Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Federal Vision and Postmillennialism

My first impression upon reading the Joint Federal Vision Statement was one of surprise that, of the 18 loci addressed, postmillennialism is listed so early in the document (second only to "The Triune God"). Not that I desire to commit the ordo docendi, ordo credendi fallacy (i.e., that the order in which something is taught determines the order of its importance), but I do find this interesting.

The argument of the Joint Statement, in a nutshell, is that (1) If Jesus is the Savior of "the world," (2) If "all nations" will come to him, and (3) If the content of the Abrahamic promise is that "all the nations of the world would be blessed, and that his descendants would be like the stars in number," that therefore "prior to the second coming of our Lord Jesus, the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."

Concerning the final day, the last sentence of our Confession says that Jesus "will have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come; and may be ever prepared to say, 'Come Lord Jesus, come quickly.' Amen."

It seems to me that the arguments put forward by the Federal Visionists to prove the Christianization of the world are similar to those used by Arminians to insist that Jesus atoned for the sins of every single person. The Calvinist response, of course, is that when the Scripture says that Christ died for "all men," it means that he died for all without distinction, not all without exception. The same response can be offered here.

So in addition to the fact that our Standards neither hint at, nor seem to make room for, a Christianization of the world before the (supposedly) imminent return of our Lord, the postmillennial position seems to rest upon a woodenly-literal hermeneutic.

Yes, "all nations" will come to Christ, but in accord with the Joint Statement's insistence upon Scripture interpreting Scripture, the twenty-four elders in Revelation explain this by saying that the Lamb "has redeemed men to God from every kindred, tongue, people, and nation."

A New Statement by the Federal Visionists

As you may be aware, a handful of proponents of the Federal Vision have issued a statement clarifying their views on topics such as the triune God, postmillennialism, Christendom, Scripture, the Church, and imputation.

I hope to interact with this new document (though I'll not tackle all the topics), perhaps beginning later today.

We must all do our best to give these men the benefit of the doubt (they do, after all, express a spirit of humility and teachableness in their preface). I will try to set the precedent by avoiding the sarcasm and snarkiness that often characterizes both sides of this ongoing debate.

Stay tuned....

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Righteousness, Extraordinarily Considered

Having described what he calls "ordinary righteousness" (i.e., righteousness attained by obeying the covenant of works), Westerholm goes on to argue that human sin and inability to obey God's commands neccessitates that righteousness be attained in an extraordinary way: Through faith in Christ (Perspectives Old and New on Paul, pp. 273 – 84).

A comparison of Romans 2:13 and 5:9 demonstrates the necessity of another type of righteousness beyond the "ordinary." In the former verse, one is justified because he is just—he is a "doer of the law." In 5:9, however, the one who is justified is "ungodly" (v. 6) and a "sinner" (v. 8). This is an example of what Westerholm calls "extraordinary righteousness ."

The basis for this extraordinary righteousness is the death of Christ (Rom. 3:24-26), without which it would be unjust for God to justify the wicked (Ex. 23:7). In fact, in order for God to justify in this extraordinary way, he must demonstrate his own righteousness in doing so (Rom. 3:26). This is not the case with "ordinary righteousness" (such as in 2:13, where justification is to be expected).

Moreover, extraordinary righteousness is called a "free gift of righteousness" and "justification by faith" (Rom. 5:17; 3:28), the "works" apart from which extraordinary righteousness is received being acts of moral goodness. The blessedness of being counted righteous "apart from works" consists in having one's lawless deeds forgiven, having one's sins covered, and not having one's sin counted against him (Rom. 4:4-8). And finally, the phenomenon of justified by faith is the divine response to the crisis brought about by man's sin (Rom. 1:18ff).
"When the ones justified are sinners, their righteousness cannot be the 'normal' one based on God's recognition of their deeds as appropriate (righteous). Lacking such deeds themselves, they must 'receive' righteousness 'freely' (3:24), 'without works' (4:2, 5, 6), as a 'gift' (5:17) – none of which can be said of those recognized as righteous because they are doers of the law. The contrast between the righteousness of the law and that of faith amounts to that between the righteousness of those who do the good spelled out in the law and that of sinners" (p. 281, emphasis original).
Though this point falls outside Westerholm's purview, it seems clear that the Federal Vision's most glaring fault is its unwillingness to distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary righteousness (or if you prefer, between the law and the gospel).

