What the Federal Vision Still Does to the Definition of Faith

Between the years 2001 and 2004 a group of writers within the Reformed community banded together forming a theological system and movement known as the Federal Vision or Auburn Avenue Theology.[1] Under the rubric of covenant theology, this movement has posited a false dichotomy between Biblical and Systematic theology, redefining many confessional Reformed categories and terms. For our purposes, we will briefly explore and evaluate the teachings of the Federal Vision on the nature of justifying faith and the place of good works in the believer’s salvation.

In A Joint Federal Vision Statement, signed by the central proponents of the FV, a series of affirmations and denials are presented. The statement on “Justification by Faith Alone” reads,

We affirm we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone. Faith alone is the hand which is given to us by God so that we may receive the offered grace of God. Justification is God’s forensic declaration that we are counted as righteous, with our sins forgiven, for the sake of Jesus Christ alone.

We deny that the faith which is the sole instrument of justification can be understood as anything other than the only kind of faith which God gives, which is to say, a living, active and personally loyal faith. Justifying faith encompasses the elements of assent, knowledge, and living trust in accordance with the age and maturity of the believer. We deny that faith is ever alone, even at the moment of the effectual call.[2]

In the affirmation section, standard Reformed language is employed. Justification is described as a forensic declaration, received by faith alone which is described as the hand gifted by God by which we are accounted righteous for the sake of Jesus Christ alone. In the denial, however, we find a clear presentation of the FV’s understanding of the nature of this justifying faith.

There are two important points to observe. First, the FV statement correctly denies that faith in God’s act of justifying the sinner can be understood as anything other than that which has been given by God. But when prompted as to what kind of faith justifies, and what is the kind of faith that God gives, the statement is unequivocal: justifying faith is “a living, active, and personally loyal faith.” For the FV, faith justifies not because only apprehends Christ but also because it obeys or because it contains Spirit-wrought sanctity and the virtues of love and hope. Faith is not merely apprehending and resting in Christ; but it also must be active, living, and loyal.

Here we notice that certain virtues are inculcated into the nature of the faith that God gifts into the sinner for his justification.[3] This certain kind of faith by which God justifies a sinner includes virtuous qualities. For instance, Doug Wilson writes,

So when we use phrases like “obedient faith,” others should just hear “new heart faith,” or “living faith,” or non-disobedient faith.” It should not be seen as a faith that has to perform a requisite number of good deeds so that it can earn its way unto heaven. Rather, obedient faith is the only kind of saving faith God gives.[4]

Because the FV generally denies the existence of merit, many fail to understand whether there is any real concern with the FV’s formulation. But the formulation is elusive. Wilson writes, “Obedient faith is the only kind that God ever gives, and when He gives it, this justifying faith obeys the gospel, obeys the truth, obeys His salvation. Faith that does not obey the gospel is not justifying faith.”[5] Wilson is able to deny that a sinner earns anything before God because he affirms that justifying faith is a gift from God, but the kind of saving, justifying faith that God gives to the sinner includes certain virtues.[6] Steve Schlissel writes, “Nothing in the Bible teaches a kind of faith that does not obey. Obedience and faith are the same thing, biblically speaking…To believe is to obey.”[7] Peter Leithart criticizes the Protestant doctrine of justification as being “too rigid in separating justification and sanctification.” Instead, Leithart proposes that justification and definitive sanctification should be viewed as the “same act” in God’s declaration of the sinner as righteous.[8]

This radical recasting of the Protestant understanding of justifying faith is clearly akin to the Roman view. Trent’s anathema is worth citing in this light. Canon XII states, “If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.”[9] Trent correctly summarized the Protestant definition of faith in the act of justification. In Trent’s formulation of justification, God pardons sin and infuses the inward righteousness of hope and charity into the sinner’s heart.[10] The language between Rome and the FV is strikingly similar, and the conclusion inevitable because both Rome and the FV accept the same premise, namely, that God can only declare one righteous who is intrinsically righteous.

For the FV, faith, in the act of justification, cannot be defined as trusting, resting, receiving because those participles don’t imply sanctification and intrinsic righteousness. In the Protestant and Reformed doctrine of justification, the ground of justification, Christ’s righteousness, is always extrinsic.

