Volume 19, Issue 3: Contra
Against the PCA GA FV Report (twenty-four variationson a response)
It's long been a frustration that there is no forum for theological discussion and debate in the
Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Presbyteries sometimes devote time to such discussion, but
that's too rare. And General Assembly (GA) is simply not a place where theological debate can be
expected to happen.
The General Assembly debate on the Federal Vision (FV) was a case in point. Nearly two
hours were devoted to the committee report, but virtually no theological claims were made or
disputed. The Assembly quickly determined that justification by faith was the issue, on the
assumption that some in the PCA are denying it (which is not true). Once the debate went in that
the outcome was predetermined, as we Calvinists like to say. We all know what we think about
justification by faith; we in fact know all that needs to be known; no need to discuss; let's vote.
The emperor invited Luther to speak for himself at the Diet of Worms. By that time, the Pope had
already had a stack of Luther's writings, enough to detect forty-one errors he wanted Luther to
retract. Eck knew full well what Luther had written; he had a table full of books at the Diet
itself. The Diet met to demand that Luther retract. But the Diet summoned Luther, personally.
For reasons that Committee Chairman Paul Fowler's convoluted explanation certainly did
not clarify, the PCA study committee on the Federal Vision decided not to contact any of
what R. C. Sproul called the "accused" personally. They were satisfied with a stack of
papers and web printouts. It's the kind of thing that makes you stop and say,
During the PCA debate on the Federal Vision, PCA minister David Coffin dismissed N.T. Wright's
supposed claim to have discovered the gospel that had been hidden for centuries. Coffin finds
Wright's claims dubious.
I am dubious that Wright actually makes the claims that Coffin attributed to him. Wright
claims to have discovered fresh insight into Paul's letters, but he doesn't claim, as Coffin
implied, that he's the first ever to understand Paul's gospel.
Leave that to the side. The irony of Coffin's statement runs deep, because in the end the
PCA voted in favor of the committee report in order to defend justification by faith, which, if
Alister McGrath is to be believed, is a theological innovation of the first order (a quite proper
theological innovation, I should add).
It's not hard to imagine a sixteenth-century Cardinal saying, "Dr. Luther, we have
known since the time of Saint Augustine that
iustificare means `to make just.' Are you telling us that we have been wrong for 1000 years?
Are you the first to understand the gospel? I find that dubious."
The Federal Vision has been about a lot of things, but one of the central pastoral issues has to
do with the status of our children, what we say to them, and how we say it. From one perspective,
the Federal Vision is an effort to articulate a consistent paedobaptist theology. Douglas Wilson
said awhile ago that this is all about children. I agree.
The pastoral import of the Federal Vision is that we can say to our children, without
mental reservation, "God is your God. Trust Him, and He will be your God."
The critical edge of this is that the Federal Vision exposes the ambivalence that weakens
the testimony of many Presbyterian and paedobaptist churchesthe ambivalence that says both
"God is your God" and also "God is maybe not your God. We can't tell. We'll be able
to tell later. But maybe not."
FV: You know, for kids.
In other words, paedocommunion lurks behind the whole Federal Vision debate. Paedocommunion
disambiguates the ambiguous "God is/isn't your God" that paedobaptism without
paedocommunion declares to our children.
In his stimulating book Liturgical Theology, Simon Chan argues that a crucial weakness of
Protestant and evangelical theology is that it ends the gospel story with the ascension and doesn't
see that Pentecost and the church are integral to the evangel. This is not Jesus' own version of
the gospel. Jesus says in Luke 24 that the Old Testament is not only about the Christ, but about
of repentance to all nations. Acts also recapitulates Israel's history.
Without a pneumatologically shaped ecclesiology, Chan says, Protestantism permits sociology
to fill the vacuum: "If the Spirit is linked to the church in any way, it is to the invisible
church, such as in the Spirit's bringing spiritual rebirth to individuals. The visible church is
largely defined sociologically, while the `real' church cannot be identified with anything visible.
Such an ecclesiology
could only be described as docetic."
If this is true of Protestantism in general, it's true of certain brands of Reformed
theology in spades, for which membership in the visible church is only "external" or
"legal" membership in the covenant (that is, purely "sociological"). For this
kind of Reformed theology, the Spirit is at work only in that circle within the circle of the
church, within that invisible circle that invisibly
circumscribes those who are truly (but invisibly) in the real (albeit invisible) church. The Spirit
leaves the visible church as such to fend for her/itself.