Friday, July 27, 2007

Covenant Theology Lectures Online

Though I'm on vacation and without internet access most of the time, this will change by the weekend. In the meantime, however, I thought I'd point out that my recent lectures on covenant theology are available online here. I'm hoping that the fourth lecture dealing with the PCA's nine declarations will be up soon as well.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Righteousness, Ordinarily Considered

Any discussion of the gospel must address the issue of righteousness. "Ordinary righteousness," argues Stephen Westerholm, is a moral concept referring to what one has as a result of doing the good that the law requires (see his Perspectives Old and New on Paul, 263-73).

Paul contrasts righteousness with sin and its synonyms, indicating that the term, ordinarily considered, is moral before it is covenantal (Rom. 3:9, 10; 5:7-8; 6:18-19). Those, therefore, who will be deemed righteous (i.e., justified) at the final judgment will be those who have done righteousness (Rom. 2:6, 13).

Westerholm argues that to be deemed righteous is to be recognized as one who has done the good; moreover, if the doers of the law are also doers of the good, Paul must believe that the law spells out the goodness required by God. "Thus the immediate context of 2:13," he writes, "provides confirmation for the (nonrevolutionary) conclusion… that the law is understood to prescribe what people ought to do, and those who behave accordingly are righteous" (pp. 268-69). He concludes:

"In their ordinary sense the various 'dikaios' [righteous] words belong to Paul's basic moral vocabulary. Righteousness is what one ought to do and what one has if he has done it.... One is righteous when one does righteousness—when, in other words, one lives as one ought and does what one should. To be justified is, in effect, to be given the treatment appropriate to one who is just and righteous; in a legal context it means to be declared innocent of wrongdoing, or acquitted" (pp. 272-73).


Friday, July 20, 2007

An Old Perspective on Romans 2:13

I'm becoming weary of hearing Romans 2:13 cited as a "prooftext" to defend Paul's alleged doctrine of justification by works (an allegation cited, but rarely argued for or proven).

The verse reads, "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified."

The issue Paul is dealing with here is the glee on the part of his Jewish readers at his wholesale condemnation of the entire Gentile world (1:18-32). He begins the second chapter, therefore, by castigating those who "call themselves Jews" and are "instructed by the law" but have "sinned under the law," arguing that "every one of you who judges" will be "condemned" and will not "escape the judgment of God," for they were "storing up wrath for [themselves] on the day of wrath" (2:1, 3, 5, 12, 17).

Clearly, Paul is holding up to the Jews the mirror of the law for the purpose of demonstrating that they, no less than the Gentiles, are "in Adam" and, if they remain in this condition, must keep the law if they expect to secure God's heavenly inheritance.

This is not good news, since "both Jews and Greeks are under sin," the law serving to "stop every mouth." "The works of the law," Paul concludes (using "works of the law" and "the law" interchangably), cannot "justify," but only render all men "accountable to God" and "knowlegable of sin" (3:9, 19-20).

The gospel, on the other hand (there's that "Lutheran" law/gospel contrast again), manifests "a righteousness of God apart from the law... through faith in Jesus Christ" (3:21-22). His grand conclusion is that "boasting" is "excluded," not by the "law [or principle] of works," but by the "law [or principle] of faith" (3:27).

I'll bring out some additional implications of this pericope in subsequent posts, but for now, suffice it to say that citing Pauline precedent for the semi-Pelagian doctrine of justification by faith-plus-obedience belongs neither in the PCA, nor in Protestantism for that matter.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Suspicious Threads, Suspicious Cloth

Let's set the confessional record straight, shall we?

Yes, Reformed theology affirms a duplex beneficium (double benefit) in Christ's work: justification and sanctification. Yes, Reformed theology has traditionally distinguished between justification and salvation, affirming the necessity of works for the latter, but never for the former. Yes, Reformed theology teaches that there will be a judgment according to works on the last day, on which all people will be judged according to the deeds done in the body, whether good or evil.

But despite Herculean efforts by our brothers in the Federal Vision camp, the fact is undeniable that any formulation of justification that imports works into the equation cannot claim confessional precedent or authority.

