It is now around nine months since my wife and I moved to Grande Prairie (GP) in Alberta, Canada where I have taken a call as Minister of Word and Sacrament at Covenant Reformed URC. We are so thankful to the Lord and to the good folks at Covenant for helping us adjust to a different country, culture, climate, and church life. One of the biggest adjustments in moving to the URCNA from a Baptist church in Belfast, NI, is coming to grips with Reformed language—especially with covenant language. We spoke of the covenants in our Baptist circles, but the language is different!
I remember vaguely at my Colloquium Doctom speaking of how much I was looking forward to preaching and teaching through the Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day-by-Lord’s Day.1 Little did I realize then just how beneficial it would be to me and, I trust, to the congregation. What a wise and wonderful practice! It is one thing to embrace the theology of paedobaptism, but another to understand it and be able to truly preach and teach its truths.
Coupled alongside this is the history of the church at GP. There is a CREC church there, which began some years ago as a result of the departure of leaders and members of Covenant Reformed, who were teaching and seeking to introduce paedocommunion and other Federal Vision distinctives. They left after they felt unable to accept the recommendations of Synod. We are a small community in GP and so there are still connections between friends and family spanning the churches. Thus, the shadow of Federal Vision hangs somewhat over Covenant Reformed.
The current tack for those sympathetic to Federal Vision is to downplay it: “Federal Vision isn’t really anything out of the ordinary. Paedocommunion—it’s an expression of Jesus’ love for little children. It’s just a different emphasis,” and other similar comments are made.2 I am reminded of a similar situation that happened a number of years ago at a Christian College in the USA. A number of the students were beginning to attend the local Roman Catholic church led by a young, charismatic priest who told these young Protestants not to worry about the differences—”They are nothing really, a different emphasis; just enjoy the fellowship and the music.”
“When is a door not a door?” the conundrum asks.
“When it’s a jar (ajar).”
This works best as a verbal play on words since written down the trick is immediately spotted, but verbally “ajar” and “a jar” can sound the same. It seems to me that Federal Vision may sound plausible but when written down, explained, and examined, the difficulties become apparent.
One of the complaints of those who hold to Federal Vision (or are sympathetic towards those who do) is that everybody else misunderstands them. After all these years, this seems to suggest that there is a problem in the message itself, especially since a number of Reformed denominations and federations have rejected Federal Vision at the highest levels.
Consider baptism. Baptists do not want baptism to be an empty sign. It must “do” something. They are careful to say that they do not teach baptismal regeneration, otherwise they would have to confess that everyone who is baptized is saved, but this is where it gets tricky. How can baptism benefit all if all are not saved finally? They read Romans 6:3, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” and Titus 3:5, which speaks of the “washing of regeneration,” and a type of biblicism kicks in—something must happen because all were baptized into his death. Perhaps a temporary kind of election—after all, was not the nation Israel called the elect of God though not all were saved? The Canons of Dort put that to rest, carefully describing election in 1:7, it speaks of a single decree of election in 1:8: “The election is not of many kinds; it is one and the same election for all who were to be saved in the Old and New Testaments.” Furthermore, included in the Rejection of Errors in 1:2 are those who teach that God’s election to eternal life is of many kinds and, in 1:6, those who teach that not every election to salvation is unchangeable but that some of the chosen can perish. New Covenant election, according to the Canons of Dort, cannot be spoken of as being of different kinds—there is not an election of some who are not truly and eternally saved.
Perhaps, then, there could be a temporary kind of regeneration as advocated by one of the English representatives at Dordt, John Davenant, later Bishop of Salisbury. Herman Witsius in his “The efficacy and utility of baptism,” cited Davenant as believing that all baptized infants are in a certain sense adopted, justified, regenerated, and sanctified.3 This regeneration that is suitable for children, however, is not sufficient for adults: “Thus, those who perish in more advanced life, in consequence of coming short of their baptismal engagements, have lost not the state of salvation that belonged to them as infants but the infant state itself, which being superseded, what was by divine decree sufficient for their salvation while children ceases to be sufficient for their salvation as adults.”5 Witsius, whilst acknowledging Davenant’s and other’s eruditeness, strongly and carefully refutes such notions, concluding: “We admit no regeneration through the blood of Christ that, although sufficient for everlasting life, may possibly end in eternal death. Whoever is born of the Spirit immediately enters into the kingdom of heaven—first, as a state of grace; afterwards, as a state of glory. The Holy Spirit knows nothing of any other regeneration.”6
For Witsius, the answer is clear: “The whole efficacy of baptism, insofar as it implies a state of salvation even conformably with that period of life, belongs exclusively to infants who are elected.”7 The reality is that if someone is baptised (infant or adult) who is not elect, there is no benefit in baptism. They are not baptised into Christ Jesus, not even temporarily. There is no efficacy for the non-elect.