Chan's proposal is no minor adjustment. Far from it. It messes with the foundations of
Western ecclesiology going back far beyond the Reformation, to the time when ecclesiology first
began to be framed in categories from Roman law. And it also messes with modern secularism's belief
that the church might possibly be a "merely social" society, the secular belief that the
supernatural only in private. It subverts the secular belief that, whatever we might say about
individuals, a pneumatological
society is impossible.
This is another perspective on the Federal Vision: It stands against sociologymore
precisely, it stands against any sociology that claims to be anything other than pneumatology and
ecclesiologyand stands equally, it must be said, against any pneumatology and ecclesiology
doesn't simultaneously claim to be a sociology.
The Federal Vision is an effort to elaborate the third article of the Nicene Creed.
The PCA Committee denies that one is elect "by virtue of" baptism. Good for them. They
should condemn this kind of nonsense.
But what does the denial mean? The statement is ambiguous, since "election" can
refer to the general election that applies to all who are members of the chosen new Israel or to
the special, eternal election of the eschatological Israel. In either case, though, election is not
"by virtue of" baptism, and nobody has ever said it is.
Election, in both its general and special senses, is an unconditional sovereign act of God.
Baptism may express God's election to membership in the church; but election is not dependent on
The PCA Federal Vision report condemns the notion that some receive saving benefits of Christ
and later lose them. But this runs contrary to the PCA's own covenant understanding of infant
baptism and the statements of its own Constitution.
Consider: Children of believers, Presbyterians confess, are covenant children.
Presbyterians often say that God is a God to us and to our children. In fact, according to the PCA
Book of Church Order (BOCO), the following statement is to be read at baptisms: "For to you is
the promise, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God
shall call unto him.
And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their
generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee. Believe
on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house (Acts 2:39; Gen. 17:7; Acts
16:31)" (BOCO 56-5).
A straightfoward reading implies that we can say to every child in a PCA church, "God
has made promises to you. God is your God. You are a covenant child." Head-for-head, we can
say those things to our children, every baptized infant in the PCA.
Now, is being a "covenant child" a saving benefit or not? Is having God as our
God a saving benefit or not? Of course it is: Claiming God as my God is
the saving benefit. Yet, no Presbyterian on earth (including me) believes that everyone who
is baptized will end up sharing in the new heavens and new earth. So, our children enjoy this
crucial saving benefit, but some will lose it.
(Alternatively, we say what the BOCO requires, but don't really mean it. See numbers 4-5 above.)
We can push this further. If God is God to our children, does that not imply that God has
forgiven and accepted them? Does it make any sense to say that God is God of our children, and yet
also to say that they are children of wrath, piling up sins until they exercise personal faith? Do
we say to our children, "God is your God, but He holds all your sins against you"? Ought
we to say, "God
is your God, but you are also a child of wrath"?
The PCA constitution does not support this kind of double-speak. BOCO 56-4, alluding to 1
Corinthians 7, says that children of believers are "federally holy before Baptism, and
therefore are they baptized" (BOCO 56-4, h). That the BOCO immediately says that the
"inward grace and virtue of baptism is not tied to the very moment of time wherein it is
administered" (BOCO 56-4,
i) creates some potential dissonance. But the dissonance doesn't undermine the statement about the
holiness of covenant children. The federal holiness mentioned in 56-4, h, after all, doesn't depend
on baptism; it is the gift to the children of believers, and according to the BOCO is the
basis not the result of baptism. 56-4, i doesn't even qualify the statement about
If our children are holy, they are accepted, cleansed; if they are holy, they have access.
What else does "holy" mean? And is that not a "saving benefit"?
(Alternatively, the term "federally" that qualified holiness might be defined as
Baptism has a promissory aspect. The Lord promises forgiveness and life in the Word, and
calls hearers to faith. Baptism is a ritual form of the same promise, offering this gift to me by
name, and baptism calls the baptized to trust the God who has baptized him.
Baptism not only offers gifts, however, but confers gifts, and it confers some gifts
all the baptized, reprobate and elect.
Baptism is itself a gift. Whether or not the baptized ever believes, the Father has
personally addressed him, personally and directly promised life in the Son by the Spirit. God does
not address everyone in this direct and personal manner. To be so addressed is a privilege, a
mercy, a gift of grace, a wholly unmerited favor.
