The Federal Vision and the Magical Efficacy of Sacraments

Federal Vision holds that every baptized person receives benefits of Christ in the act of the sacrament itself; that baptism makes a decisive change in the inner man.

It is a fatal flaw of the proponents of the Federal Vision that they hold to a view that replaces the work of the Holy Spirit with the magical working of the sacraments, a relic of paganism. It is beside the point that they define efficacy in such a vague way,… that it can be increased or decreased whenever necessary. By teaching that the sacraments, particularly baptism, have the power to convey new life, justification, forgiveness of sins and other graces temporarily, they have chosen a pagan magical definition and rejected the scriptural position.


In writing my book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision, I was intrigued with the repeated denials by the proponents of the Federal Vision that their views of the sacraments represent a magical view of the efficacy of those sacraments. In most places, they vigorously deny that the sacraments convey any spiritual grace to the recipient (though they are not even consistent on this point), but their view of the efficacy of the sacraments is magical nonetheless. They teach that every baptized person receives certain benefits of Christ in the simple act of the sacrament. They teach that the water of baptism makes a decisive change for the baptized. That is a magical view of baptism and it is not the view of Scripture. For instance, Peter Leithart says:

If external events and realities cannot penetrate to the inner man, then we have no grounds for sacramental theology at all, since sacraments are outward bodily acts.[1]

Then, Federal Vision proponent John Barach says:

The Bible doesn’t know about a distinction between being internally in the covenant, really in the covenant, and being only externally in the covenant, just being in the sphere of the covenant. The Bible speaks about the reality, the efficacy of baptism. Every baptized person is truly a member of God’s covenant.[2]

Thus, Leithart and Barach both try to explain the supposed power that water baptism has to penetrate into the soul of the baptized. That is a magical view of the sacrament and, moreover, it is a subjective view of the same. The Federal Vision proponents can never quite make up their minds whether they are ‘restoring the objectivity of the covenant’ or teaching that the sacraments convey subjective grace. Leithart, in particular, is definitely guilty of the latter in the quote above. His view is not new. One of the greatest theologians of the church, Francis Turretin, addressed this matter decisively:

Third, the word does not confer grace by any power implanted in the sound or in the letters, but by the power of the Spirit who accompanies it. There is, however, the same relation here of the word and the sacraments and they confer grace in the same way. . .

Fourth, if the sacraments physically contained grace in themselves and conferred it by an inherent force, grace would be tied to the sacraments. This cannot be said without absurdity. . .

Fifth, nothing corporeal can by its own power effect anything spiritual or act upon the soul. [3]

When the magical efficacy of the sacraments is considered, most Protestants recognize that such a view is Catholic in nature. But where did the Catholics get their view? The Judaizers, of course. But where did the Judaizers get their view? Well, this problem goes all the way back to the garden of Eden. In his work, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, Geerhardus Vos comments on Satan’s suggestion to Eve in Genesis 3:5 that eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would open her eyes, and Adam’s eyes too, and cause them to be like God knowing good and evil:

This carries a twofold implication: first that the tree has in itself, magically, the power of conferring knowledge of good and evil. This lowers the plane of the whole transaction from the religious and moral to the pagan-magical sphere. And secondly, Satan explains the prohibition from the motive of envy. This also we have already found to be a piece of pagan-mythological interpretation.[4]

Vos’ analysis of Genesis 3:5 is indirectly a damning indictment of the Federal Vision’s theory that sacramental theology depends on external realities having the power to penetrate to the inner man. We agree with Vos. It is not the external reality of either the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or the New Testament sacraments that penetrate to the inner man. The Scripture nowhere teaches such a pagan-magical idea. Rather, it is the Spirit of God who penetrates the inner man of the elect, and only the elect, in making the sacraments efficacious unto salvation.

