Canons Of Dort (8): There Is Only One Kind Of Election

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).

Here is the entire series so far on the Canons of Dort

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NOTE

1. This is documented in R. Scott Clark, ed. Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

R. Scott Clark

7 comments

  1. I appreciate your article. I agree with your presentation of the Reformed position. I would ask you to comment on a couple of things. First, the men I know in the CREC seem to be saying, or at least claim to be saying nothing different than what you have written albeit using different words. I am not sure about that, but that’s what I understand. They claim to be using confessional language. Second, why, in your opinion, was the PCA, after three post-ordination exams (I think it was three), unable to find anything chargeable against Steve Wilkins, pastor of Auburn Ave. Presbyterian Church, Monroe, LA?

    • John,

      1. Not everyone in the CREC is explicitly advocating the FV theology but they all host it. It is the de facto home of the FV. They all tolerate it. Did they view it the way the Reformed churches view it, they would condemn it. They have not. They will not. There is a reason that Federal Visionists consistently relocate to the CREC.

      As to “using confessional language,” well, it’s quite possible to use confessional language and deny the substance and intent of the confession. That said, the language of two kinds of election is not confessional language. For more, follow the link to the resource page on the FV.

      2. The PCA GA spoke against the FV clearly in 2007. Enforcing that orthodoxy at the presbytery level is more difficult. WE could also point to the failure n the Pacific Norrthwest to convict Pete Leithart and in Minneapolis to convict Josh Moon nor was Jeff Myers convicted in St Louis. I think one minister in the PCA, in Illinois, has actually been disciplined for teaching the FV but that was well before they were calling themselves the Federal Vision. The same sorts of things happened in the Arminius case. Would anyone doubt that Arminius was heterodox? No but Gormarus, who was right there, was unable to find enough to bring charges and convict him even though he doubted very much Arminius’ orthodoxy. In the Leithart case, Pete was very clear about his views and the Presbytery simply failed. In this and in other cases one suspects that personal relationships were placed before confessional truth. There are likely a variety of reasons but one of was not the biblical and confessional heterodoxy of the FV theology. That is quite clear.

      3. The Monroe LA congregation did leave the PCA for the CREC, their natural home.

    • The fact that Reformed and Presbyterian churches have developed policies to condemn modern versions of Remonstrant teachings, and yet fail to deal with the FV and their like at the Presbytery level does not bode well for our churches. Where they once fled to the CREC for fear of discipline, they have discovered their fears were unfounded, and now they are coming back! Like the Remonstrants, they have the goal of subverting Reformed churches from within. They are emboldened and encouraged by the lack of discipline at the local level. By the way, isn’t the right use of discipline one of the marks of the true Church?

    • Scott, the (PCA) Illinois trial to which (I believe) you made reference was for Burke Shade and was held in 1998-1999. Among his defenders were Peter Leithart and Jeff Meyers. Meyers at the time was chair of the Candidates and Credentials Committee for the Missouri Presbytery. Having read the trial documents it is clear to me that Mr. Shade was rightly deposed from office. The last that I knew, Mr. Shade had been welcomed into the CREC and was, and I don’t know if this is the correct title, president of the CREC presbytery in my region.

      (I’d also add that I know a family who were members of Shade’s former church who still suffer grief from the perceived damage his “ministry” had on their family.)

      Sadly, when Jeff Meyers was tried the Missouri Presbytery exonerated him in what I would (very charitably) call unusual circumstances. Having studied the trial documents over many hours, and having read and listened to Meyers’ teachings even beyond what was admitted to trial, I can say without reservation that Meyers should have been deposed. As one defender of Meyers who claimed to have been present for the entire trial told me, the Missouri Presbytery circled the wagons around Meyers, feeling one of their own had come under attack.

      There is no doubt in my mind that Meyers at the time of the trial taught and believed in baptismal regeneration, just like Mr. Shade. Not that I needed further confirmation beyond Meyers’ own words, but one who knows Meyers acknowledged to me that Meyers believes in baptismal regeneration.

      So on appeal why did the SJC not overturn the decision by the Missouri Presbytery? The prosecutor and I believe the one who appealed the decision had left the PCA for another NAPARC church and this gave the SJC cause to disqualify the appeal. So, in essence the SJC let the Meyers exoneration stand based on a BCO technicality, rather than defending the honor of Christ and protecting His sheep from Meyers’ heretical teachings.

      As far as Leithart goes, he moved from Idaho to Birmingham, Alabama a few years ago, and sought permission from the local PCA presbytery to operation out-of-bounds, but they rightly refused him. (Leithart was then a member of the Pacific Northwest Presbytery of the PCA, and they had exonerated him.) Left with no other choice, Leithart left the PCA for the CREC.

      BTW Scott, I’ve greatly appreciated your series on the Canons of Dort!

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