It's often said that those who are baptized but never believe haven't received the offered
gift. That's one way to say it, and gets at the truth that those who do not believe never received
rightly, since they despise the Giver.
Another way to say it is that they have received the gift, but abused it. They have, after
baptism. Baptism is just there, as real as the drops of water streaming down the
head. If baptism itself is a gift, the baptized inevitably receives at least this gift when he's
baptized, whether he responds rightly to it or not.
In receiving baptism, the baptized receive a great deal more. The baptized person is
brought into the community of the church, which is the body of Christ. That's a gift. The baptized
is made a member of the family of the Father. That's a gift. The baptized is separated from the
world and identified before the world as a member of Christ's people. That's a gift. The baptized
in Christ's army, invested to be Christ's servant, made a member of the royal priesthood, given a
station in the royal court, branded as a sheep of Christ's flock. All that is gift.
All this is not only offered but conferred on the baptized. All this he
receives simply by virtue of being baptized.
Some will spurn the gift. Some will say, "I don't believe I belong to Christ. I don't
believe I'm a sheep of His flock, or a soldier in His retinue." Some will enlist
enthusiastically for a time, and then go AWOL. But their failure is not a failure to receive a
gift. Their failure is a failure to use it rightly.
According to the PCA Federal Vision Study Committee, the Westminster Confession condemns the
view that people can receive saving benefits from Christ temporarily.
Does the Apostle Peter conform to the Westminster Standards as interpreted by the Federal
Vision Study Committee?
At the beginning of his second epistle, Peter says that "divine power" has
granted "everything pertaining to life and godliness" (1:3). God communicates the life
and godliness that results from His power "through the knowledge of Him who called us by His
own glory and excellence" (1:3), presumably Jesus (cf. 1:16). This knowledge is clearly not
just intellectual or doctrinal, but
personal knowledge of the Savior and Lord Jesus. The result is both positive and negative: We are
promised that we will be made "partakers of divine nature" and we are promised that God's
power will deliver us from "the corruption that is in the world by lust" (1:4).
A cluster of the same terms appears at the end of chapter 2:
* Peter speaks of some who have "escaped"
(apophugontes), using the same form of the same verb found in 1:4.
* In 2:20, the people Peter talks about have escaped the
miasma tou kosmou, the "miasma of the world." Peter's wording is slightly
different in 1:4: We have escaped the "in-the-world-by-lust-corruption," and
phthoras rather than miasma. The thought in the two passages is very similar,
however. (I suspect that "world" here refers to Judaism, and that there's an implicit
analogy with the exodus.)
* In 2:20, the instrument for escaping the
miasma of the world is the "knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." This
is the same instrument God uses for communicating grace and peace (1:2) and for granting life and
godliness (1:3). It is the same knowledge by which we grow in grace (3:18). It is possible,
further, that 2:21's reference to the "way of righteousness" should be
personalizedknowing the way of righteousness is knowing the Righteous One who is the Way, the
Truth, and the Life.
Peter, in short, uses very similar language to describe the people in 1:3-4 and 2:20. Both
have escaped from the world; both have escaped from the world through the knowledge of Jesus. There
are differences, to be sure: Peter does not say that God has granted "everything pertaining to
life and godliness" to those in 2:20. But the similarities are striking: The people in 2:20
and receive some benefit from that knowledge.
But those benefits are temporary. While those Peter describes in chapter 1 grow from faith
to virtue to knowledge to self-control, and so on, the people in 2:20 don't remain in the way of
righteousness. They return to the miasma of the world, and their last state is worse than the first
(2:20b-22). They are people who have failed to grow because they have "forgotten purification
former sins" (1:9).
So, again, my question: Does the Apostle Peter conform to the Westminster Standards as
interpreted by the Federal Vision Study Committee?
Of all the declarations of the PCA Federal Vision Study Report, the most mystifying is the one
that reaffirms justification by faith and rejects final justification according to works. This
became the central issue in the "debate" on the floor of GA, and this was likely the
reason for the resounding support for the report.
It's mystifying first because, R.C. Sproul to the contrary, justification by faith is
not being challenged.
It's also mystifying because the Westminster Confession, part of the constitution of the
PCA, clearly teaches judgment according to works (33.1): "In which day, not only the apostate
angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the
tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive
according to what
they have done in the body, whether good or evil."
