn’t Adam’s birthright. It was given to him out of the graciousness of God. But if Adam had kept the covenant conditions, the reward would be his right.

        Someone can have a right to baptism without denying that baptism is God’s gracious gift.

        As to the rest, you keep ignoring the question. Does someone have the right to make a false profession? Yea or nay.

    • Craig,
      It’s one thing to create an airtight logical syllogism. It’s nice you can make one, and completely avoid the substance of the post. Plus, it shifts the whole matter from RSC’s post and it’s points to a completely different argument. Now we’re asked to debate the truth value of these premises (major/minor), as if that was the real issue. Other than asserting your alternative view, how have you addressed the original contention?

      With this statement, “Apparently, the Reformed say that election has no meaningful relation to administration of the ordinances,” (N.B. the terms: “meaningful”–by what calculus?; and “ordinances”–imposition of Baptist parlance) you’ve conceded RSC’s point, despite any dispute you make of it’s significance. Congratulations, Baptists and FV are invested in baptism as indexed to election in a decidedly different way than the Reformed.

      • Bruce,

        I’ve straightforwardly demonstrated by those premises that you can’t ignore the relationship of election to the sacraments (lol at you whining about the word ordinance, I already called them sacraments in a previous post).

        Either a person has the right to make a false profession or not.

        You can’t avoid it.

        Can a reprobate ever make a true profession of faith in Christ?

        If a profession is needed to come to the sacraments, and no one has the right to lie, than no reprobate has the right to come to the sacraments.

        Good luck escaping the logic.

        You can’t just wish election away from the ordinances. Thats literally what FV persons do.

    • Craig, you are guilty of using a faulty argument called circular reasoning where the premise seems to support the conclusion because they are the same: since only those who can give a truthful profession of faith can be members of the church, only those who can give a truthful profession of faith are allowed to be members of the church. You have only assumed but not proven why your conclusion is true, based on what you “know “to be true. So you reject as ridiculous and illogical any view that does not agree with your own. As Bruce has said, you have exactly proven Dr. Clark’s point that Baptists and FVs have a very different understanding of the church. Both Baptists and FV believe that the visible church IS the true church, while the Reformed see an inner and outer membership, where true believers, who are only infallibly known to God, have inner membership. I have explained this concept to you, but you reject it and accuse me of failing to answer your objections, because it does not agree with your circular reasoning that only those who make a truthful profession of faith can be in the visible, true church.

    • Craig,
      This reply is merely to point out to third-party readers that in the acknowledgment of my observations, you offer no disputative response to RSC’s point (which I reiterated) but in your opening comment you propose an alternative topic RSC *should* have treated. And then, in spite of the doubt you meant to cast on his analysis, you confirmed his point with your own commentary. QED.

      Regarding your latest claim:
      A premise is a statement, not a demonstration. Your full syllogism is an argument–again, not a demonstration, if absent truth granted the propositions, or some reasoned basis for them. Your comments after the syllogism merely assume the truth of the whole, and reason *from* those premises and conclusions. I don’t grant your major premise, so who cares whether the conclusion is formally valid?

      Some other commenters are taking you up on the rabbit-trail you’ve offered up *instead* of engaging with RSC’s blogpost on his blog. I’m not. You can “lol” and write snidely about “whining,”–more amusing misdirection on your part–but ICYMI, my comment addressed your initial comment, and your choice of words, the package of which tries to recast the issue in *different* terms from the blogpost.

      “You can’t just wish election away from the ordinances. Thats literally what FV persons do.” By whose metric? Did you read RSC’s post before commenting? Maybe you should familiarize yourself with real life FV-advocate PL (blog linked in the article above).

      No, it’s the non-Baptist, Reformed-anti-FV who places baptism firmly in the realm of earthly, not-overly-eschatologized administration. We neither demand baptism only of the elect, nor do we existentially identify the baptized as such.

    • Dear Craig,

      the fallacy in your argument is that the meaning of the word ‘right’ in your major and minor premises is different.

      In your major premise ‘right’ has the meaning ‘entitlement to possess’. In your minor premise it means ‘permission to’ or ‘justification to’. Consequently your conclusion, using right in the sense of your major premise, does not follow.

  5. Craig: You seem to be saying that the only way an unregerate person could become baptized in a Baptist church would be by deliberate deception. However, there are those who profess faith who do not possess faith even though they may believe they do. We can only know the members of the visible church. The members of the invisible church are known but to God even though we may have what we believe is strong evidence which would indicate that they are a indeed a part of the invisible church.

    • Dear Bob,

      You are making this way more complicated than is necessary.

      Would self-deception grant someone a legal right to something in court?

      I served on a jury just last week. If the plaintiff genuinely believes he has a right to the money, does that mean he has a right?

      Frankly, the WLC perfectly illustrates how we should treat tender consciences with regards to coming to the sacraments, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot trying to contradict me:

      Q. 172. May one who doubteth of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation, come to the Lord’s supper?
      A. One who doubteth of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation to the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, may have true interest in Christ, though he be not yet assured thereof; and in God’s account hath it, if he be duly affected with the apprehension of the want of it, and unfeignedly desires to be found in Christ, and to depart from iniquity: in which case (because promises are made, and this sacrament is appointed, for the relief even of weak and doubting Christians) he is to bewail his unbelief, and labor to have his doubts resolved; and, so doing, he may and ought to come to the Lord’s supper, that he may be further strengthened.

