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

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16 comments on “The Federal Vision and Union With Christ

  1. […] California. He blogs, along with fellow classmate Andrew Compton, at Reformed Reader where this article first appeared: it is used with […]

  2. Jon says:

    Hello Mr. Lems~ I think the FV response would be that the confession is refering to the elect who are in union with Christ and does not refer to those who fall away (“The union which THE ELECT have with Christ…”). So they don’t see it as necessarily being contradictory. How would you respond?

    • Thanks for the comment Jon. I’m aware of the FV’s discussion of election and covenant. They teach there are two kinds of election (covenantal and individual). But historic Reformed theology does not teach that (see the Canons of Dort, Rejection of Errors 1.2 for one example). Already we have a different (and contradictory) starting point.

      Also, Reformed theology does not teach that there are two kinds of union with Christ. Again, the FV equivocates on this b/c they say someone who is united to Christ could fall away – unless he/she is individually elect rather than just covenantally elect. So there seem to be two kinds of union with Christ as well. This is why I use the term equivocation when it comes to FV theology.

      The FV is is a lot of things, but it is not historic Reformed theology. There are many layers of differences – not just one or two things.

      Thanks again,
      shane

  3. Greg says:

    Thank you for your most succinct post. Despite the clarity of the Standards, the FV contingent still insist that the baptized reprobate were once in union with Christ. “But it is union with Christ in a different sense [which we’ve invented and read into the Standards]. [It’s just that no one, including the OPC, URCNA, PCA, RCUS, OCRC, RPCNA (and in addition a number of seminaries) who disagrees with us understands our teachings.]” Equivocation indeed!

  4. Jon Marq says:

    Greetings in the Lord! It seems that the FV and WCF/HC approach this matter from different angles: One pastoral, the other theological. + The FV guys seem to be dealing with concrete pastoral facts: unbelieving baptized Christians fall from grace; they can be cut off, scattered in the wilderness, or excommunicated. Unbelieving baptized members of the covenant community can and do apostasize. ++ The WCF and HC seem to be dealing with abstract theological facts: the *elect* enjoy union with Christ in ways that the reprobate do not. Why? For starters, the *elect* persevere to end by grace through faith in Jesus. The reprobate do not. (The FV bros believe this as well.) +++ There is a way to harmonize both approaches. Pastorally speaking, we must teach that all baptized Christians are united to Christ sacramentally/objectively (the way a branch is grafted onto a tree). However, theologically speaking, we must confess that only those who come to faith in Christ are united to Christ spiritually/subjectively (the way a tree “takes” a graft and nourishes it from the inside out.) It’s simply a matter of echoing the apostles. Not all the branches united to the Tree in history will be united to the Tree in the eschaton. Branches stand by faith or else they are broken off. ++++ How can we know whether someone is elect and has genuine faith? For starters, the elect put their trust in Christ alone, and that evangelical faith manifests itself through repentance, obedience, and perseverance. Peace.

  5. David Gray says:

    Pastor Lems,

    What do you make of Calvin’s commentary on Hebrews 6:4 regarding apostasy?

    “If any one asks why the Apostle makes mention here of such apostasy while he is addressing believers, who were far off from a perfidy so heinous; to this I answer, that the danger was pointed out by him in time, that they might be on their guard. And this ought to be observed; for when we turn aside from the right way, we not only excuse to others our vices, but we also impose on ourselves. Satan stealthily creeps on us, and by degrees allures us by clandestine arts, so that when we go astray we know not that we are going astray. Thus gradually we slide, until at length we rush headlong into ruin. We may observe this daily in many. Therefore the Apostle does not without reason forewarn all the disciples of Christ to beware in time; for a continued torpor commonly ends in lethargy, which is followed by alienation of mind. ”

    BTW, welcome to Hammond!

    • Hello David, hope you’re well. I forgot if we’ve met face to face; sorry!

      Anyway, Calvin’s statements you quoted are fine, but they also go along with other things Calvin said, namely that true Christians, those truly united to Christ, cannot finally fall away. See Institutes, III.24.7 for example. In the quote you mention, Calvin isn’t teaching that saints don’t persevere. He is explaining the fact that Christians need warnings to keep them on the pathway to glory.

      Hope this helps! Maybe we can discuss it in person sometime, God willing.

      pastorlems

      • David Gray says:

        Pastor,

        I’m not at Hammond but up at Church of the Lakes so we haven’t met yet.

