Unequivocally Equivocal or Unambiguously Ambiguous: The Federal Vision

Though I’ve read A Faith That is Never Alone ed. P. A. Sandlin (La Grange: Kerygma, 2007), I’ve not yet commented on it here,  so I’ll take a post or two to do so.  The book was co-written by Federal Vision advocates of one degree or another; it was a response to Westminster Seminary California’s book, Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry ed. R. S. Clark (Philipsburg: P&R, 2007).  Early warning: this is a much longer and more detailed post than I usually like to do, so my apologies ahead of time!

One thing I find when reading FV type works is straight up equivocation.  I don’t know what else to call it.  The section I’ll quote is from chapter four – Richard Lusk’s contribution – specifically the part where Lusk summarizes his discussion on justification, imputation, union, and faith.

“1) Christ is our righteousness; we are righteous in him (Rom 4.22-25, etc.).”

“2) Faith is imputed as righteousness = justification by faith (Rom 4.3ff).  To ‘impute’ in this context is to ‘declare’ or ‘reckon.’  It is not a transfer.”

“3) God imputes faith as righteousness because it is by faith that we are united to Christ, the Righteous One.  Faith’s key function in justification is unitive, though this cannot be severed from faith’s other functions.”

“‘Justification by faith’ is theological shorthand for saying we are united to Christ by faith, and in Christ there is no condemnation.  For the sake of exegetical purity, I do not think we should speak of Christ’s righteousness (or merit) being imputed (transferred) to believers.  That’s not how Paul puts it; that’s not how he uses imputation as a category.  Rather, we should say things like,

‘God imputes/declares/regards as righteous those who, by faith, are united to the crucified and risen Christ,’

or ‘God imputes faith as righteousness because faith unites us to Christ, the Righteous One,’

or ‘God does not impute sin against those who are united to Christ by faith, but rather imputes them as righteous.'”

“This is the ‘grammar of the gospel,’ so to speak, as I see it.  These are better summaries of the heart of Paul’s theology than those that focus on the ostensible transfer of Christ’s active obedience or merit to our accounts.  Again, there is no text in Scripture where imputation language is used to describe a transfer of Christ’s righteousness from his account to ours” (p. 130-131; emphasis his).

If you’re “schooled” in Reformation language, you probably had a few red flags pop up when you read that.  You probably noticed these things which I noticed: 1) Lusk implicitly pitted exegesis against systematics (i.e. “exegetical purity” above; he also does so clearly  on p.124, where he talks about “slippage” between Reformed theology and Paul). You also probably noticed, 2) that he clearly and consciensiously tweaked the confessional reformation (Lutheran and Reformed) definition of imputation.  You may have noticed, 3) that he also denied the confessional definition and doctrine of imputation.  You may have even noticed that 4) his language of ‘faith being imputed’ is an odd sort of Arminian hybrid, since the language is a biblical phrase Arminians have twisted – but the definition of impute is his own.  Perhaps you noticed 5) the semantic error of mashing reckon, declare, and impute into the same semantic domain.  Or maybe you noticed 6) the historic Reformed  “faith as instrument” language replaced with “faith…in justification…has several functions.”  You may have noticed 7) how the author tried to use context to determine meaning of “impute” only to later ignore context and say that Scripture never uses “impute” as “credit.”  Alternatively, maybe you noticed 8) how changing the definition and meaning of “impute” with regards to righteousness also means you must change it in discussing the non-imputation of sin to us but imputed to Christ instead (cf. 2 Cor 5.21).  The payment for sin in this FV paradigm thus becomes ‘legal fiction’ (swallowed by union), if I may use Old-School Roman Catholic language against the FV.  Finally, you may have noticed 9) the NPP-esque attitude of “you got Paul wrong, we get him right.”  Maybe you even had other red flags go up.

Now, I would be much less distressed if the author didn’t label this “Reformed.”  In the opening of the chapter, Lusk says two astounding things.  First, he says this issue of justification on which the FV and Reformed/Presbyterian churches disagree is important, but not something that should distance FV from Reformed folk.  This too is odd to me, since it runs in the blood of Reformed churches to contend that justification is the article on which the church stands or falls (see Calvin’s Institutes, III.XI.1 – “the main hinge on which religion turns”).  Lusk, however, opens with this: the “things we hold in common outweigh our differences” (p. 110).

Second, Lusk says clearly that his view (which we just read above) is totally confessional and Reformed: “the doctrine of justification articulated here [in his chapter] is within the boundaries of historic Reformed confessional orthodoxy” (p. 111).  This befuddles me, I confess.  He says he is historic and orthodox, confessional and Reformed, but in the very article he completely disagrees with and clearly changes the historic definition of justification.  He also takes Sproul out to the woodshed in a footnote, quoting Sproul on imputation, saying that Sproul does not reflect the biblical descriptions of justification (p. 125, fn 21).

In summary, though the above re/definitions were in some sense clear, they were also quite unclear.  I found the entire book, A Faith That is Never Alone to be unequivocally equivocal or unambiguously ambiguous, which is certainly perilous when it comes to the gospel of grace.

[Side Note: Strictly from a literary perspective, there are enough editorial errors in the book to give the reader a headache.  I usually don’t mention typos on the blog, but this book has the most typos of any book I can remember reading in the last five years.]

shane lems

sunnyside wa

3 thoughts on “Unequivocally Equivocal or Unambiguously Ambiguous: The Federal Vision”

  1. shane
    I addressed this same mass of confusion in a chapter in ‘Risking The Truth: Handling Error In The Church’ edited by Martin Downes (Christian Focus,2009) and I concluded that despite their loud claims to the contrary, this stuff is not Reformed.

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