The committee, by contrast, says, "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
These two statements are, to put it delicately, hard to square with each other. Perhaps the
committee is using "justification" or "final verdict of justification" in a
sense different from how I understand those. When anyone associated with the Federal Vision says
"final verdict of justification," they mean "final judgment."
Perhaps, too, the committee is emphasizing the "based on" part of its statement.
The argument might be this: "Good works are not the ultimate cause of God's final
justification of the righteous. They merely serve as evidence of genuine faith." That is a
quite traditional view, but even on this view the final judgment is "based on" works in
the same way that every judgment in a court
is supposed to be "based on" evidence.
It appears that the committee condemns the very view that WCF 33.1 articulates, since the
Confession says explicitly that what we receive at the final judgment will be "according to
what they have done," which is
something other than the "perfect obedience and satisfaction of Christ received through
Revelation 20:11-15 is widely taken as a scene of final judgment. Despite some potential
preterist doubts, it does appear to be a final judgment scene. It comes after the millennium, and
the ones to be judged are raised from the dead.
The dead in verse 12 includes all the dead, not only the wicked dead. The names of some of
the dead are found written in the book of life, and they escape the lake of fire. Those names not
written are tossed into the lake of fire, with death and Hades.
Twice in this passage, John says that the dead are judged according to their works. They
"were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds"
(v. 12); and "they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds" (v. 13).
Would John fall afoul of the Westminster Standards as interpreted by the Federal Vision
As the prooftexts to WCF 33.1 show, this is the consistent teaching of Old and New
Ecclesiastes 12:14: "For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret
thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil."
Matthew 12:36-37: "But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they
shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by
thy words thou shalt be condemned."
Romans 2:16: "In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ
according to my gospel."
Romans 14:10, 12: "But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought
thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
So then every one of
us shall give account of himself to God."
2 Corinthians 5:10: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that
every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be
good or bad."
Not to mention John 5:28-29: "for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs
will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life,
those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment."
Or 1 Corinthians 4:5: "Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but
wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and
disclose the motives of men's hearts; and then each man's praise will come to him from God."
I haven't been able to find a single text that plausibly talks about final judgmentor
about temporal judgments for that matterthat says anything different. God renders and will
render to each according to what he has done. Works may be "merely" evidence, but God's
final judgment will be based on this evidence, and not the evidence of Christ's personal obedience
in the flesh.
It's been suggested that there is some conflict between my denial of human merit and my defense
of judgment according to works.
There is no conflict. There is not even a tension. Nary a whisper.
We are judged, after all, according to works that are
entirely gifts from God. The life we live in the fleshthe life of action and
doingis lived by faith in the Son of God who lives in me. As Augustine said, when God rewards
our works, He is simply crowning His own works. At the judgment, the Father gives judgment into the
hands of the Son, who approves the works we have done,
which have been produced by the Spirit. God the Father looked at the fruit trees springing from the
ground (the ground having produced them) on the third day, turned to the Son and Spirit, and said,
"That's good. Well done, good and faithful dirt." At the final judgment, the Son will
approve what we have done, which is the effect and fruit of the Spirit working in us: "That's
good. Well done,
good and faithful men-of-dirt."
We are not rewarded because we have earned the reward, because we have done so well that we
have staked a claim on God. There's no merit here any more than there was for Adam. We receive a
reward of grace, just as Adam would have if he had remained faithful.
On the other hand, there is a tension between a meritorious covenant with Adam and
judgment according to works. On this paradigm, evaluation according to works is the standard in
Eden but never after. From the garden's gate to the final judgment, we are evaluated only according
to imputed righteousness. On this view, saying that we are judged by works is saying that we have
merited eternal salvation.
Based on this view, many in the PCA condemn the Federal Vision for undermining
justification by faith. But that criticism only holds if the Federal Vision believes that human
works can be meritorious. But that's precisely the view that the Federal Vision has been
Ergo, the Federal Vision support for judgment according to works poses no danger to
justification by faith alone. None. No more than Romans 2:13 poses a threat to Romans 3:21-31.
Does judgment according to works contradict the gospel? Does it reintroduce law back in the
covenant of grace at the last minute? Is judgment according to works God's final
Not at all. Judgment according to works is part of the gospel. Paul hopes for the
day when "according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus"
(Rom 2:16), a judgment that will "render to every man according to his deeds" (Rom. 2:6,
quoting Psalm 62:12). This is good news because Jesus, in contrast to all human authorities, will
"judge the world in righteousness" (Acts 17:31).
