The Central Error Of The Federal Visionists: Temporary Union With Christ

The major point of deviation from biblical Calvinism comes when considering who shares in this vital, living union with Christ, with the four suggesting that all the baptized, head for head, regardless of their personal faith, share in this vital union. It isn’t until you realize unto whom they think this union applies that their use of terms such as ‘real’ and ‘vital’ show their colors. All four use language specifically stating that all within the visible church have this union with Christ, whether they be hypocrite or apostate.

Wilkins stresses that those in the visible church receive the benefits because “the church is salvation because it is the body of Christ” and all its children and all members participate in “redemption.”[11] In his session’s position paper we read:

8…. Included in His decree, however, is that some persons, not destined for final salvation, will be drawn to Christ and His people only for a time. These, for a season, enjoy real blessings, purchased for them by Christ’s cross and applied to them by the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament. 9. Salvation depends on being united to Christ. Clearly, those who are eternally saved are those who continue to abide in Him by the grace of God. There are those, however, who are joined to Him as branches in the vine, but who because of unbelief are barren and fruitless, and consequently are cut off from the vine and from salvation.[12]

According to Wilkins, the writers of the New Testament use “the 2nd person plural throughout, without any qualifiers;” what they say, “they say to the visible church,” “even though they couldn’t see and couldn’t know the hearts;” this applies to “all members of Christ’s body, and individually members of it” that “Christ died for their sins;” the blessings of the union with Christ are “objectively true of each of the members” “by virtue of their standing in the covenant;” “these very real things” are theirs in possession; “Being in Christ, they share in His wisdom, His righteousness, His sanctification, and His redemption. They have received the Spirit.”[13] The visible church, thus, is not a place of potential blessing, it is the place of salvation for all, and Wilkins even applies the truths of Ephesians chapter one, head for head, to every member of the visible church.

This applies, for Wilkins, equally to all who fall away or apostatize. “So, the point of covenant is this, one, you maintain, you maintain, the relationship established with the Savior, and if you did you, you enjoy the blessings of the Savior. If you break this relationship, you perish … as long as you’re faithful, you enjoy those blessings;” those that fall away “lose blessings that were actually theirs;” “they are cut off from Christ” “even though they were bought by the Lord;” “punished even though they were cleansed from their former sins;” they “forfeit all the blessings and benefits of the covenant of grace.”[14] To lose and forfeit, the apostate hell bound sinner, according to Wilkins, first has the blessings of union with Christ.

According to Wilson, the apostate can actually have real union with Christ: “Before God’s action cut Caiaphas out of the olive tree, Caiaphas was in the olive tree and a wicked man. The sap flowed through his branch, but he didn’t bear fruit.”[15] Of those that apostatize from the New Testament church, Wilson urges that “Sap flowed to them.”[16] He asserts that “the hypocrite is … genuinely in Christ” and that “he is as much a member of the vine as anyone else.”[17] This is because elect and nonelect “Both are equally in the covenant.”[18]

Schlissel speaks of the apostate being cleansed from their sins, citing 2 Pet 1:9 ; Heb 6 .[19]

John Barach teaches that “The new covenant can be and is broken by people,” citing Heb 10:29and John 15 ,[20] without any qualifying of the persons involved. Of those cut off, he asserts that “these branches were genuinely in Christ” and that “some who are in Christ, they apostatize and they go to hell.”[21]

We may be confused as to what these men mean by ‘church,’ but ‘head for head‘ is very clear and particular language. For these men, the hypocrite and the apostate alike enjoy a real, vital union with Christ; a union which can be severed.

We will note two things at this point. First, Scripture does not teach, however, that every person, head for head, in the visible church participates in real union with Christ. Nor does the Word teach, second, that this union can be severed.

First, as to who participates in vital union with Christ, they often appeal to John 15 with the analogy of the vine and the branches, but they go too far in teaching that all are in the vine the same way, and that all share in that vital union with Christ. A careful look at John 15 , however, will show that all that are truly in Christ will bear fruit. Verse 5 makes this clear: “He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit.” The branch cannot do so “except it abide in the vine” (v. 4). Those branches that bear no fruit are cut out. They are said not to abide in Christ, “for without me ye can do nothing” (v. 5); “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch” (v. 6). So, in one sense they are in the vine, and in another they are not. Here we have the relation of the internal and the external, or the visible and invisible aspects of the church. Those fruitless branches are in the visible body, the external covenant, but are not really united to Christ, drawing that life-giving, fruit-bearing sap. As the four often reference Calvin as a source of their thinking, his own comments are telling concerning the appearance of every branch:

I reply that many are reckoned by men’s opinions to be in the vine who in fact have no root in the vine. Thus in the prophets the Lord calls the people of Israel His vine because by outward profession they had the name of the Church.[22]

We must be careful not to push the organic analogy too far, by stating that every branch is in the vine in the same way. The analogy of the vine and the branches is not the only one found in the Scripture.

