/ Jeffrey A Stivason

The Federal Vision

What is Federal Vision (FV)? Can it be defined or described? It is true that there is diversity in the movement, which makes definition difficult.  However, there is a good deal of unity as well.  For instance, advocates of FV have described themselves by several common monikers, not the least of which is, the FV. At least eight of them published a book together titled The Federal Vision.[1]What is more, they have sponsored, participated in, and promoted conferences with the intention of spreading the vision. They promote and rarely criticize one another.[2] Theologically, many, if not all, hold to the objectivity of the covenant (and its entailments regarding ecclesiology, the eschewing of the invisible church, and the sacraments), redefine the traditional doctrine of imputation (pace Lusk), and some hold to corporate justification (pace Wilson) to name a few.   There is certainly enough unity among this group of men and their followers to seek to carve out a place for themselves in the Reformed camp.

In this article, I am going to pick out a few places wherein there is unity among the proponents of FV. However, this is not an exercise to simply demonstrate the internal consistency of the group. Rather, in demonstrating these points of unity I am unearthing the systemic problems that are central to the Federal Vision and therefore demonstrating why it must be rejected.

First, proponents of FV have an appreciation/admiration for the New Perspective on Paul (NPP).  Now, the NPP is not really a new perspective on Paul. It’s really a new perspective on Judaism. Some of my readers may not know what the NPP is and that’s alright. You are better off not knowing! However, if you are interested, Robert Cara, Provost, Chief Academic Officer and Hugh and Sallie Reaves Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, has gifted the church with a book titled, Cracking the Foundations of the New Perspective. Cara not only explains the NPP but shows its errors.  I have written an article which relies heavily on Cara’s book for those interested.[3]

But what are the problems with the NPP?  There are several issues. For instance, NPP denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.  NPP argues that justification is not about salvation but ecclesiology. And there is an emphasis on a final justification by works to name a few. We will see that these problems are like those we will find in FV.

Second, proponents of the FV are confused as to what the instrument of justification actually is.  For example, Richard Lusk says, “Faith is the instrument of justification on our end, while baptism is the instrument on God’s side. God offers Christ and applies Christ to us through the instrument of baptism.”[4] This is obviously a very problematic statement because it moves in the direction of baptismal regeneration and out of Scriptural view.  Peter Leithart argues similarly for a strong view of baptismal efficacy to the point that the sacraments work ex opere operato.[5] I’m not sure how such a view finds a home in the Reformed camp.

However, and third, Lusk also speaks of a final justification at which time our good works play a “more than-evidentiary” role at judgment.[6] In fact, Lusk actually views justification as a process referring to “initial justification” and denying the uniquely receptive activity of faith in justification.[7]  Now, this is contrary to the Scripture and the Westminster Standards which clearly speak of faith as the sole instrument of justification.

Fourth, FV to one degree or another deny the imputation of Christ’s righteous to the believer. Again, Lusk argues that the active obedience of Christ is not imputed to the believer. How he argues is interesting. He contends that advocates of the NPP “uphold the intention of the doctrine of imputation and affirm everything imputation is designed to safeguard.  But they cover the same ground in a different way.”[8] In other words, it’s okay to deny an essential doctrine so long as we cover for it.  Friends, can you see the foolishness of such an assertion?  However, this is clearly the modus operandi of FV advocates. In rejecting the distinction between the visible and invisible church Doug Wilson contends that the historical and eschatological distinction he proposes will “preserve the necessary distinction made by visible and invisible.”[9] According to Wilson, he embraces the confessional distinction but thinks “it needs a better set of names.”[10]It’s hard to believe that Wilson is just seeking new monikers and not new meanings.

If you read FV theology you will find several things in their writings. They constantly engage in the theological redefinition of classical terms, frequently engage in the equivocal use of language, overemphasize the continuity between the Old and New Testaments and minimize the internal or the experiential. All these things are sadly true.  But, far worse, when you find a theology that dismisses imputation, is confused about the instrument by which we receive justification and fails to understand justification you don’t simply have slips in thinking. You have serious error that should be avoided.

[1] Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, The Federal Vision, Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2004.

[2] Guy Prentiss Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), 259.

[3] https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/justification-and-the-new-perspective.

[4] Waters, 92. From an article by Lusk titled “Faith, Baptism and Justification.”

[5]Peter Leithart, “Sacramental Efficacy” Studies in Worship 43 (January 1995).

[6]Waters. 93.

[7]Ibid., 89.

[8]Waters, 78. From Lusk's article titled, “The Galatian Heresy.”

[9]Doug Wilson, Reformed is Not Enough, Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2002), 74.

[10]Ibid., 78.

Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is a pastor (Grace RPC, graceingibsonia.org) and NT professor at RPTS in Pittsburgh, PA. He is also editor at placefortruth.com.

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