Not at all, again. Judgment according to our deeds
does not reintroduce law, because the promise that God
will produce good deeds in us is a central gospel promise. This
is the new covenant, that Yahweh will "put My laws into
their minds, and I will write them upon their hearts"
(Hebrews 8:10, quoting Jeremiah 31). The Spirit is given to enable us
to walk in the statues and commandments of God
(Ezekiel 36:27), so that the "righteous requirement of the law may
be fulfilled in us, who walk according to the Spirit and
not according to the flesh" (Rom. 8:4).
Of course, all our works are tainted by our prior sins,
our continuing sins, the remnants of the flesh in us. Of course,
our works are acceptable only in Christ. Of course, the gospel
is about the forgiveness of sins and standing before God
in Christ the Righteous One.
But our works are acceptable, and we really do
good works because God is at work in us to do His will. The
good news is that Christ the Righteous One in whom we stand
will, by the power of His Spirit, renew us in righteousness.
The good news is about a law written with the Spirit on the
tablets of human hearts, not on stone. The gospel is about God
giving us hearts that are not stone but flesh.
This has a couple of important implications. It
means that our works are just as much a matter of
grace-through-faith as our right standing with God. God has promised
that He will produce fruit in us by His Spirit. We trust Him
for that, ask Him to do it more and more, believe Him as
we receive the various gifts He gives us to cultivate this
fruitbaptism, the table, the word, fellowship, the guidance
of eldersin short, the church.
It also means that a judgment that is not
according to works is in tension with the gospel. This is subtle,
but consider: God promises to produce good fruit in His
people by His Spirit. He gave His Son on the cross, raised Him
from the dead, and poured out the Spirit on us, for precisely
that reason. He says He's going to do it.
Suppose we get to the final judgment, and we
haven't produced the fruit of good works by reliance on the
Spirit. Suppose we get to the final judgment, and God finds that
the Spirit has not caused the people of God to walk in the ways
of His commandments and statues after all. Suppose we get
to the final judgment and God discovers, to His surprise,
that this gospel promise has not been fulfilled.
Will God say, "Well, that didn't quite work. You
really didn't produce any good fruit. Turns out the flesh beat
the Spirit in the end. Not what I expected. Guess I'll let you
in, but only because of Jesus' obedience, not your own."
It's a caricature, of course. Nobody teaches this. But it's
a caricature with a point.
Under those circumstances, has God made good on
romise? Under those circumstances, has God kept
the promise He made in the gospel that His Spirit will make
us walk in His ways? If no one can stand in the judgment
when his Spirit-induced works are judged, hasn't the
gospel promise failed?
Of course, no need to worry. God's promises are
Yes and Amen in Jesus. He's kept them all, and He's going to keep
this one too. And when He comes to the end of it all, He
will delight in His works, the Triune works which wholly
Is the denial of judgment according to works
If we are judged according to Christ's imputed
righteousness, then at the judgment, Jesus' works are
approved but not ours. The judgment is Father-Son. Where's the Spirit?
If our works are the works of the Spirit in us, then
their approval is the Son's final judgment about the Spirit,
the vindication of the Spirit as the Spirit of righteousness. At
the final judgment, the Son, speaking the Father's final word
as the Incarnate Word, will say that the Spirit did
everything expected of Him. The Spirit will be able to join with the
Son in saying, "It is finished."
If judgment is not according to works, when is the
Spirit finally vindicated? When do the Father and Son say,
"Well done, good and faithful Spirit"?
(I'm not, for the record, claiming that those who differ
on this point are non-Trinitarians. I'm simply suggesting
that they haven't worked through the implications of
Trinitarian theology as thoroughly as they might.)
The Father has put judgment into the hands of the Son
(John 5), and God the Father has appointed a day on which
the Risen Son will judge all men (Acts 17:31). The judge of
all will be a Man, as Paul says in Acts 17.
According to the PCA Federal Vision Study
Committee, the "so-called final verdict of justification" is based entirely
on "the perfect obedience and satisfaction of Christ
received through faith alone."
Doesn't that mean that Jesus is passing judgment on
His own obedience? And isn't that slightly odd? Doesn't Jesus
seek His Father's approval, rather than His own?