We also see references in Scripture in which personal distinctions of condition are drawn between those in the visible church. For example, we have the analogy of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:32-33 ). Sheep are not goats and goats are not sheep. They may share the same pasture and barn, but they are of a different nature.

We also have the parable of the sower. In this parable there is the distinguishing characteristic of the soil, or ground. The difference between the effects of the seed, the Word of God, is attributed to the ground: “But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold” (Matt 13:8 ). This is the one that “heareth the word, and understandeth it” (Matt 13:23 ), which can itself be attributed to none other than the Holy Spirit’s regenerating and calling work. All in the visible church have a call, but not all have the effectual call.

We also read of the wheat and the tares (Matt 13:24-30 ; 36-43). It is clearly taught that not all in the visible church are wheat. From the world (v. 38), the wheat and the tares are called out externally by the preached word and constitute the visible church, along with their children. Tares may look very much like wheat, but they are not wheat. When, for example, Wilson speaks of the whole visible church as the omelette and the individuals as the eggs, he fails to take note that there are some things in the omelette that are not eggs.[23] Not all in the visible church are in real and inseparable union with Christ. They are in a federal relation, under His visible rule, offered the gospel, but they are not in a Spiritual, saving, real union. The wheat and tares are so closely bound in common association and appearance that you cannot pull the tares out without hurting the wheat. In other words, sessions do not make judgments about regeneration, but only judgments concerning credible professions of faith. The tares being treated like wheat doesn’t make them wheat, not does it hinder warning them of the dangers of being tares.

Part of the problem results because all four men deny the external/internal and visible/invisible distinction made in reference to the Church. Appeal to John Murray is of little help. While Murray didn’t like certain abuses of the terms, he affirmed the underlying doctrine. No orthodox Presbyterian has ever taught there are two churches, hence the four build a straw man.

Wilson, in referencing the church as our mother, speaks of honoring his mother, and suggests we should respond by asking whether he meant his visible mother or invisible mother.[24] His mother, however, is not a corporate entity made up of elect and nonelect individuals. You can only push an analogy so far. There are distinctions more fundamental than time between the members of the visible and invisible church., as we noted above in such texts as John 15 and Matthew 13 .[25]

Barach denies the distinction between external/internal or visible/invisible:

The Bible doesn’t know about a distinction between being internally in the covenant, really in the covenant, and being only externally in the covenant, just being in the sphere of the covenant. The Bible speaks about the reality, the efficacy of baptism.[26]

In turn, distinctions between corporate and individual election are either blurred or denied.

The invisible aspect of the church is invisible in principle. It is based upon the decrees of God and His uniting the elect with Christ in their effectual calling. Not all in the visible church are in the invisible church, nor will some ever be.

Scripture is very clear on the distinction between external association and internal reception of the blessings of the covenant. There is no other legitimate way to read Romans 2:25-29 , except with this distinction in mind. The main point of contrast is between those that are merely circumcised in the flesh and those that, by the operation of the Spirit, have a circumcised heart. Inward and outward have more to do than with just faithfulness or unfaithfulness. These point to Spirit’s work, or lack thereof.[27] The Apostle is not contrasting those who are flagrant covenant breakers, considered apostate and cut off. The contrast, rather, is between those whose confidence is in bare observance of the letter, without a work of regeneration, and those who have a heart made new and truly share in the blessings of the covenant. Any trusting in external rites, or actions, as somehow making one right with the Lord is what Paul refutes. He thus speaks of two types of Jew, inward and outward, and the outward in this sense is no true Jew (v. 28). The same is true in the New Testament administration. Those that merely have the outward sign of baptism are not true Christians. They are only Christians in an external sense.

Likewise with Romans 3:1-4 and ,especially, 9:1-6, where the Apostle forthrightly contrasts the Israel after the flesh (that is physically) and Israel after the Spirit and promise. Hence the example is given of Jacob and Esau, who, even though being raised by the same father, one was Israel after the Spirit and promise by election, and the other was of the flesh only. Abraham had sons of the flesh and those of the promise. Both were circumcised, but Esau was not individually elect and never was regenerated.

There are several key questions that are at issue here. With whom is the covenant of grace made? With Christ and the elect (Gal 3:16 ), is the biblical and historic answer. Among whom is the covenant of grace administered? With all in the visible church (Rom 9:4 ). Unto whom is the covenant of grace offered? To every needy sinner, the world unto whom God would be pleased to send His ambassadors (Matt 28:19-20 ; Rom 10:11-15 ).

