Thursday, May 13, 2010

My Take on the Federal Vision Controversy

I cannot understand the angst in the Federal Vision debate. Well, on second thought I think I can. What is the issue in the Federal Vision debate? It involves a relationship. Every relationship has at least two sides. Relationships are covenantal and have certain expectations and obligations associated with the covenant.

The problem is that the two sides of the Federal Vision debate are talking about opposite sides of the relationship and, at least from my point of view, those that attack the Federal Vision dialogue will not recognize that the Federal Vision thinkers are discussing the opposite side of the relationship.

All relationships are covenantal. Even gracious relationships have obligations. For a gift to be effective, the gift must be received. Calvinism opines that the irresistible grace of God works in the life of the elect so that the elect individual will irresistibly receive the gift of eternal life. Praise the Lord, and thank you. I wholeheartedly agree. Calvinism opines also that the saint must then preserver to the end of life, but that God’s grace assures such perseverance. Once again, praise the Lord, I agree.

It still remains that there are two sides to the relationship, however gracious the relationship is. I am a Calvinist. I glory in the Westminster Standards. I affirm the sequence of the order of salvation put forth in reformed thought. However, that order of salvation is a recitation of God’s thoughts and actions toward us. I believe it to be correct in theory and in reality. However, after many years of trying to put it into practice in my life, I find that I am on the opposite side of the relationship and must act accordingly.

My problem in using the order of salvation in my relationship with Yahweh is that these thoughts are His thoughts. As I try to apply the doctrine of His election to my life and those around me, the difficulty is determining who His elect are. But this is something I cannot do. These are His thoughts and judgments, not mine. Deut 29:29. While I may want to make the call on who is saved, I simply cannot. I do not know the mind of God as wisdom Scripture clearly shows. I have tried in the past as a mental exercise to figure out how to know. I have conversations with some who “know that they are not elect.” How does that work? It doesn’t. All of our efforts to ferret out the thoughts of God are futile.

Another thing that is difficult about applying this view to our everyday lives is that it tends to make us arrogant. Take it from one who is a recovering member of God’s “frozen chosen,” it is a heady experience knowing who are God’s elect. Do we know God’s thoughts better than He does? Knowing who God’s elect are gives you a special insight into all of life. Again, we are not seated with God. Only Jesus is seated with God. We may pray to Him, but He is all wisdom and all things have been placed under His feet, not ours. So I happily resign myself to trying to understand my side of the relationship.

Unfortunately, my side of the covenant relationship is not quite as clearly defined in the Westminster Standards. Scripture admonishes us to make our calling and election sure. 2 Peter 1:10. Knowing that God’s foreordaining judgments are sure and fixed, I happily engage in that effort. But I am immediately confronted with the fourth and fifth commandments. These two commandments, working together, make our covenantal responses generational, meaning they work from one generation to the next. How does that work?

This is where I find the Federal Vision exploration to be so helpful. I use “exploration” for a reason. No one has yet written a confession of Federal Vision, although there have been several reports and affirmations published. The precise question is still unresolved. Again, how do we respond in our relationship to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? The reformed tradition starts out correctly (and there is no implication here that it does not also finish so). We respond in receiving His gracious gift by utilizing the means of grace: the sacraments, the Word and prayer. At this point, the crux of at least this aspect of the Federal Vision debate has to do with the “saving relationship” brought about by Baptism. Is it proper to refer to Baptism as initiating a “saving relationship” without contradicting the Westminster Standards? I believe it is.

Scripture clearly teaches that something happens at baptism. At baptism, we are united to Christ. Rom. 6:3, 1 Cor. 12:13, Gal. 3:27. 1 Pet. 3:21. The most interesting is the last, claiming that baptism now saves you. I will quickly agree that this passage cannot mean that baptism effects God’s election. To do otherwise would put me right back where I was before in thinking God’s thoughts before Him. However, is it appropriate to claim that baptism effects a “saving relationship?” I believe so.

Assume that I see a man who cannot swim fall from a ship in the ocean. Now assume that I throw him a line and he takes hold. Is there a saving relationship between the man and me? Yes. Does it mean that God has foreordained that the man will be saved? In other words, does it mean that he was elect to be pulled from the sea safe and sound? No. He could let go and perish. Again, I do not know the thoughts of God. And yet, I have evidence on which to base a judgment that the man will be saved.

Consider another example. I am a St. Louis Cardinals fan. If my Cardinals are up by ten runs in the ninth inning, I can say the Cardinals will win. Will I be infallible in my prediction? No. But I have a pretty good basis to make that judgment considering their record in early 2010, their lineup and other factors. I have pretty good promises that they will succeed.

But we have better promises from the Lord that He will be faithful to our baptized babies. Why shouldn’t we, along with Scripture, say that baptism now saves you or at least that it establishes a saving relationship?

The problem with the anxt from those that oppose the Federal Vision exploration is that they utilize those portions of the Westminster Standards relating to the order of salvation to refute the thoughts of those that explore the other side of the relationship. It may be too much to say that the two have no relationship, since I have already argued that it is because of the certainty of God’s fixed foreordination of all things that we can with joy make our calling and election sure. And, after all, it is a relationship. However, in speaking of a relationship of offer and response, you do not define the response by speaking in terms of the offer. Again, the order of salvation is God’s thought. Our response is the means of grace. If Federal Vision is to be refined it must be refined by developing the thoughts of the Westminster Standards found in those sections relating to the means of grace.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Knowledge is Covenantal

The following was posted on a rather popular blog Green Baggins (

One of the more disturbing trends I’ve seen recently is that people are more and more defining the church’s doctrine by what individuals within that church say or said.

Francis Turretin has a brilliant answer to this methodology. He is referring in this context to various accusations against the Reformed position on providence and the question of evil. The accusers were saying that the Reformed position makes God the author of sin. He says this about the accusers:

Hence they are accustomed to drawing nothing from public standards to prove their calumnies, but only from the writings of private divines from which they falsely weave consequences. (paragraph break, LK) Concerning the public and received opinion of any church, a judgment cannot and ought not to be formed from the writings of private persons…because we do not stand or fall with the judgment of each private divine, however illustrious (volume 1 of Institutes of Elenctic Theology, p. 529)

I must confess that this proposition confuses me. Try as I might I cannot separate Turretin’s argument from the main argument. Therefore, I must disagree with both. Words, communications and judgments are covenantal. That means that we derive them from other individuals. I know nothing except by what I am taught by other individuals. I do perceive certain things, but I understand those things by what individuals instruct me. From time to time I may have an original thought, but even in such instances my thoughts are built on a system of thought provided by others.

Even Scripture was written by individuals. Everything I know was provided by other individuals.

There is value in public confessions adopted by a church. Such expressions are a consensus of many individuals. And yet, the source of these statements is still individuals. It is also true of consensus documents that they compromise on matters of disagreement. Therefore, they accommodate the judgments of some individuals at the expense of the judgments of others. Consensus documents can be vague in order to accommodate many views.

So where does that leave us? Man is fallen. That means all of our words, communications and judgments are potentially flawed. Our communications are flawed and our understandings are flawed. The only exception to this rule is Scripture. And while the original communication of the message of Scripture is flawless, our understanding remains subject to the flaw.

The solution to this predicament is not in the restriction of opinion to some elite group but to the free expression of opinion. As was adeptly pointed out by another individual responding to the blog post, the author of the post embodied this principle by referencing an opinion of an individual to support his individual argument. The founders of our nation understood this principle and gave us the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They understood that in political discourse the free exchange of ideas was important to our covenant community. It is no less so in the covenant community of the church.