But as I have argued in the comments of the preceding thread, it is not merely the Federal Vision's emphasis upon works that has occasioned such resistance from Reformed confessionalists, it is the weaving together of various questionable doctrines into a suspicious cloth that causes us such concern. For example, when we hear that:

1. Election is, in some sense, a covenantal and loseable privilege;

2. The covenant of works was gracious, thus conflating law and gospel;

3. Baptism unites the recipient with Christ and confers such saving benefits as union with Christ and, in some sense, regeneration;

4. Union with Christ is only as secure as the believer's ongoing covenant faithfulness;

5. Justification is presently declared upon one basis (faith), while its final declaration will be additionally based upon works;

6. The distinction between the visible and invisible church should be viewed with suspicion;

... the only conclusion that we can reach is that those who affirm such views have surrendered any claim to be within the pale of traditional Reformed orthodoxy. It is time, therefore, to recognize the Federal Vision to be the fringe movement that it is, and to place the burden of proof on these brethren to demonstrate their adherence to Reformed theology as we have confessed it for 500 years.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Declaration #9: Justification and Works

The final declaration of the PCA's Federal Vision Report states:

"The view that justification is in any way based on our works, or that the so-called 'final verdict of justification' is based on anything other than the perfect obedience and satisfaction of Christ received through faith alone, is contrary to the Westminster Standards."
Proponents of the Federal Vision argue that, while initial justification is based solely upon faith (though often redefined, unconfessionally, as faithfulness), the final verdict of justification, issued on the last day, will be based upon works. Building upon the metaphor of the white robe, Rich Lusk writes:

"[I]nitial reception of the white garment is by faith alone; ongoing possession of the garment is maintained by faithful obedience.... Their 'whiteness' before the Father's throne is due solely to his death and resurrection. In this sense, the robes stand for initial justification. But this forensic justification cannot be separated from the good works that make the saints worthy of their new apparel. In other words, the poetic imagery points in the same direction as the theological prose of Paul (Rom. 2:13) and James (2:14ff): those who will be vindicated in the end are those who have been faithfully obedient" ("Future Justification to the Doers of the Law," emphasis added).
The Westminster Standards, quite to the contrary, teach that we are "justified... not for anything wrought in, or done by, [us]" (WCF XI.1). Not even "faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience" can be said to be the ground of our justification, but rather "the imputation of the obedience and satisfaction of Christ" (WCF XI.1). Though there will be a final judgment, its "end" is "the manifestation of the glory of [God's] mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of His justice, in the damnation of the reprobate" (WCF XXXIII.2). On the last day, the righteous will be "openly acknowledged and acquitted," and will then participate in the judgment of the wicked (WLC 90).

Confessionally speaking, "justification" refers to God's verdict concerning his people, expressed in the present, grounded upon Jesus' work imputed to them by faith alone. Though the elect will be judged "according to their works" on the last day, this judgment is not intended to determine whether or not they will be saved, but to vindicate them before the reprobate, "openly acknowledging and acquitting" them. Reformed theology has always distinguished between justification and salvation, with good works being necessary for the latter, but never for the former.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Declaration #8: Perseverance

"The view that some can receive saving benefits of Christ's mediation, such as regeneration and justification, and yet not persevere in those benefits is contrary to the Westminster Standards." So reads the eighth declaration of the PCA's Report on the Federal Vision.

This one's a toughie, especially in the light of passages like Heb. 6:4-6 which list repentance, enlightenment, tasting of the heavenly gift, sharing in the Holy Spirit, and experiencing the power of the age to come as among those blessings that may be a part of the experience of a believer who ends up an apostate.

How do we deal with this? Do we insist that these blessings are common rather than saving, or do we suck it up, admit that they're saving, and resign ourselves to the fact that true believers can be ultimately lost?

