One of the major ways in which the Federal Vision departs from the historic Reformed/Presbyterian confessions is in their view of baptism. Federal Vision teachers teach that baptism is an effective instrument which unites a person to Christ. Here are a few FV quotes to show this significant departure.
“By baptism one is joined to Christ’s body, united to Him covenantally, and given all the blessings and benefits of his work” (Summary Statement of AAPC’s Position on Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation).
“In baptism, we are transferred by the power of the Spirit, from the old Adam, and the wrath and curse of God which rested upon the old man, into the new man, which is Jesus Christ.” “By baptism the Spirit joins us to Christ since he is the elect one and the Church is the elect people” (Steve Wilkins, “Covenant and Baptism” & “The Legacy of the Halfway Covenant”).
“All baptized persons receive, objectively, the same promised inheritance and privileges” (Rich Lusk, “Do I Believe in Baptismal Regeneration?”).
“Baptism is covenantally efficacious. It brings every person baptized into an objective and living covenant relationship with Christ, whether the baptized person is elect or reprobate” (Douglas Wilson, “Credos: On Baptism,” #8).
Unlike the Federal Vision, the Reformed position doesn’t attribute this type of efficacy or instrumentality to baptism. Instead, Reformed theology talks about faith alone (sola fide) as an instrument: the Heidelberg Catechism says we are grafted into Christ and receive all his benefits and our inheritance by faith alone (Q/A 20, 21, 60, 61; cf. Calvin’s Institutes, IV.15.6). The catechism is unambiguous: the only way we can make Christ’s benefits ours is by faith alone (Q/A 61). Baptism signifies the truth that Jesus’ blood washes away sins, but baptism’s water does not do that (Q/A 65-66, 72).
In other words, faith alone unites us to Christ and through that faith we receive all the blessings of salvation. Baptism is a sign that points us to Christ’s cleansing blood, and is a mark/seal of the promises of salvation. The Belgic Confession says that cleansing and regeneration are “not…effected by the external water” but by the Spirit applying Christ’s blood to the sinner’s soul through the instrument of faith, which “keeps us in communion with” Christ and all his benefits (BCF 22, 34).
Here’s the historic Reformed position articulated by Herman Bavinck.
“Faith alone apart from any sacrament communicates, and causes believers to enjoy, all the benefits of salvation…Baptism can only signify and seal the benefits that are received by faith and thereby strengthen that faith” (Reformed Dogmatics, IV.515).
Though this is a brief intro, from the outset it is clear that these two positions are at odds.