Luther illustrates justification with the image of a mortally
sick man and his doctor. The doctor is so certain that he is
going to heal the patient that he declares him well already, and
tells the patient to consider himself well. The patient trusts
doctor so thoroughly that he considers himself well now,
takes all the medicine prescribed, and looks eagerly to the
time when he's finally healed. (Scot Hafemann, incidentally,
has argued that Paul's doctrine of justification is very like this.)
Though this parable doesn't capture everything that
the Bible says about justification, it neatly captures a number
* The patient is, in the present, simultaneously sick
and well. Sick in that he is not wholly healed, well in the
judgment of the doctor and in his own trusting judgment.
* The patient's "status" is that of "well." That's what
the doctor puts on his chart. The patient accepts this
judgment because he trusts the doctor, not because of the condition
of his own body or his self-diagnosis.
* Justification on this view is a verdict or
judgment already passed. The patient is well. That's how the
doctor regards him, and how the patient should regard himself.
But he is well in spe, in hope. This "verdict" points to the
final state of the patient, which is one of complete healing.
The faith that receives justification is the assurance of things
hoped for, the substance of things not seen.
* The present judgment of health in this parable
is grounded in the future state of the patient. The doctor
saying "you are well" depends on his confident "I will heal you."
But notice that the future state of the patient is
not the product of the patient's own doing at all. It's all the doctor's doing.
The doctor doesn't pronounce the patient healthy because
he knows the patient has the capacity to make himself
healthy. The patient doesn't have that capacity, which is why
the patient has to rely completely on the doctor. The
physician pronounces the patient well because of the doctor's
confidence in his own healing powers. All the patient can do is
trust the doctor, take his medicine, and look ahead to his recovery.
* The doctor's "verdict" on the patient is also a
commitment to see the patient through to complete healing.
On Luther's analogy, then, the verdict of justification
is not only a statement about the present status of the
person justified. The verdict is also a promise about what
the Physician will do for the person. In saying "You are right
in Christ," the Father is also saying "And I have given my
Spirit to make you righteous in fact." Justification is God's
pronouncement that things are right; and it is likewise His
utter commitment, His commitment of His Triune self, that
He will not rest until things are set right.
Is this promissory aspect of justification
sufficiently appreciated in Reformed churches?
Did Adam have to exercise faith in the garden, prior to sin?
Of course. He was a creature.
Creatures are utterly dependent on the Creator for everything, absolutely everything.
That's what it means to be
a creature. An utterly dependent being is a being whose stance must be one of expectant trust.
God said, "Eat from the trees." Can Adam produce the fruit? No. He had to trust
God for food.
God said, "It's not good for man to be alone." Could Adam find a helper suitable
to him? No. He had to trust God.
God put Adam into deep sleep and tore him in two. Adam has to entrust himself to Yahweh
just as surely as Abraham did when Yahweh told him to sacrifice Isaac.
Adam went into deep sleep exercising the faith of Hebrews 11hoping for something
delightful that he had not yet seen.
Denying that Adam had to exercise faith is an implicit denial of his creaturehood.
If some of the baptized end up in hell, how can baptism be an instrument of assurance?
Might as well ask the same question about the Word: If some who hear the Word end up in
hell, how can the Word be an instrument of assurance?
In both cases, the answer is this: Baptism and the Word fail to assure when those who
receive the promise do not believe it, or do not continue to believe it. Baptism and the Word fail
to bring assurance to people who regard God as a liar.
We get into problems when we look for some ground of assurance more solid, certain, and
well-grounded than the promise of God.
But there is no better ground for assurance than the mercy of God.
Baptism is God's promise to me, personally, by name. I know that God has promised
me because I know that I was baptized. I'm just supposed to believe that, rely on it. That's
the way of assurance.
If I'm looking for some way to peek over God's shoulder (or my own) and see if He
really promised Himself to me, I'm looking for something more solidly reliable than the
promise of God. If I look for something else, I'm looking for the real God behind the
But there is no other God, and the attempt to find one is simple, straightforward idolatry.
Nor is there any backdoor entrance to His presence. We don't need to find a back alley entry
(discovering whether we are elect, having some kind
of indubitable experience of assurance) because God left the front door wide open. That's the
gospel; it's the gospel of the open door. God faces us in Jesus, who is the Face of the Father,
offers promises, assures us in Word and water and
wine of His self-commitment to us.
