Let 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.