Of all the views I've come across, R. Fowler White's is the most intriguing. He argues that these are indeed saving blessings predicated upon apostates, but that these "benefits of Christ's mediation" are attributed to them not because the writer has secret knowledge of God's eternal decree, but because such blessings must be attributed to all within the covenant, even though one's profession may be a false one (something only God knows). He writes:

"On the premise that the faith of their audiences was covenantally credible, the [New Testament] writers ascribed to them all sorts of blessedness.... On the premise that the faith of their audiences was undifferentiated, the writers exhorted their audiences to perseverance (and were covenantally bound to do so)..." (The Auburn Avenue Theology, 213).
Unlike the Federal Visionists, who insist that if these blessings are attributed to an entire church then each and every member must have each and every one, White is arguing that one's covenant membership entitles him to the benefit of the doubt, even if the one to whom such saving blessings are attributed is, from the standpoint of the divine decree, a reprobate.

Thus, we can affirm with our forefathers in the faith that "True believers, by reason of the unchangeable love of God, and his decree and covenant to give them perseverance, [and] their inseparable union with Christ... can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation (WLC 79)."

Monday, July 09, 2007

Declaration #7: Union and Salvation

"The view," declares the PCA's Report on the Federal Vision, "that one can be 'united to Christ' and not receive all the benefits of Christ's mediation, including perseverance, in that effectual union is contrary to the Westminster Standards."

Advocates of the Federal Vision argue that the nomenclature of "union with Christ" applies to all who have been baptized with water, and that this "covenantal union" can be lost due to one's failing to abide in the Vine (cf. John 15:6).

The Westminster Standards, on the other hand, teach that union with Christ is a "special benefit" enjoyed by the "members of the invisible church." Further, by this union "the elect... are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably" joined with Christ (WLC 65-66). The "inseparable" nature of this union precludes "true believers" from "totally or finally falling away from a state of grace" (WLC 79). Finally, the various benefits of Christ's mediation, such as "justification, adoption, and sanctification," are given to "the members of the invisible church" as "manifestations of their union with him."

The Standards do not speak of baptism effecting "union with Christ," whether covenantal or saving, but speak instead of this sacrament being a sign and seal of our "ingrafting into Christ" (WCF 28:1; WLC 165; WSC 94), a blessing not necessarily received at the moment of the sacrament's administration (WCF 28:6).

Interestingly, the New Testament does not speak with univocity concerning our union with Christ, but employs a handful of phrases to communicate the doctrine ("in Christ," "in Me," "united with him," &c). This being the case, it makes perfect sense to follow our tradition in employing one phrase to indicate the elect's saving relation to Jesus ("union") and another to speak of the baptized covenant member's association with the visible assembly of saints ("solemn admission," WCF 28:1).

The Federal Vision's insistence upon using the language of "union" to refer to both betrays either an ignorance of, or a stubborn refusal to employ, the tools of systematic theology. Their boast of "using the Bible's terms," therefore, comes at the cost of confusing the saints and robbing them of their assurance.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Declaration #6: The Benefits of Baptism

The sixth declaration of the PCA's Federal Vision Report reads:

"The view that water baptism effects a 'covenantal union' with Christ through which each baptized person receives the saving benefits of Christ's mediation, including regeneration, justification, and sanctification, thus creating a parallel soteriological system to the decretal system of the Westminster Standards, is contrary to the Westminster Standards."
The logic of the Federal Vision runs thus: (1) Baptism places a person in covenant with God; (2) To be in covenant with God entails receiving all the saving blessings of Christ; (3) Therefore all who are baptized partake of all of Christ's saving benefits, which benefits may be forfeited for lack of covenant faithfulness (see Steve Wilkins' essay in The Auburn Avenue Theology, especially pp. 261-63).

When pressed for explanation, Federal Visionists often backpedal: "I do indeed believe that baptism unites the baptized in covenant with Christ.... However, baptism is never efficacious apart from the exercise of saving faith on the part of the recipient" (Wilkins' Response to the PCA's report).

The FV's rationale for attributing saving blessings to those in covenantal union with Christ is that the apostles often refer to their readers as "saints" without qualification, predicating upon them election, justification, and sanctification (cf. I Cor. 6:11).

I must admit, though I have some exegetical difficulties with the FV's approach here, I sympathize with their overall concern. As FV opponent R. Fowler White concedes in his essay:
"On the premise that the faith of their audiences was covenantally credible, the [New Testament] writers ascribed to them all sorts of blessedness.... On the premise that the faith of their audiences was undifferentiated, the writers exhorted their audiences to perseverance (and were covenantally bound to do so)..." (Ibid., 213).
Therefore I hold, in common with the Federal Visionists, a high regard for baptism and some concerns about the perceived low regard for the sacraments in certain Presbyterian circles. I just wish they would qualify their statements about baptism the way the Reformed confessions do.

