The Reformed Symbols and the Federal Vision

The true Reformed tradition are found in the Reformed confessions, creeds and catechisms, not in the personal views of Reformed ministers.

Calvin makes it clear that the sacraments do not “confer anything” on those who are not the elect, but instead work to their destruction. Calvin states that the Reformers were agreed on these points. There is simply no way that the Federal Vision proponents can twist Calvin’s words to favor their position. The Reformers agreed that the sacraments are effective only through the operation of the Holy Spirit to those who have true faith inasmuch as they alone are the elect of God. All others receive the sacraments to their damnation and destruction.


It is typical for Federal Vision proponents to support their views by reference to the teaching of anyone within the broader Reformed community over the past five hundred years who has ever said anything similar to their positions. Apparently, that is their unstated definition of the Reformed tradition. First, they pit Scripture against the Reformed creeds. Second, they appeal to the views of ministers, whether heterodox or heretical in their doctrine, as proof of their own supposed Reformed bona fides. They rule almost nothing in or out of the Reformed tradition, particularly in the areas of sacramentology and soteriology. Yet, almost every heresy which has ever existed has also been taught by someone within the broader Reformed tradition over the past five hundred years. Thus, there has to be a better definition of the Reformed tradition, and there is. The definitive elements of the Reformed tradition can rightly be gathered only from the expressions of it in the various Reformed creeds. Thus, Philip Schaff wrote in his The Harmony of the Reformed Confessions:

The Reformed Confessions are Protestant in bibliology, oecumenical or old catholic in theology and Christology, Augustinian in anthropology and the doctrine of predestination, evangelical in soteriology, Calvinistic in ecclesiology and sacramentology, and anti-papal in eschatology.[i]

There is a generic consensus among the various Reformed creeds and confessions. The same system of doctrine is found in all of them which is the true Reformed tradition. Yet, there is great dissimilarity among the various views of many Reformed ministers, past and present. The true Reformed tradition must be found in the Reformed symbols—not in the personal views of Reformed ministers. Otherwise, there is no Reformed tradition unless it also includes almost every heresy known to the church.

Proponents of the Federal Vision frequently use anecdotal illustrations to buttress their assertions about the correct interpretation of Scripture. This has been a favorite tactic of ministers who hold to Federal Vision views while serving in evangelical, Reformed denominations. Both Steve Wilkins and Peter Leithart resorted to this tactic when they were being tried or examined by their respective presbyteries. Both claimed validity for their positions whenever they could find any Reformed minister, however obscure, that taught one or another point similar to their scheme of salvation. On other occasions, Federal Vision proponents will claim that the Reformed symbols themselves are in support of their basic positions. Some of their references to various sections of those Reformed symbols prove nothing; other items actually prove harmful to their position—such as where one part of the symbols qualifies another part contrary to the sense that the Federal Vision proponents attach to it. Yet, no statement in any of the Reformed symbols, rightly understood, ever supports the doctrines taught by the Federal Vision system.

The Reformed Symbols

There are certainly statements in all the Reformed symbols that can be twisted contrary to their context and intended meaning. Some of those statements can beguile the misguided in ways that are favorable to the Federal Vision. At the 2002 Pastors’ Conference in Monroe, Louisiana, Steve Wilkins cherry-picked statements from several of the Reformed symbols and read them to the gathered pastors in an attempt to prove that the Federal Vision view of baptismal efficacy was also the view of the Reformers. From various reports of that session, there was an excitement which ran through the audience as the attendees felt they had been given the key to interpreting the symbols. The Defense for Peter Leithart at his trial by Pacific Northwest Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America referred to certain statements from the Consensus Tigurinus (written in 1549 by John Calvin to bring unity among the Reformed ministers on the sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper) as supposed “proof” that the Consensus, among other Reformed symbols, took a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments, particularly baptism. In the trial documents, they quoted the fifth through the twentieth statements of the Consensus Tigurinus and highlighted the ninth statement, which reads:

  1. THE SIGNS AND THE THINGS SIGNIFIED ARE DISTINCT. Therefore although we draw a distinction, as we must, between signs and the things signified, yet we do not disjoin the truth from the signs. But we acknowledge that all who embrace in faith the promises there offered receive Christ spiritually with his spiritual gifts, and even those who for a long time have been partakers of Christ continue and renew their commitment.[ii]

It is puzzling why Federal Vision proponents would ever think that the ninth article of the Consensus Tigirinus is favorable to their position. A careful reading of that article teaches that Christ and His gifts are offered and received only by those who have faith in Him before coming to the sacrament. For that reason, Charles Hodge could write concerning this symbol:

The Consensus Tigurinus is the most carefully prepared and guarded statement of the doctrine of the Reformed Church which has come down from the age of the Reformation. . . Article nineteen teaches that the benefits signified by the sacraments may be obtained without their use. Paul’s sins were remitted before he was baptized. Cornelius received the Spirit before he received the external sign of regeneration. In the twentieth article it is taught that the benefit of the sacrament is not confined to the time of their administration. God sometimes regenerates in their old age those who were baptized in infancy or youth.[iii]

Hodge also referred to the ninth article quoted above as being consistent with the statements in the rest of the Consensus. Of course, we are not left to depend on Hodge’s assessment of the Consensus Tigurinus for our understanding of that symbol. Calvin himself has given us an exposition of those articles:

What would these worthy men have here? Would they have God to act by the Sacraments? We teach so. Would they have faith to be exercised, cherished, aided, confirmed by them? This too we assent. Would they have the power of the Holy Spirit to be exerted in them, and make them available for the salvation of God’s elect? We concede this also. The question turns upon this—should we ascribe all the parts of our salvation entirely to God alone, or does he himself by using the Sacraments transfer part of his praise to them. . . When we say, that the signs are not available to all indiscriminately, but to the elect only, to whom the inward and effectual working of the Spirit is applied, the thing is too clear to require a lengthened statement. For if any one wishes to make the effect common to all, he is not only refuted by the testimony of Scripture, but by experience.[iv]

