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

The Westminster Assembly Project: Announcement

This is good news for students of theology and church history, especially those of us with a Presbyterian “bent.”  Reformation Heritage Books (RHB) and The Westminster Assembly Project have teamed up to publish some older documents from the theologically fruitful Westminster Assembly and some of its delegates.  Go here for more info – and stay tuned!

Note: The Westminster Assembly Project website is here.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

For Students of Prayer

 One way to grow in our Christian sighs and prayers is to assume our life long position as students – by learning from wise teachers.  Here are a few resources I’ve found helpful when studying the Lord’s Prayer or prayer in general.  (Note: these are not in any special order; I also realize there are other great books on prayer – these are some I’ve read.  Feel free to comment on your favorites).

John Bunyan, Prayer (Puritan Paperbacks).  This is a classic.

Matthew Henry, A Method for Prayer.  There are also three sermons/lectures about prayer as an appendix.  I enjoy this book, though I do wish it were in modern language.

William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach us: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life.  This is a creative (sometimes too creative!) and helpful commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, with some decent application.

Wilhelmus a Brakel has a big section on the Lord’s Prayer in volume three of his magnum opus, The Christian’s Reasonable Service.   This will give you tons upon which you can meditate.

N.T. Wright wrote one on the Lord’s prayer in the later 90’s that is worth reading, even if (like me) you don’t buy into his portentous revisions of justification and covenant(s).

Thomas Watson wrote a great book on the Lord’s Prayer.  Of course, if you’ve read this blog even a few times before, you know I’m quite partial to Watson.

R. C. Sproul has a relatively new commentary on the prayer of our Lord.  One usually can’t go wrong with Sproul.

Don’t forget Calvin’s section on the Lord’s Prayer in The Institutes.  This is quite personal for me – I didn’t know much about prayer until Calvin taught me.

I also have benefited from Charles’ Spurgeon’s collection of sermons on prayer called (at least my edition), The Power of Prayer in a Believer’s Life.

The last section of Abraham Kuyper’s excellent work on the Holy Spirit also deals with Christian prayer.  This is Kuyper at his poetic best.

We can’t forget the patristics!  Cyprian wrote a treatise (number IV in the Ante-Nicene Fathers) on the Lord’s Prayer.  Furthermore, in volume III of the ANF Tertullian has a brief commentary on the Lord’s Prayer (III.iii).  These are downright fun to read (and I mean that in a good way).

Of course, most Reformation confessions have a section on the Lord’s Prayer: the Westminster Catechisms, the Heidelberg Catechism, and Luther’s Large Catechism all have commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer.  This also means that commentaries on these catechisms will have commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer.  (And don’t neglect the different Christian traditions’ prayer books like the Book of Common Prayer in the Anglican tradition or Starck’s Prayer-Book in the Lutheran tradition.)

Finally, I don’t have time/space to list all the good commentaries on Matthew 6.5-13 & Luke 11.1-4 (along with other scriptures about prayer). 

Studying these will help one at least begin to pray without ceasing (1 Thes 5.17).

shane lems

sunnyside wa