Second, in the affirmation in the “A Joint Federal Vision Statement” on Justification, the FV places the focus of forensic justification solely upon the forgiveness of sins. The Protestant doctrine of justification asserts the need not only for the remission of sins by the merit of Christ’s death, but also the imputation of his active righteousness.[11] When the FV defines justifying faith as having inherent value in itself; namely, as being “living, active and loyal,” the inevitable consequence is a denial of the need for the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Thus the FV denial:

We deny that faithfulness to the gospel message requires any particular doctrinal formulation of the “imputation of the active obedience of Christ.” What matters is that we confess that our salvation is all of Christ, and not from us.[12]

The need for the imputation of the active righteousness of Christ is subordinated to our own righteousness, or in the FV’s case, like Rome, to a faith in justification that includes personal loyalty and obedience. Rich Lusk writes,

These works [Christ’s] were not accumulating points that would be credited to Jesus’ people; rather, they were vocation fulfilling acts that prepared the way for the “one Man’s righteous act,” namely his death on the cross…The active obedience itself, then, is not saving in itself. Rather, it’s the prediction of his saving work in his death and resurrection.[13]

According to Lusk, Christ’s active obedience is only an anticipation of the main event, his death and resurrection. Lusk finds the only real benefit of Christ’s work for the sinner in his passive obedience, in laying down his life for the forgiveness of sin.
This denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ is very logical to a view that inculcates virtue into the nature of justifying faith; in this schema, the need for a righteousness outside of the sinner becomes unnecessary. Justification becomes only an issue of the remission of sins. Guy Waters writes,

This seems to do two things: (1) It reduces justification to pardon only—again, against our Standards, which define justification as the pardon of sin and the accepting and accounting as righteous in the sight of God, (2) It raises the question whether the believer’s covenantal faithfulness becomes the ground of his acceptance at the judgment of the last day, that is whether the believer’s covenantal faithfulness has effectively displaced Christ’s active obedience in Lusk’s scheme of justification.[14]

Waters second point raises one final observation. As with the mono-covenantalism of Norman Shepherd, FV formulations of the covenant are flattened out so as to make faith and works function in continuum. The FV advances the same distinction as outlined above in Norman Shepherd between the works of the flesh and the works that belong to justifying faith. Schlissel writes,

When we say that gentiles are incorporated into Israel by faith “alone,” the word “alone” is not used to set faith against covenantal obedience. It is rather used to distinguish the true means of covenantal inclusion from three erroneous ones: 1) That one must become a Jew to have access to God in Christ. 2) That one must approach God through the Levitical priesthood, offerings, and Temple. 3) That one is made right with God by one’s own merit.”[15]

As with Shepherd, the FV teaches that works of the flesh are often ethnic boundary markers, and not the works, as they state, that belong covenantal obedient faith.[16] Based on this dichotomy, many FV authors advance a doctrine of final justification based on works, a very familiar Roman distinction. The Joint Statement recognizes final justification as an FV teaching.

Some of us are comfortable using the language of justification to describe the ‘deliverdict’ of the last day, while others would prefer to describe it in other ways. That being said, we are all agreed that no one is justified at any time because they have personally earned or merited anything.[17]

The distinction presented in this statement is indicative of the FV’s core problem in defining faith. Protestants have affirmed that justification is a one time forensic declaration made when the sinner trusts in Christ. The receptive nature of faith makes this so, because the sinner’s open hand is extraspective and receives all that needed in the active and passive obedience of Jesus Christ.[18] Once faith becomes something other than receptive, not only is the active obedience of Christ unnecessary, but justification by default turns into a process. Therefore, statements made like the one below become a logical consequence to their system.