This leads us to a related problem as these men speak of union with Christ; that is, whether union with Christ can be severed. They clearly teach that it can, even the vital, real union. The Scriptures teach otherwise. While all Calvinists agree that the external relation can be severed, hence John 15 , Romans 11 , etc., Scripture teaches that none that are in union with Christ can be cut away.

And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand (John 10:28-29).

There is an everlasting union that the elect have with Christ that nothing will sever. Nothing can separate the elect from the love of God in Christ. There is a sealing work of the Spirit, who is the earnest of the elect’s inheritance (Eph 1:13 , 14). While these men affirm that the elect will never be severed from this union, they teach that the nonelect may be in this union and subsequently severed from it.

The implications of the teaching presented by the four, considering that all in the visible church, head for head, even the apostates, share in the same vital union, is that those who are truly in vital union with Christ can be cut off, can lose their salvation. R.C. Sproul, Jr., asks “What is the sap?” Wilson answers: “Nobody ever said that the sap was the atoning work of Christ salvifically for the elect.”[28] Wilson doesn’t explain how this doesn’t contradict his teaching on union with Christ as being salvific.

Arminians teach that the apostate truly lose the union they had with Christ, but run into the problem of denying election and perseverance of the saints. The language used by the four suggests that all in the visible church, hence in union with Christ, share in all the blessings of the covenant except one – perseverance.

It may not be wise to call this “losing one’s salvation,” but it seems contrary to Scripture to say that nothing at all is lost. To draw such a conclusion appears to deny the reality of the covenant and the blessedness that is said to belong even to those who ultimately prove themselves reprobate (Heb. 10: 26ff).[29]

According to Wilkins, those that fall away do so because “God didn’t persevere with them.”[30]Or Wilson, “Nonelect covenant members neglect the means of their perseverance in a more fundamental sense, which is why they fall away.”[31] The biblical/historical doctrine is that the nonelect, however, cannot persevere because they were never brought into a state in which to persevere. For the four men to assert that this teaching differs from Arminianism because it was all predestined offers little help.

In wrestling with the issue of what it is that the nonelect partake of, these men run into difficulties because they overlook what has been historically referred to as the common operations of the Spirit. Both the Westminster Confession of Faith (10:4) and the Larger Catechism(#68) speak of the “common operations of the Spirit.” In these instances Matthew 7: 22ff; Matt 13:20-21 ; and Heb 6:4-6 are cited. The unregenerate can have operations of the Spirit by which they can know much about the faith, speak much about the faith, can feel deep conviction of sin (i.e. Judas “I have sinned because I have betrayed innocent blood,” Matt 27:4 ), can feel joy in hearing the Word (Matt 13:20,21 ; Herod, in Mk 6:20), and can even do mighty works (Mt 7:22f). The standard, Reformed understanding of Heb 10:29 has been with reference to the common operations of the Spirit.

The phrase “common operations of the Spirit” is a necessary inference to explain the difference between what the elect experience or the work on their heart, what the nonelect experience, and the different nature of the Spirit’s work in each. In reference to the nonelect, it acknowledges some type of work is going on, short of any effectual calling and union with Christ. At the same time it keeps the distinction clear that the elect receive something different: the vital regeneration of the Spirit in effectual calling and real, inseparable union with Christ. This avoids the confusion and suggestion that the elect and nonelect are in the same vital union or receive the same gracious work of the Spirit. It is an inference brought about by letting Scripture interpret Scripture. Read more»

Michael J. Ericson, “ Critique of the Teachings of Barach, Schlissel, Wilkins, and Wilson” (2003).


HT: Thanks to Christine Pack for pointing me to this essay.

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  1. Thank you. Very helpful.

    Do you have any further resources on the historical decline of holding to and teaching the “common operation of the Spirit”? I find it almost everywhere among the historically Reformed, but it seems to drop off in the 1900’s.

    • Hi Shane,

      I don’t. I suspect your intuition/experience agrees with mine. Could it have been that, with the rise of neo-Calvinism/Kuyperianism that we lost track, to one degree or another, of this doctrine? Kuyper certainly taught common grace but, in some neo-K quarters common grace was almost revised out of existence maybe that was so for the “common operations of the Spirit”? Perhaps we lost it during the renewed controversies with evangelical Arminians?

  2. I read the entire essay, and must conclude that to the Federal Visionist, the desire to just deal with current appearances trumps everything. It’s a simplification that faults anyone else for dealing with anything more than current appearance. But when they equate the elect with those-now-showing-it-not-yesterday, they are more and more explicit that they have no clue of how to relate to another living as fellow heir of the grace of life. How would you know under Federal Vision that someone is an heir, i.e., will receive? Isn’t that leaving the realm of appearance?

