The Piper Debate and the Federal Vision Controversy

One more time: The Federal Vision comes round again.

Never denying the Reformed doctrines of election, regeneration, and perseverance in the arena of God’s decrees, they chose to “move, live, and have their being” in the realm of the objective covenant.  In the realm of the objective covenant, all those baptized are regenerated and justified, the elect can fall away, and the Last Judgment is basically a second declaration of justification, depending on good works.  The common language in their pulpits and books sounded exactly like Arminians and Roman Catholics. Any emphasis on the decretal perspective seemed to be absorbed into the covenantal perspective.

 

Is Federal Vision Theology being debated all over again with the recent analysis of John Piper’s statements on the solas not being applicable to adoption, sanctification, and glorification?  William H. Smith has posted three questions for Piper, expecting a yes or no answer (October 17, 2017).

  1. Does justification received now in this world by faith declare not only God’s present verdict, but what shall be his final verdict regarding his people?
  2. Can justification, once declared, be revoked?
  3. Will any who will be justified in this age be judged as unjust before God by Christ, the Judge, on the last day?

These are good questions and my intention is not to answer them for Piper.  However, my point is simply to remind the readers that these and other similar questions stimulated the development of Federal Vision Theology. Having attended the Auburn Avenue Conference in 2002, I find some parallels here.

Federal Vision began as a pastoral response to the problem of a lack of assurance among covenant children.  How can I be sure I am a Christian, and if I am a Christian, in view of the expectations of good works by God in my sanctification, how can I be sure that I will be accepted by God on the Day of Judgment?  Mr. Smith’s questions for Piper tend to raise the same issues that Federal Vision Theology attempted to answer.

However, it has been my experience that theologians (especially Reformed theologians) seldom answer questions with a yes or a no.  They tend to elaborate, and often this is where they get into trouble.  What Federal Vision did was to create a new theological paradigm (which they claimed was just an old paradigm) in order to answer these questions.  Their method reminded me of something akin to Karl Barth’s dialectic method.  They defined, as a means of theological analysis, a two-track system which included 1) the arena of God’s eternal decrees, and 2) the arena of God’s objective covenant.

Never denying the Reformed doctrines of election, regeneration, and perseverance in the arena of God’s decrees, they chose to “move, live, and have their being” in the realm of the objective covenant.  In the realm of the objective covenant, all those baptized are regenerated and justified, the elect can fall away, and the Last Judgment is basically a second declaration of justification, depending on good works.  The common language in their pulpits and books sounded exactly like Arminians and Roman Catholics. Any emphasis on the decretal perspective seemed to be absorbed into the covenantal perspective.

Most people could care less about their two-track dialectic, and just interpreted their words in their plain sense.  In reaction, Federal Visionists doubled down on their covenantal language, and the result was condemnation and heresy trials.

I never could get on the two-track dialectic, so I never adopted Federal Vision Theology. It just seemed deceptive to me.  “All Israel is not of Israel” seemed to cover all the bases.  Federal Vision Theology can answer yes or no to the same question, depending on which track they are on at any particular time.  I don’t mean to rehash the debate on Federal Vision Theology.  All of this is only to say that the questions about a Second Justification based on good works are not really new.  I have heard all of this before.

Larry E. Ball is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is now a CPA. He lives in Kingsport, Tennessee.