Distinguishing between the visible- and invisible church would be a good start....

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Declaration #5: Union and Imputation

"The view," declares the PCA's Federal Vision Report, "that 'union with Christ' renders imputation redundant because it subsumes all of Christ's benefits (including justification) under this doctrinal heading is contrary to the Westminster Standards."

Some clarification is needed here (as was helpfully pointed out to me by one of my readers): Federal Vision advocate Rich Lusk has clarified his position with respect to union with Christ and the imputation of his righteousness. It is not imputation as such that Lusk argues is made redundant by our union with Christ, but imputation as defined by a "transfer of righteousness" from Jesus' account to ours. Imputation, he argues, is God's "reckoning" (logizomai) of us as righteous based upon the verdict pronounced upon his Son at his resurrection on the third day.

So once again, to the Standards....

Westminster Larger Catechism 65-66 states that union with Christ is a "special benefit" that "the members of the invisible church enjoy," and that this union "really and inseparably" joins the elect believer to his Husband and Head. Furthermore, WLC 69 teaches that our union with Christ is "manifested" by our "partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in [our] justification, adoption, [and] sanctification." And once again, this union is said to be a benefit given to "the members of the invisible church."

Though union is certainly understood by the Reformed tradition to be the rubric under which the various blessings of the covenant of grace come to us, there is no warrant for using union as an excuse to collapse these blessings together, or to allow any one (like sanctification) to swallow another (like justification).

So Lusk's clarification notwithstanding, he and the Federal Vision still fall short of anything resembling an historic, confessional, Reformed position. His concession that Jesus' verdict is ours by virtue of our union with him fails to ultimately comfort, especially when we realize that this union is only retained through our covenant faithfulness, and that the verdict pronounced in the "already" may be changed by the time we reach the "not yet."

Monday, July 02, 2007

Declaration #4: Merit

The fourth declaration of the PCA's Federal Vision Report states:

"The view that strikes the language of 'merit' from our theological vocabulary so that the claim is made that Christ’s merits are not imputed to his people is contrary to the Westminster Standards."
The argument of the proponents of the Federal Vision is that man, by virtue of his creatureliness, cannot merit anything from his Creator or bring the Almighty into his debt. This has ramifications not only for the covenant of works (since God only deals with his creatures graciously), but also for the view that Christ's obedience and satisfaction earned our eternal inheritance. The Father, they argue, graciously bestowed the reward upon his Son.

To the Standards, shall we?

The "everlasting inheritance" that our Lord has gained for us is something that he "purchased" (WCF VIII.5), the purchase price being his "perfect obedience and sacrifice" (WCF VIII.5). The payment of this price "fully satisfied the justice of the Father" (WCF VIII.5). Moreover, the saints' perseverance in the faith is attributed to "the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Christ," his intercession being grounded in "the merit of his obedience and sacrifice on earth" (WCF XVII.2; WLC 55). Finally, worthy participation in the Lord’s Supper includes our "trusting in [Christ's] merits" (WLC 174).

In his devastating critique of the covenant theology of the Federal Vision, Michael Horton cites Calvin:

"By his obedience, Christ truly acquired and merited grace for us with the Father.... I take it to be a commonplace that if Christ made satisfaction for our sins, if he paid the penalty owed by us, if he appeased God by his obedience... then he acquired salvation for us by his righteousness, which is tantamount to deserving it.... Hence it is absurd to set Christ's merit against God's mercy" (Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, 206-07; Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.17.3, 1).
Though there is no law, external to God, by which man can bring the Almighty into his debt, Adam would have had a claim upon the promised blessings of the covenant of works had he obeyed the stipulated terms of that covenant. Moreover, our Lord Jesus Christ, as second Adam, is able to claim those blessings (and more) on behalf of his people, grounding his claim on the Father’s promise to impute the benefits of his obedience and sacrifice to his elect. Thus, there is more to Jesus' work than "an inherent worth" (as the Federal Visionists call it); it is the means by which he earned for sinners what they could never merit on their own.