The Remonstrants were dissatisfied with the basic insights of the Reformation and thus of the Reformed faith. They did not agree with the Protestant articulation of the gospel, that Christ came for his elect, to be their obedient, righteous substitute, to die for them, to be raised for them and to save them utterly and only by grace alone. They did not accept the Protestant definition of faith as resting in, receiving, and trusting in Christ alone for our salvation. The Synod of Dort met to defend those basic convictions against the Remonstrants. As we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dort we should recognize, however, that the impulse that animated the Remonstrants still exists. Obviously, it is preserved among those who openly identify with the Remonstrant cause and theology, e.g., the remaining Remonstrant congregations in the Netherlands and among those who identify as Arminian or Wesleyan. Less obvious, however, are those movements, like the original Remonstrants, who self-identify as Reformed but who seek to revise Reformed theology, from within, along the same lines as Arminius, Episcopius et al. In one way or another, they seek to make salvation partly by grace and partly by works. By definition any such scheme, whatever its source, is a denial of salvation sola gratia and sub-Reformed and sub-Protestant.
Arguably, the Arminius of our day is Norman Shepherd, who, like Arminius, sought to revise fundamentally Reformed theology from within as a minister and as a professor in a Reformed theological faculty. Like Arminius, Shepherd gave birth to a movement, the so-called, self-described “Federal Vision” theology. The movements associated with Norman Shepherd remain important examples of this impulse within the conservative and confessional Presbyterian and Reformed world. The Federal Vision theology, which continues to find adherents in the CREC, the ecclesiastical home of the Federal Vision, and in orthodox, confessional Reformed denominations represented in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). Further, there are those who do not want either to be identified as Federal Visionists any longer (but who openly confess the same doctrine), e.g., Douglas Wilson or who deny being Federal Visionists but who support Federal Visionists, their institutions, and who, in any disagreement, always find themselves supporting the Federal Visionists. They have believers elect, justified, united to Christ, and adopted by virtue of baptism. They confess this openly:
We affirm that apostasy is a terrifying reality for many baptized Christians. All who are baptized into the triune Name are united with Christ in His covenantal life, and so those who fall from that position of grace are indeed falling from grace. The branches that are cut away from Christ are genuinely cut away from someone, cut out of a living covenant body. The connection that an apostate had to Christ was not merely external.
We deny that any person who is chosen by God for final salvation before the foundation of the world can fall away and be finally lost. The decretally elect cannot apostatize.
There are two great errors under this head of Federal Vision theology: the rejection of the biblical and confessional Reformed distinction between an external relationship to the covenant of grace (e.g., through church membership or baptism) and an internal relationship to the covenant of grace by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (John 3). The Apostle Paul teaches this distinction in Romans 2:28–29:
For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God (Rom 2:28–29; ESV).
Scripture repeatedly teaches this internal/external distinction in the Old Testament prophets (e.g., Jer 4:4; Isa 1:11–20). This is why Paul says in Romans 9:6 that “not all Israel is Israel.” Thus, the Apostle John explained that the heretics “went out from us” because “they were not of us” (1 John 2:19). Judas is a prime example of one who had an external relationship to the visible covenant community but he never had an internal, Spirit-wrought relationship to the covenant of grace. He was never regenerated. He was never united to Christ sola gratia, sola fide. Esau was in the covenant of grace externally but God never loved him in Christ from eternity. He did, however, love that sinner Jacob, in Christ, from all eternity (Mal 1:2–3; Rom 9:13).
We see this external/external distinction working out in the life of the visible church in the warning in Hebrews 6:4–6. There are those in the visible church who have participated outwardly in the life of the church, in the covenant community. Perhaps they have even participated in the sacramental ministry of the church (i.e., baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and yet were really only ever hypocrites. They had only an external relationship to the covenant of grace. In short, there have always been two ways of relating to the one covenant of grace. This was true in the Old Testament and it is true for the New Testament church. Those who teach that, under the New Covenant, the visible church is so eschatological (heavenly) that there can be no reprobate among them (or who delay baptism until profession of faith in order to reach this eschatological vision of the visible church) are also neglecting the internal/external distinction.