Likewise, the idea of the efficacy of water of baptism predates the New Testament church. For several centuries before Christ, many pagan religions practiced a form of baptism among their sacred rites. Such pagan religions generally believed that the water of baptism has a magical, cleansing efficacy to forgive sins and to regenerate. The doctrine of ex opere operato did not originate with the Catholic Church, but predated it several centuries among the pagans. In his book, The Axioms of Religion, E. Y. Mullins, the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Southern Baptist theologian, wrote:

Paganism had certain rites and ceremonies which were analogous in some respects to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. With these rites certain mysteries were connected. Weak and carnal Christians lately won from paganism would naturally bring some of their heathen conceptions with them. . .

It was but a single step to transfer the idea of magical efficacy in the heathen rites over to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Accordingly, in the second and third centuries men began to connect remission of sins with water baptism.[5]

There is not a single verse in the Bible that connects magical efficacy with the Old Testament or New Testament sacraments. The theory of baptismal efficacy did not enter the church through the faithful exposition of the Scriptures. Its entrance was from another direction altogether. Henry Hart Milman wrote a three-volume work on church history called, The History of Christianity, From the Birth of Christ to the Abolition of Paganism in the Roman Empire. In his first volume, Milman showed that the Jews contracted the religious views of the pagans both through the Babylonian captivity and through the Diaspora during the Roman Empire. Both directly and indirectly, they were influenced by pagan ideas. Both Babylon and Alexandria changed the Jewish religion. As Milman said:

Hence came the mystic Cabala of the Jews, the chief parent of those gnostic opinions, out of which grew the heresies of the early Church: here the Jews, under the Prince of the Captivity, held their famous schools, where learning was embodied in the Babylonian Talmud.[6]

The view of the magical efficacy of baptism entered the church through various avenues. It entered through the Judaizers who were influenced in their views by pagan religious views both in the east (Babylon) and the west (Greeks and Romans). It entered directly through various church fathers who tried to synthesize pagan philosophy with the Scripture. It entered through the recent converts to Christianity from paganism who brought with them their views of the magical powers of rites to convey grace.

Baptismal regeneration did not begin with the fathers of the early church. Rather, the idea of sacramental regeneration was a part of pagan religions centuries before Christ was born in Bethlehem. The Hindus of India were familiar with the term long before the Christian era, and the Brahmins boasted that they were “twice-born” men. The Babylonians connected the second birth with baptism and used the phrase, “baptismal regeneration,” to describe their religious experience.[7] Thus, Tertullian stated:

Well, but the nations, who are strangers to all understanding of spiritual powers ascribe to their idols the imbuing of waters with the self-same efficacy.” (So they do) . . . and they presume that the effect of their doing that is their regeneration and the remission of the penalties due to their perjuries. Among the ancients, again, whoever had defiled himself with murder, was wont to go in quest of purifying waters.[8]

Regeneration, remission of sins, and purification from the defilement of capital crimes, such as murder, were believed by the heathen to be the result of being baptized with water. All of this was a part of pagan religious belief before Christ, before the Apostles, and before the doctrine of baptismal regeneration became the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. Where did the pagans get this doctrine of baptismal regeneration? Tertullian gives us the answer:

By the devil, of course, to whom pertain those wiles which pervert the truth, and who, by the mystic rites of his idols, vies even with the essential portions of the sacraments of God. He, too, baptizes some, that is, his own believers and faithful followers; he promises the putting away of sins by a laver (of his own); and if my memory still serves me, Mithra there (in the kingdom of Satan), sets his mark on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection.[9]

Vos, Mullins, Milman, and Tertullian all agree on the essentials. The doctrine of baptismal regeneration predates the Christian church and is found among the pagan religions. Vos and Tertullian go one step further back in showing these views of the magical efficacy of religious rites have their source in the subtlety of the Devil. The Devil, in these pagan rites, has substituted magical efficacy for the power of the Holy Spirit. In his comments on the baptism of Simon Magus, Calvin rejects the magical potency of the sacraments and emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit:

It is quite plain from Simon’s example that the grace, which is figured in baptism, is not conferred on all men indiscriminately when they are baptized. It is a dogma of the Papists that unless anyone presents the obstacle of mortal sin, all men receive the truth and the effect of the signs. So they attribute a magical potency to the sacraments, as they are beneficial without faith. . . In baptism we are washed from our sins, but Paul teaches that our washing is the work of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).[10]

