The Federal Vision and Union With Christ

The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (OPC)

[Update note: see Lane @ Green Baggins' helpful "sharpening" of my article below.  Thanks Lane!]

One area in which the Federal Vision is at odds with historic Reformed theology is the meaning of union with Christ.  This is obviously a huge topic; it’s impossible to discuss it all in a single post.  So for now I just want to point out one area of major difference.  The question is this: is union with Christ permanent or something that can be lost?  The Federal Vision movement says it is losable while Reformed theology says it is an eternal union.  The first three quotes below are representative of the Federal Vision; the last two quotes are from Reformed confessions.

Peter Leithart put it this way when discussing baptism and union with Christ in a blog post called “Infant Baptism” (Aug. 6, 2004):

“Apostasy is possible.  It is possible to be united to Jesus Christ, receive His Spirit, and then fall from that gracious condition and back into the world (John 15; 1 Cor. 10; 2 Pet. 2).”

Rich Lusk said it like this:

“In baptism we are brought covenantally and publicly out of union with Adam and into union with Christ.  ….In this relationship, one has, in principle, all the blessings and benefits in the heavenly places delivered over to him as he is ‘in Christ.’  ….Baptism is like an adoption ceremony.  The adopted child is brought into a new relationship, given a new name, new blessings, a new future, new opportunities, a new inheritance – in short, a new life.  And yet these blessings, considered from the standpoint of the covenant rather than the eternal decree, are mutable.  The child is a full member of the family and has everything that comes with sonship.  But, if he grows up and rejects his Father and Mother (God and the church), if he refuses to repent and return home when warned and threatened, then he loses all the blessings that were his.  It would not be accurate to say that he never had these things; he did possess them, even though he never experienced or enjoyed some of them” (“Do I Believe In Baptismal Regeneration?” n.d.).

And the Joint Federal Vision Statement from 2007 explained it thus:

“We affirm that apostasy is a terrifying reality for many baptized Christians. All who are baptized into the triune Name are united with Christ in His covenantal life, and so those who fall from that position of grace are indeed falling from grace. The branches that are cut away from Christ are genuinely cut away from someone, cut out of a living covenant body. The connection that an apostate had to Christ was not merely external.”

On the other hand, Reformed theology says that union with Christ is inseparable, eternal, and unbreakable.  The WLC is clear – and it is worth noting that one proof text for the term “inseparably” below is John 10:28, which also has to do with the perseverance of the saints.  Here’s WLC Q/A 66:

“The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband, which is done in their effectual calling.”

The Heidelberg Catechism doesn’t address the “unbreakableness” of union with Christ specifically, but it is assumed and implied – especially in Q/A 76.  Notice the term “forever” below.

“To eat the crucified body and drink the shed blood of Christ…[means]…to become more and more united to his sacred body by the Holy Spirit…so that we…are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, and that we live and are governed forever by one Spirit.”

Again, the discussion is a bit broader.  But apart from sloppy equivocation, purposeful ambiguity, or outright lying, there is no way to harmonize these two positions.  Either union with Christ is inseparable or it is not.  The Federal Vision says it is not.  The Reformed Confessions say it is.  This is one of many reasons why historic Reformed churches have collectively and publicly spoken against the Federal Vision (for two examples, see the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Report on Justification and the URCNA’s Report of the Synodical Study Committee on the Federal Vision and Justification, among others).

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Jesus Keeps His Sheep

 In his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, Thomas Watson has a great discussion of the preservation of the saints (a.k.a. the “P” in TULIP or the last part of the Canons of Dort).  He says “a saint’s perseverance is built upon three immutable pillars.”

1) Upon God’s eternal love.  We are inconstant in our love to God; but he is not so in his love to us.  ‘I have loved thee with an everlasting love;’ with a love of eternity (Jer. 31.3).  When once the sunshine of God’s electing love is risen upon the soul, it never sets finally.

2) Upon the covenant of grace.  It is a firm, impregnable covenant; as you read in [2 Sam. 23.5] ‘God hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure.’  This covenant is inviolable, it cannot be broken; indeed, sin may break the peace of the covenant, but it cannot break the bond of the covenant.

3) Upon the mystical union.  Believers are incorporated into Christ, they are knit to him as members of the head, by the nerve and ligament of faith, so that they cannot be broken off (Eph. 5.23).  As it is impossible to sever the yeast and the dough when they are once mingled, so it is impossible when Christ and believers are united to be separated, even by the power of death or hell .

Well said; reminds me of the answer of the Westminster Larger Catechism that has to do with the perseverance of the saints (Q/A 79).  I’ve put the numbers in the text to more clearly show the reasons saints are preserved:

“True believers, by reason of the 1) unchangeable love of God,
and 2) his decree
and 3) covenant to give them perseverance,
4) their inseparable union with Christ,
5) his continual intercession for them,
and 6) the Spirit and seed of God abiding in them,
can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace,
but are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.”

The above quotes by Thomas Watson, which I edited slightly, are found on pages 131-132 of The Lord’s Prayer.

shane lems