Not only does the Federal Vision theology deny the two ways of being in the one covenant of grace (which becomes part of their basis for teaching that every baptized person receives all the benefits of Christ), they also confess two types of election: “decretal” and “covenantal.” We see them doing this in their confession regarding apostasy. They have a covenantal election and a decretal election.
This distinction is entirely without support in holy Scripture and purely formal. In substance and in practice they collapse the two. In effect, they seek to control the divine decree through the administration of the sacraments. They are what used to be called sacerdotalists. A sacerdos is a priest. The Federal Visionists have a priestly religion. Their own writers have explicitly said that baptism works “ex opera [sic—he meant to write, ex opere].1 They hold that baptism necessarily creates a genuine (and not merely external) union with Christ: “All who are baptized into the triune Name are united with Christ in His covenantal life, and so those who fall from that position of grace are indeed falling from grace…[t]he connection that an apostate had to Christ was not merely external.”
They teach much more than baptismal regeneration (i.e., that, at baptism, the Holy Spirit confers new life), which is the doctrine of Romanists, the Lutherans, and others. Rather, they teach that all the benefits of Christ are conferred in baptism because they openly deny a basic biblical distinction, i.e., between those who are merely outwardly identified with Christ and those who are also inwardly united to him by grace alone, through faith alone. For more on this distinction see this essay. For more on the self-described Federal Vision movement see these resources.
The Reformed churches condemned and rejected the Federal Vision distinction between an alleged covenantal election and a decretal election at the Synod of Dort in Canons of Dort 1.8:
Art. VIII. There are not various decrees of election, but one and the same decree respecting all those who shall be saved both under the Old and New Testament; since the Scripture declares the good pleasure, purpose, and counsel of the divine will to be one, according to which he hath chosen us from eternity, both to grace and to glory, to salvation and the way of salvation, which he hath ordained that we should walk therein.
Synod was replying to and rejecting the Remonstrant doctrine that there is an “incomplete” and “non-decisive” election to salvation on the basis of “foreseen faith” (which will be addressed in the next essay). The Remonstrants set up a scheme wherein one had a provisional election conditioned not only upon “foreseen faith” but also “conversion, holiness, godliness, which either began or continued for some time,” which only becomes “complete and decisive” in view of “foreseen perseverance unto the end in faith, conversion, holiness, and godliness; and that this is the gracious and evangelical worthiness, for the sake of which he who is chosen is more worthy than he who is not chosen; and that therefore faith, the obedience of faith, holiness, godliness, and perseverance are not fruits of the unchangeable election unto glory, but are conditions which, being required beforehand…” (Canons of Dort, Rejection of Errors 1.5).
This is essentially the Federal Vision doctrine. The similarities are striking. Both teach different kinds of election. Both turn consequent conditions in the covenant of grace, i.e., the fruit and evidence of new life and true faith, into antecedent conditions. That is to say, both the Remonstrants and the Federal Visionists turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. Both deny unconditional election. Scripture only knows of one kind of election: unconditional election of sinners in Christ. Both the Remonstrants and the Federal Visionists both deny biblical and confessional Reformed doctrine.
The effect of both the Remonstrant and Federal Vision doctrine is to make election dependent upon our faith and faithfulness. This necessarily presumes a heterodox view of God. He is no longer sovereign and free but contingent upon us and our choices. The Remonstrants did this by adopting Molinism (or Middle Knowledge—media scientia). The Federal Visionists have done the same apparently without realizing it. Both the Remonstrants and their modern successors, the Federal Visionists, deny the gospel salvation sola gratia, sola fide. Obviously a conditional election is bad news for sinners since none of us is able to meet the terms of this covenant of works. Were we able to “do this and live” Christ died for nothing (Gal 2:21). Both schemes make Christ but half a Savior (Heidelberg 30; Belgic Confession art. 22).
1. This is documented in R. Scott Clark, ed. Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.
—R. Scott Clark