Calvin distinguishes his view of sacramental efficacy by several things. First, he says that salvation is ascribed to God’s grace alone and not to the efficacy of the sacraments apart from the work of the Spirit. Second, Calvin says the sacramental signs “are not available to all indiscriminately, but to the elect only.” Third, the sacraments are a seal of the “inward and effectual working of the Spirit” in the hearts of the elect. Concerning the idea that the efficacy of the sacraments is common to all who participate in them, Calvin says that such a view “is not only refuted by the testimony of Scripture, but by experience.” Moreover, Calvin says the sacraments seal the inward and effectual work of the Spirit, whereas the Federal Vision says the sacraments confer external, objective grace. In the same exposition of the Consensus Tigurinus, Calvin further elaborates:

The effect of the spiritual blessings which the sacraments figure, is given to believers without the use of the sacraments. As this is daily experienced to be true, and is proved by passages of Scripture, it is strange if any are displeased with it.[v]

Calvin later wrote a little tract called, The Best Method of Obtaining Concord, to set forth the views upon which the Reformed pastors agreed concerning the sacraments. In that tract, he stated:

The grace or virtue of the Spirit is not inclosed by the external signs, because they do not profit all equally or indiscriminately, nor does the effect also appear at the same moment; but that God uses the Sacrament as to him seems good, so they help forward the salvation of the elect, and instead of conferring anything on others rather turn to their destruction. That, in short, the Sacraments are of no avail unless they are received in faith, which is a special gift of the Spirit, not depending on earthly elements, but on the operation of the same Spirit. External helps are only added to meet the weakness of our capacity.[vi]

There are several statements in this tract that show Calvin’s view on the sacraments, and the views of the other Reformation leaders, were diametrically opposite of the views of the Federal Vision. Calvin makes it clear that the sacraments do not “confer anything” on those who are not the elect, but instead work to their destruction. Calvin states that the Reformers were agreed on these points. There is simply no way that the Federal Vision proponents can twist Calvin’s words to favor their position. The Reformers agreed that the sacraments are effective only through the operation of the Holy Spirit to those who have true faith inasmuch as they alone are the elect of God. All others receive the sacraments to their damnation and destruction.

Calvin’s view of the efficacy of the sacraments is in line with the other great Reformed symbols. For instance, Questions 70 and 72 of the Heidelberg Catechism on holy baptism, say:

Q 70. What is it to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ?

  1. It is to have the forgiveness of sins from God, through grace, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which he shed for us in his sacrifice on the cross; and also to be renewed by the Holy Ghost, and sanctified to be members of Christ, that so we may more and more die unto sin and live unto righteousness.
  2. 72. Is, then, the outward washing of water itself the washing away of sins?
  3. No; for only the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sin.

Philip Schaff was by no means rash or imprudent in his judgments and can never be accused of taking a fringe position. He has summarized the teaching of the Reformed confessions concerning the sacraments as follows:

The opus operatum theory, the necessary connection of water with moral regeneration and all mechanistic conceptions of the real presence, whether in the form of transubstantiation or consubstantiation, are rejected.

Here lies the serious doctrinal difference between the Calvinistic and Lutheran symbols. The former make spiritual regeneration independent of water baptism, so that it may either precede or succeed it or coincide with it, according to divine pleasure. . . The latter teach unconditional baptismal regeneration.[vii]

Schaff states unequivocally that all the Reformed symbols reject the baptismal regeneration theories of the Lutheran and Catholic churches. In the Reformed symbols, spiritual regeneration is independent of water baptism and can happen before, during, or afterwards, according to God’s sovereign grace. The Federal Vision teaches that baptismal regeneration of a particular kind, an ecclesiastical new life, takes place at every baptism. They teach that a baptized person is given objective grace and formally united with the church, but deny the bestowal of subjective grace. In so doing, they mistakenly think they have avoided the error of Catholicism which is Semi-Pelagian on the sacrament of baptism. By limiting grace to that which is objective, the Federal Vision takes a more purely Pelagian position, whether wittingly or unwittingly.

Many people erroneously think that the doctrinal symbols of the Anglican communions teach baptismal regeneration, but Schaff asserts otherwise:

The Church of England teaches in her formularies the Calvinistic theory of the sacraments in general, and of the Lord’s Supper in particular; but in the baptismal service of the Book of Common Prayer, she clearly teaches baptismal regeneration without qualification, and in practice she gives larger scope to the sacramentarian principle.[viii]

Neither the doctrinal standards of the Church of England, nor its leading ministers up to the time of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633-1640, had ever taught baptismal regeneration. The sacerdotal corruption of that denomination was in contradiction of her doctrinal formularies.

Dewey Roberts is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, Fla. He is the author of Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision, from which this article is excerpted.

[i] Philip Schaff, The Harmony of the Reformed Confessions: As Related to the Present State of Evangelical Theology (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1877), 10.

[ii] Record of the Case, Standing Judicial Commission, 2012-5, 133.

[iii] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume III (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), 580-581

[iv] Henry Beveridge, ed. and trans., John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, Volume 2: Tracts, Part 2 (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 229-231.

[v] Ibid., 236.

[vi] “The Best Method of Obtaining Concord” in Calvin, Tracts and Letters, Volume 2, 573-4.

[vii] Schaff, Harmony of the Reformed Confessions, 15.

[viii] Ibid., 16.