      Q. 173. May any who profess the faith, and desire to come to the Lord’s supper, be kept from it?
      A. Such as are found to be ignorant or scandalous, notwithstanding their profession of the faith, and desire to come to the Lord’s supper, may and ought to be kept from that sacrament, by the power which Christ hath left in his church, until they receive instruction, and manifest their reformation.

      Have you ever done jury duty? Its a weighty responsibility… Well so much more so the administration of church government. The fact that it is hard doesn’t mean we don’t have to do it.

      You no more need epistemological certainty for the rightful fulfillment of jury duty than for church government.

      The desire for such epistemological certainty (everyone baptized is elect; rather than, everyone baptized should be elect) is what bred the FV.

    • Craig, how did the tables get turned from a discussion about baptism to the Lord’s Supper? As I explained, baptism, in the Reformed view, is a gracious sign pointing to salvation through the blood and righteousness of Christ. If and when the recipient believes that what the sign represents, is true for him, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the recipient has saving faith which makes him a member of the Church inwardly. Baptism is a sign given to us by God’s grace alone, there is nothing anyone can do to qualify them to receive it. Just as the sign of circumcision was given to Abraham and all of his covenant breaking children as a seal to the promises that God made to Abraham when God alone walked through the slaughtered animal pieces, promising to keep all the stipulations of the covenant and suffer all the penalties for covenant breaking, while Abraham was in a helpless stupor, the sign is given to professing believers and their helpless infants because the sign points not to our deserving, but to the blood and righteousness of Christ, to which no one has a right, but is received by grace, through faith in Christ alone because it was promised to believing Abraham, and all his children, and also to the children of Abraham’s believing children, when those children are helpless and unable to qualify for receiving the sign of the covenant of grace. Those who profess faith and their children may receive the sign, not by right, but by grace, because the promise is, to you and your children. Only saving faith makes them receivers of what the sign represents. Only the Lord knows them that are his, we cannot know as God knows, so we accept a credible profession of faith and accept the person as a true believer unless they prove otherwise by willful, unrepeated sin, or denial of the gospel. That would disqualify someone who has professed faith from the table, because they show that they are not observing the requirement to examine themselves. Those who are aware that they have a weak faith, but want to be strengthened, are encouraged to partake of this nourishing sacrament.

  6. Craig: From where do you derive your language which states: “right to baptism”? That is foreign to me. The elders of our church control the means of grace. If an adult professes faith and wants to be baptized he is indeed examined by the elders because it needs to be determined what exactly he is professing. If he is professing the Christian faith then I expect he would be baptized forthwith. If what he professes is something foreign to the Christian faith then he will need to be instructed and then it will be determined if he desires to profess the Christian faith and be baptized.

    • Bob,

      The idea of someone having or not having a right to the sacraments is both biblical and confessional.

      WSC/WLC is very clear that no one outside of the visible church has a right to baptism… IE, one outside of the visible church will not be baptized, regardless of if they request it.

      Q. 95. To whom is baptism to be administered?
      A. Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him; but the infants of such as are members of the visible church are to be baptized.

      The Bible is even better though.

      In reference to the Lord’s Supper, Heb 13:10. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.

      The textually dubious Acts 8:36-7. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

      Clearly implying that prior to this miracle they had no legal claim to baptism, Acts 10:47. “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

      I could provide more.

      But just think about it. Does anyone who asks to be baptized have a right to be baptized? No. Does someone who lies about believing in Christ have a right (legal) to baptism? You can’t avoid this problem. You can’t simply write this issue off to the other denominations. Its your problem too. The question is, will you be consistent about how you answer it?

      Your own answer implies that a person’s profession of faith must meet a standard of correct doctrine prior to them having a right to baptism.

      Also, on the subject of right to baptism, see basically every 16th century defense of infant baptism, where it is repeatedly said that Baptists are impugning on infants’ RIGHT to baptism. I’m hardly being novel. Here’s a free sample:

  7. Scott,

    This conclusion is unintelligible to mere mortal lay people.
    “Both views more or less reject the internal/external distinction and thus, in their own ways, collapse the decree into the external administration and Leithart’s latest illustrates that internal connection between the two approaches and the distinction between them both and Reformed theology, piety, and practice.”

    If you want to confine the circle of enlightenment to academicians, fine. But if you want to enlighten the broadest possible spectrum of readers, consider writing in plain and simple terms. If your thesis cannot be explained in plain simple terms that shed light rather than obscure, then perhaps it should be shelved.

    • Bill,

      I have explained this distinction in very plain terms for you right here:

      Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace.

      This distinction is vitally clear and quite biblical so no, it must not be shelved. I have linked to this booklet in the series. Have you been following the series? I have also explained it repeatedly on the Heidelblog.

      You clearly know how to use a computer. I submit that if you can use a computer (or a smartphone) you can master this distinction.

    • Bill, as a mere mortal lay person, Dr. Clark’s conclusion is quite clear and understandable to me. The Reformed distinguish the external administration of baptism, the sign, from what it represents. The Reformed see it as a means of grace, a visible form of the Word, that points to the benefit of being identified with Christ in His death and resurrection. The promise of the sign becomes sealed and true for the person when the Holy Spirit makes this an inward reality to them through saving faith. But both FV and Baptists see the sign of baptism as declaring that what it stands for is true of the recipient. Thus they collapse the decree and the external administration. To the Reformed the sign is a means of grace, that visibly preaches the Word which proclaims, you will receive inwardly, through saving faith, what this external sign represents when you believe.

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