        I absolutely agree that the elect cannot finally fall away and Calvin clearly teaches that. But Calvin also clearly teaches that there are genuine apostates such as in the Institutes Book 2 Chapter 3 Question 21:

        “The Apostle, also, intending to exclude apostates from the hope of salvation, states, as the reason, that it is impossible to renew them to repentance (Heb.6:6); that is, God by renewing those whom he wills not to perish, gives them a sign of paternal favor, and in a manner attracts them to himself, by the beams of a calm and reconciled countenance; on the other hand, by hardening the reprobate, whose impiety is not to be forgiven, he thunders against them. This kind of vengeance the Apostle denounces against voluntary apostates (Heb. 10:29), who, in falling away from the faith of the gospel, mock God, insultingly reject his favor, profane and trample under foot the blood of Christ, nay, as far as in them lies, crucify him afresh.”

        If someone cannot be renewed to repentance doesn’t it mean they had once repented? If someone falls away from the faith where were they before they fell away? What is real apostasy in someone who is not regenerate?

        I am not saying that there are men who are justified and then lose their salvation but an unregenerate man who is described above seems clearly in some way to be different from an unregenerate man who has no relationship to the covenant, either external or internal.

        Perhaps it has relationship to the fact that a pastor addressing a church does not know who, in the crowd before him, is true Israel or who is inwardly circumcised.

        • David: this is a deep discussion for sure! 1 John 2:19 comes into play, and we should remember WCF chapter 17 as well. Also, it is worth reading the 5th section of the Canons of Dort – that should help us maintain a Reformed perspective on this topic. It’s been discussed before in history, as you probably know.

          Perhaps we’ll meet face to face some day sooner than later. That’s a better format for discussion of such a topic.

          Blessings!
          pastorshanelems

        • David Gray says:

          Pastor,

          Thanks, we look forward to meeting you when the opportunity presents itself.

          Dave

  6. The Doctrinal Testimony Regarding Recent Errors, approved in 2007 by the faculty and board of of Mid-America Reformed Seminary has a really on-point statement on this matter:

    Article 41
    We affirm that union with Christ ordinarily occurs in effectual calling and that only the elect are effectually called and united to Christ (LC, Q/A 65, 68; WCF, 10:1, 4; HC, Q/A 20).
    We deny that the non-elect are ever united or engrafted to Christ, share in his saving benefits, and enjoy fellowship with God through the blood of Christ.

    This is such an overlooked document, but a real gem!

    • Jon Marq says:

      “We deny that the non-elect are ever united or engrafted to Christ” — Q: How can any [non-elect/reprobate] branch be cut off and disunited from the Vine or Tree to which is was not “ever united or en-grafted” in the first place? Jesus taught that there is one Vine and many branches connected to the Vine (John 15). Living and fruitful branches dwell in him. Dead and fruitless branches are cut off. As you know Paul used a similar analogy in Romans 11. There is one Tree and many branches. Some broken off and some grafted in. Respectfully, JMT

      • Hi Jon Marq, thanks for the comment.

        I think this still comes back to whether branches that are “in” the tree are necessarily “of” the tree. One can partake of the externals of tree-ness without partaking of the life-giving essence (what I would call the “union”) of tree-ness. In light of Apostle John’s comments in 1 John 2:19, I don’t see why his recounting of Jesus’ words in John 15 leads us to assign more of-ness to the dead/fruitless branches than John is assigning to the people who left.

        Lane has done more thinking about this topic than have I and I suggest his post as a better jumping off point than my comment(s) here:

        http://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2006/12/02/john-15-and-the-federal-vision/

        But either way, it just seems like a non-sequiter to me to claim that branches that are dead and fruitless must still be described as “in union” with the tree/vine/etc. No metaphor/imagery can explain every possible question that might be raised about it, so I think we’re up against this with John 15 (and Romans 11 for that matter). There are things the floral imagery speaks to well, and things it does not. I’m not sure that these passages have as their central aim explication of union with Christ in the doctrinal sense.

        Anyway, just some thoughts …

  7. Jon Marq says:

    Not to be obtuse but it’s just not so cut and dried for me. A few days ago I sawed off several branches from a tree in my front yard. Until the serrated edge ran through them all were connected to the tree in some way — even the dead ones. :-) Thank you for the brotherly engagement. Lots to think about. If you ever have a chance here is how I deal with John 15 in my teaching ministry. http://unionwchrist.wordpress.com/2013/05/05/true-vine-and-branches/ Peace with you.

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