We have only to believe it.
It may seem that emphasizing the promissory nature of baptism and the Supper is a reversion from
On the contrary: in popular medieval piety, no common believer could have assurance simply
by hearing the promises of God, receiving baptism, receiving the Supper (which
he rarely did anyway). To have real assurance, they had to find a mystical backdoor to God.
The Reformers said that God has come near to us and that His promises are true. God hasn't
The gospel says, "He's come out of hiding; He's come in the flesh of Jesus; He's shown
And this available God has made Himself available to the ending of the world through His
Spirit in Word and Sacrament.
The Reformation was about closing the back door and locking it tight. The Reformation was
about letting people come in the front. That's the pastoral program the
Federal Vision attempts to continue.
Imagine you're a sharp young New Testament scholar of Reformed conviction, who wants to engage
New Testament scholarship fairly, critically, and appreciatively where appropriate.
Imagine you're a theologian of Reformed inclinations who's looking for a place to do
creative theological work.
Imagine you're a Reformed Old Testament scholar who wants his Old Testament scholarship to
inform his theology
in a vigorous manner.
Imagine you're a theologian who thinks that there are still things to
be discovered in Scripture, even about settled Reformed convictions like justification by faith and
Imagine you're a theologian who loves Luther and Calvin and the Puritans, and the
Westminster Confession, and The Three Forms, and yet doesn't believe they said everything or said
everything as well as it might be said.
If you were one of these, and you were looking for an ecclesiastical place to raise your
flag, where would you go? What Reformed denomination would be attractive to you? What Reformed
denomination would leave you room to serve the church in freedom?
I confess. I have read a good bit of N. T. Wright, and appreciate much of what he has to
say. His books on
Jesus opened the gospels for me in ways that nothing else did. Wright, for those who don't know, is
a bishop in the Church of England.
I confess. John Milbank, another Anglican, was my dissertation advisor, and his Theology
and Social Theory is a fairly constant presence in my theology.
I confess. Russian Orthodox liturgist Alexander Schmemann's For the Life of the
World is one of my favorite books.
I confess. I have read Lutheran Robert Jenson with profit, albeit mixed with a good bit of
And I'll keep confessing.
I find Henri de Lubac's books, particularly Catholicism, Medieval Exegesis,
and Corpus Mysticum, awe-inspiring both in breadth of scholarship and in theological depth.
Geoffrey Wainwright, a Methodist, has written some admirable books on liturgy, and I
started reading Stanley Hauerwas before he became Anglican.
Of course, I learn a great deal from Reformed writers too: from centuries past, I've
learned from Calvin especially, and from the present I have learned much from Cornelius Van Til,
John Frame, Vern Poythress, Richard Gaffin, Michael Horton, Kevin Vanhoozer, and so on.
If I came for ordination in a PCA Presbytery with such a reading list, could I be ordained?
Would I have to hide my reading of Milbank and Wright?
Among other things, the Federal Vision has been an effort to articulate a Reformed catholicity,
and the fight in the PCA is in part a fight between catholicity and sectarianism.
The massive vote at GA against the Federal Vision was, to put it gently, not a vote in
favor of catholicity.
According to Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy's cross of reality, individuals are always stretched out on
a cross, in four directionsto the past and to the future, to the inside and to the outside.
Growth and maturity come when we endure the cross in confidence that when we are torn to pieces we
yet be revived, that our death on the cross of reality is the gateway to life. Like Jesus, we are
glorified through the cross.
Churches are also on the cross.
Churches are called to remain faithful to the past
while also boldly embracing the novelty of the future; called
to cultivate a distinctive language and culture inside the
community, while also listening attentively to voices from outside.
Life would be much easier if we could ignore one or
the other poles of the cross. Life would be much easier if we
could retreat to a pure in-group and ignore everybody
else, everybody who disagrees with us. Life would be much easier
if we could rest in the securities of the past rather than face
the uncertainties of the future.
Life is easier off the cross, but if we get off the cross,
we will never grow up.
At the 2007 General Assembly, the PCA showed
its adolescent desire to come down from the cross,
retreating into the safety of the past and denouncing those willing
to listen attentively (if critically) to voices outside.
This is safe. This is easy. But this is not the path
to greater maturity or deepening reformation. Because unless
we are torn, we will never grow, or grow up. Unless we are
torn in all four directions, we're bound to stay children forever.