What, then, is the stumbling block to the clear statement that baptism is efficacious only for the elect? I think it partly stems from a failure to grasp the different type of “baptismal language” that we find in Scripture. The Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 163 asks, “What are the parts of the sacrament?” and then answers, “The parts of the sacrament are two; the one outward and sensible sign, according to Christ’s own appointment; the other an inward and spiritual grace thereby signified.”8 So, the outward is distinguished from the inward reality but is not completely separated.
Likewise, Witsius distinguishes between that which is “real” and that which is “sacramental.” He says, “the real [is] that which takes place in the souls of the elect and by which they are renewed to spiritual life and the enjoyment of the favor of God. I call the sacramental that which consists in the solemn exhibition, the sealing and profession of the seal, in the use of the sacraments.”9 In his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Zaharias Ursinus in his exposition on Q/A 7210 writes:
The same division which we made when speaking of the sacraments in general, is also true of baptism, that there are some forms of speech which are proper, and others which are improper. These forms of speech are called sacramental. It is a proper form of speech when those who receive the sign are said to receive the thing signified, as “he that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved.” The same is true when the sign is said to signify the thing, as when it is said, “baptism is the sign of the washing away of sin.” “He gave unto them circumcision to be a sign of the covenant.” Improper or figurative forms of speech are when the sign is said to be the thing itself, as “Baptism is the washing of regeneration;” and when the sacrament is said to confer the thing, or things pertaining to that which is signified, as when baptism is said to save us. All these forms of speech may be said to have this one signification: Baptism is a certain sign of the remission of sin, and of everlasting life to them that believe: for the figurative speeches which are used in reference to the sacraments are to be interpreted in the same manner as the figurative speeches in reference to sacrifices. Sacrifices are often called expiations for sin, and yet the apostle Paul affirms that the blood of bulls, and of goats, cannot take away sin. So when it is said, “Baptism saves us,” is “the washing of regeneration,” and “the washing away of sin;” it is the same thing as to say, Baptism is the sign of all these things.11
This type of sacramental language is unheard of in evangelical and most Baptist circles, and it can take time to fully appreciate. The tendency can be to conflate the sacramental with the reality. We can certainly speak of baptism as being the washing of regeneration because that is most certainly signified in baptism, but the washing of regeneration, in reality or actuality, is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Witsius comments that, “the question respecting the efficacy and utility of Christian baptism in the case of the elect infants of covenanted parents is particularly difficult and abstruse, and as in former so also in later times has been much obscured by the subtleties of elaborate discussion,”12 which could almost be describing the “diverse, confusing and double talk of the Federal Vision.”13 Others far more able than I have outlined the error and dangers of the Federal Vision (see resources on the Heidelblog), but this is not just an exercise in theological discussion. These errors have impacted churches and continue to do damage to the gospel, and we in Covenant Reformed in Grande Prairie are still experiencing the repercussions to this day.
All of that to say, we are settling in but more importantly standing firm—standing firm on the commitment to our creeds and confessions, standing firm for clarity, standing firm on the historic truth of justification, for which there can be no compromise.
©Keith Giles. All Rights Reserved.
1. The Colloquium Doctom is a “friendly” discussion/examination for ministers seeking to join the federation of the URCNA. My now-colleagues in the Western Canada Classis were so kind and patient with me; nevertheless, it was also extremely daunting, which is why the day is somewhat of a blur.
2. At the very least, it is clear that paedocommunion is outside the bounds of our confession see Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary of the Heidelberg Catechsim, Lord’s Day 27, Q/A 72,73,74.
3. Herman Witsius (1693), “On the Efficacy and Utility of Baptism in the case of Elect Infants whose Parents are under the Covenant,“ Mid-America Journal of Theology (MJT) 17 (2006), 121-190.
5. Ibid., 133–134.
6. Ibid., 136.
7. Ibid., 137 (my emphasis).
8. Westminster Confession of Faith, 1990, The Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, 125.
9. Op. Cit., 161.
10 Q: Is then the external baptism with water, the washing away of sin itself?
A: Not at all, for the blood of Jesus Christ only, and the Holy Ghost, cleanse us from all sin.
11. Zacharias Ursinus, 1888 edition, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, eBook np.
12. Op. Cit., 126.
13. As one retired URCNA minister wrote to me in an email.
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