In his Systematic Theology, Douglas F. Kelly points out that Scripture condemned pagan religion as inspired by Satan:

The New Testament saw Satan behind the gods of this world (2 Cor. 4:4 and Rev. 13:2), so when Moses warned the Israelites not to worship the gods of the Land they were entering, Satan was behind the whole polytheistic system.[11]

The Apostle Paul said the same kind of thing in 1 Corinthians 10:20: “No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to be sharers in demons.” Commenting on this verse, Charles Hodge wrote:

Paul had just said that the heathen gods were nothing; to admit now that there were deities in the Grecian sense of the word daimonion, would be to contradict himself. We must understand the apostle, therefore, as saying, on the one hand, that the gods of the heathen were imaginary beings; and on the other, that their sacrifices were really offered to evil spirits. In what sense, however, is this true? The heathen certainly did not intend to worship evil spirits. Nevertheless they did it. Men of the world do not intend to serve Satan, when they break the laws of God in the pursuit of the objects of their desire. Still in doing so they are really obeying the will of the great adversary, yielding to his impulses, and fulfilling his designs. He is therefore said to be the god of this world. To him all sin is an offering and a homage. We are shut up to the necessity of worshipping God or Satan; for all refusing or neglecting to worship the true God, or giving to any other the worship that is due to him alone, is the worshipping of Satan and his angels. It is true therefore, in the highest sense, that what the heathen offer they offer to devils.[12]

What the Apostle Paul and Charles Hodge say about the heathen sacrifices must also be said about everyone who holds to a theory of the magical efficacy of sacraments. In their adoption of any magical view of sacramental efficacy, such people have unwittingly rejected the teaching of the Scripture about the sacraments and true worship. That leads them also to the rejection of the scriptural doctrine of salvation. There are only two religions, as Hodge wrote. One is true, the other is false. One is scriptural; the other is founded in paganism and inspired by Satan. Whoever adopts the pagan magical view of rites and sacraments is necessarily guilty of substituting heathen worship for the worship of God—whether intentionally or unintentionally.

In the matter of the sacraments, therefore, magical efficacy and the power of the Holy Spirit are juxtaposed. It is a fatal flaw of the proponents of the Federal Vision that they hold to a view that replaces the work of the Holy Spirit with the magical working of the sacraments, a relic of paganism. It is beside the point that they define efficacy in such a vague way (i.e., that it is more than nothing but that it is less than permanently and always resulting in salvation), that it can be increased or decreased whenever necessary. By teaching that the sacraments, particularly baptism, have the power to convey new life, justification, forgiveness of sins and other graces temporarily, they have chosen a pagan magical definition and rejected the scriptural position.

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.

[1] Record of the Case, Standing Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church in America, Case 2012-5, RE Gerald Hedman vs. Pacific Northwest Presbytery, 200.

[2] John Barach “Covenant and History” (2002 Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church Pastors Conference sermon). Quoted in Guy Prentiss Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2006), 15.

[3] James T. Dennison, ed., George Musgrave Giger, trans., Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 3 (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 1997), 364-365.

[4] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 32-33.

[5] E. Y. Mullins, The Axioms of Religion (Macon, Georgia: Mercer UniversityPress, 2010), 93.

[6] Henry Hart Milman, The History of Christianity, From the Birth of Christ to the Abolition of Paganism in the Roman Empire, Volume I (3 vols.) (London: John Murray, 1867), 60.

[7] Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons (Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers, Inc., 1959), 132.

[8] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Volume 3 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 671.

[9] Ibid., 262.

[10] David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, eds., John W. Fraser and W. J. G. McDonald, trans., Calvin’s Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles, 1-13 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 233, 235.

[11] Douglas F. Kelly, Systematic Theology: Grounded in the Scripture and Understood in the Light of the Church, Volume Two, The Beauty of Christ: A Trinitarian Vision (Fearn, Ross-Shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2014), 325.

[12] Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), 193.