    This reminds me of a tract that a well-known name came out with, supposedly offering the gospel, and at the end of it, making nothing of it to tell the person but but so far, so good.

  3. Typically the page jumps to the source automatically when the reference number is clicked. It’s OK, I can still scroll to the bottom to see the reference. Thank you.

  4. Thanks the link yesterday, Dr Clark. I will be going through your 500 FV links in due time.

    I am a little confused here. I hear Doug Wilson say that he doesn’t say that being a member of a church saves someone (still affirms Sola Fide). I see your description of what they say is that are non-elect members of Christ who will eventually lose their semi-salvation. Partly I am confused because, as you put it, they are not precise. They use a lot of allegory where their defense is weak.

    This seems to be more of a Soteriology scripture debate, more than Ecclesiology debate. I see elements of both, but am I wrong?

    • Andrew,

      Start with the “Tuning In” piece and then go to the ecclesiastical reports. The RCUS report does the best job in explaining Wilson. The URC report is a good general survey of the FV (to that point).

      The FV can be a little confusing for two reasons:

      1. They are mostly incompetent theologians. Few of them have formal theological training. E.g., Wilson was a youth pastor who took an MA in philosophy. See his Prof’s (Nick Gier’s) assessment of his academic work. Even fewer have advanced degrees or the ability to do what they seek to do: fundamentally change Reformed theology. Remember, it was Wilson who wrote Reformed Is Not Enough. These boys don’t lack for chutzpah.

      2. There is not a little fuzziness, which pattern goes back to Shepherd, The Godfather of the movement. Some of this is intentional, some of it is the result of incompetence.

      The FV is a dialectical system, i.e., it says A and not A at the same time. Wilson has been clear that he affirms everything he’s said about the FV, including the Joint Profession. No, in the FV being a member of the church does not save one but not even Rome says that. In the FV we are saved, ultimately, by grace and cooperation with grace, which is what Rome taught and teaches. It’s that very system that the Reformation rejected.

      In the FV there are two kinds of election (something that the Synod of Dort explicitly rejected). There is a decretal version (what orthodox Reformed folk confess) and the “covenantal” version, which is essentially the Remonstrant/Arminian doctrine. We are said, in the FV, to be covenantally elect, united to Christ, justified, adopted etc in our baptism. We keep all those benefits by “doing our part.” They reject explicitly (Joint Profession) the Reformed distinction between an external and an internal relation to the covenant of grace. There is, in the FV, only one way to be in the covenant of grace. All baptized persons are in the covenant of grace in the same way. Those who apostatize (Joint Profession) were really, actually united to Christ and not merely externally, formally identified with Christ.

      This is a huge problem. It means that those who are “elect” and redeemed by Christ can actually be lost. This why the Synod of Dort met and rejected the Remonstrant revisions to Reformed theology.

      The FV touches on prolegomena (how we do theology, how we read Scripture), God (they want to revise the doctrine of the Trinity), Man (how fallen are we?), Christ (what did Jesus do? Did he accomplish salvation or did he make it possible for those who do their part?), salvation, church (what is the church, what are the sacraments, do they work “ex opera” [sic; it’s ex opere, as one of them wrote?), and last things (most of the FV are postmil theo-recons).

      • Thank you. Let me chew on that for a bit, and read the articles you mentioned. I’ve only been in the reformed circles for about 4 years and a lot has happened in the last 20 years.

        as to your “chutzpah” comment – yes. They use words recklessly like artillery shells, rebuild the rubble to a form of what it once was, and say “I don’t see why people over reacted!”

  5. I’ve had enough discussions with these people (pro-FV) online that they are so nebulous when it comes to the exact soteric terms used in discussions. What was taken for granted as standard historic soteric terms like “regeneration”, “forgiveness”, “justification,” “adoption”, etc. they switch them up and distort them to mean things that past confessional Reformed scholars did not mean. Some of them even told me to truly define the meanings of those terms above because they often accused me of not understanding the terms in a biblical sense. Some of them even had the gall to tell me that the way I understand the terms is not what the past Reformed scholars understood them.

    Talking to pro-FV people about these issues is similar to talking to Neoorthodox Barthians about Karl Barth’s doctrine of election. They will argue that the way traditional Reformed Christians understand Barth’s doctrine of election and how it ultimately leads to universalism is a serious distortion of Barth’s understanding of the doctrine. It’s the same trick: just tell people that they don’t truly understand the terms being used by their favorite scholars and that YOU are the one who is misreading what was being stated in their books or articles. It’s a tiresome verbal game played by these people.

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