Works of faith-filled obedience, in a secondary way, cause our final justification and salvation. Works are the means through which we come into possession of eternal life. The path of obedience is the way we must trod if we are to be justified at the last day.[19]

As with Shepherd, Lusk’s articulation of justifying faith includes our obedience. By doing this he is able to speak of James 2 not in the demonstrative sense but in the forensic, soteric, justifying sense. Lusk affirms that James is speaking of a justification in which faith and works combine together to justify, and therefore become the basis of future and final justification.[20]
The FV position can be summarized this way: The certain kind of faith that God gives in the justification of a sinner is a living, active, and personally loyal faith. Since faith itself includes the necessary virtues for justification, faithfulness to the gospel message does not require upholding the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience. The basis for the sinner’s final justification is perseverance in the covenantal responsibility to maintain an obedient faith—those who do not, will be cut off.

1]For the history of the movement, cf. Guy Apprentis Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology (Philipsburg: P&R).
[2] “A Joint Federal Vision Statement”, Retrieved June 4, 2008 from http://www.federal-vision.com/pdf/fvstatement.pdf.
[3] It is important to note, this is not speaking of the fruits of justifying faith, but the very nature of justifying faith itself.
[4] Wilson, Auburn Avenue Pros and Cons, 2.
[5] In his parabolic polemic against Westminster Seminary California, Wilson makes clear his dissent from the Protestant definition of faith. Wilson writes, “Once two seminary professors at Bestminster Theological Seminary were walking together, heads bowed as they were deep in theological conversation. Their topic concerned the depths of the wisdom of God in the salvation of sinful man, and it was consequently slow going, as though they were try to paddle a canoe across a lake of chocolate pudding. The point of their discussion was to ascertain whether the faith represented by the phrase sola fide was “living faith” or “dead faith.” For it seemed clear to them, as well as to you and me, that it had to be one or the other. But, to be frank, a celebration of “dead faith” did not seem to them to be quite in keeping with the spirit of the Reformation. Not only that, but the folks down at Marketing and PR had positively nixed any such phrase for use on the donors’ brochure. But the alternative was no better. To use the phrase “living faith” made them sound like Norman Shepherd. As they wrestled with the problem, slowly the light dawned on both of them at once. In order to be “alone,” as in “faith alone,” the faith of our fathers could be neither living or dead, but, borrowing a phrase from chemistry, it had to be inert. It had to be colorless and odorless, like argon. And like Martin Luther, there they stood.” Doug Wilson. “Bestminster Best” Blog and Mablog: A Weblog of Doug Wilson, Presbyterian Fables. 5 May 2004.
[6] Rome says the same thing. Appealing to sovereign grace doesn’t solve the problem when faith, in justification, is re-defined to include sanctity.
[7] Schlissel, Auburn Avenue Pros and Cons, 90.
[8] Leithhart, Federal Vision, 83.
[9] The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Canon XII (Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, (2:113).
[10] Trent declared that unless hope and charity be added to justifying faith, the sinner cannot be united to Christ or made a living member of his body. The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Ch. 7 (Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 2:96).
[11] Cf ‘Do This and Live” by R.S. Clark in Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California, ed., by R. Scott. Clark (Philippsburg: P&R, 2007), 229-265.
[12] “A Joint Federal Vision Statement”, Retrieved June 4, 2008 from http://www.federal-vision.com/pdf/fvstatement.pdf.
[13] Lusk, Federal Vision, 77. Lusk writes, Justification requires no transfer or imputation of anything. It does not force us to reify “righteousness” into something that can be shuffled around in heavenly accounting books. Rather, because I am in the Righteous One and the Vindicated One, I am righteous and vindicated. My in-Christ-ness makes imputation redundant. I do not need the moral content of his life of righteousness transferred to me; what I need is a share in the forensic verdict passed over him at the resurrection (78).
[14]Ibid., 79.
[15] Ibid., 87.
[16] Ibid.
[17] “A Joint Federal Vision Statement”, Retrieved June 4, 2008 from http://www.federal-vision.com/pdf/fvstatement.pdf
[18] See Belgic Confession Article 23.
[19] Ibid., 89.
[20] Ibid., 90.

1 comment

  1. The 1998-1999 trial of Burke Shade (Illiana Presbytery, PCA) was the first Federal Vision trial (or so I was told), although I don’t believe it had yet been given that name. Shade was deposed, but eventually found his way into Moscow, Idaho’s CREC. Testifying at the trial on Shade’s behalf were Peter Leithart and Jeff Meyers.

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