Could you tell us very briefly what are: (1) The New Perspective of Paul; and (2) The Federal Vision?

The New Perspective of Paul, which was initiated by EP Sanders and sustained by James DG Dunn and NT Wright, promotes the idea that the apostle Paul did not teach the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone as taught in all the Reformed Confessions. Rather, Paul was supposed to have taught that grace is experienced through corporate divine election, and one retains the title to the blessing associated with being in the corporate body through some sort of non-meritorious obedience or works of law keeping. In this thinking, one is justified when he is a faithful member of the church and obedient in law-keeping; but ceases to be justified if he leaves the church or ceases to do good works. In classic Reformed thinking, faith is the sole instrument of justification in time. Works is not a condition for justification; but one who has no good works or ceases to do good works simply exhibits spurious faith, and therefore was never justified in the first place. 

The Federal Vision movement, which shares some similarities with the New Perspective people, could be said to have been sown by Norman G. Shepherd of the Westminster Seminary in 1975, but promoted by Douglas Wilson, John Barach, Steve Wilkins, and Steve Schlissel during the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) pastor’s conference in 2002. The key idea in Federal Vision, simply stated, is that there is no such thing as the invisible church (contra WCF 25.1). Every baptised member in the in the visible church is elect, regenerated and justified; and no one outside the visible church is any of these. Therefore, there is really no meaningful distinction between church visible and church invisible. The problem with this view is manifold. In the first place, what should we do with professing believers in such apostatising or apostate churches such as Charismatic and Roman Catholic Churches? Are they true believers or do we start dogmatically to declare which is a true church and which is not? In the second place, what shall we say of those who left the church? Did they lose their salvation, and become unelect and unjustified? In the third place, what do we do with members of the church who are secretly antinomian? Do we encourage them by saying that they are already in Christ, but they must now do good works if they are to be justified finally?

While we appreciate the emphasis on the visible church, which is much neglected today, we must say that the Federal Vision as a whole have largely gone off-balance in the other extreme. The Reformed Church traditionally holds to a distinction between the church visible and invisible. Baptised members are to be spoken to charitably and with divine warrant as Christians having all the benefits of the covenant. However, there must be a constant call to repentance and warning that not everyone in the church is elect, regenerated and justified. As the Lord warns us, in the visible Church, there will be wheat and tare, sheep and goats, good and bad fishes, wise and foolish virgins etc. At the last day, many will call Him “Lord, Lord” who will be disowned by the Lord as lawless false professors of faith. We can have no confidence, as such, to speak of members of apostising churches as Christians; but neither do we deny that there can be true believers in such churches, though we believe that such as are elect will by the providence of the Lord eventually be led to seek Him in a true branch of Christ’s church. 

A few good books to consult on the subject are: O. Palmer Robertson, The Current Justification Controversy (Trinity Foundations 2003); Brian Schwertley, Auburn Avenue Theology: A Biblical Analysis; R. Scott Clark, editor; Covenant, Justification & Pastoral Ministry (P&R 2007); Guy Prentiss Waters, The Federal Vision & Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (P&R 2006); Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification & The New Perspective on Paul (P&R 2004). W

Federal Vision Vs Reformed Faith 

By Brian Schwertley

Federal Vision Doctrine

The Reformed Faith

Covenant is relationship which is rooted in the relationship between the persons of the ontological trinity.

Covenant is an agreement. The covenant of grace is rooted in the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis).

Before the fall Adam was under a covenant of grace.

Before the fall Adam was under a covenant of works.

After the fall God requires a partial obedience to His law in order to be justified. This partial obedience is fulfilled by faithful Christians and results in final justification.

After the fall God requires a perfect and perpetual obedience to His law in thought, word and deed in order to be justified. This perfect and perpetual obedience is fulfilled by Jesus Christ and is imputed to believing sinners.

Jesus’ sinless life is only an example of faithfulness for His people to follow.

Our Lord’s sinless life is not only an example but is also a fulfillment of the covenant of works that is necessary if a believing sinner is to be declared righteous before God.

Christians are justified by faith and faithfulness (i.e. perseverance in personal obedience).

Christians are justified by faith alone apart from the works of the law.

Faith and obedience are necessary to obtain final justification. Faith is introspective. It is divided between Christ and the believer’s faithfulness. Obedience is a co-instrument of justification.

Faith is the sole instrument which lays hold of Christ and His accomplished redemption. Faith is extraspective. Obedience is a fruit of justification.

Faith and obedience are the same thing. Faith is complex and includes the fruits of faith.

Obedience flows from true faith and is distinguishable from it. Faith is simple.

Good works or covenantal faithfulness has an important role to play in a believer’s final justification.

The good works of believers are tainted with sin, are non-meritorious and only demonstrate the reality of saving faith.

Paul’s condemnation of the works of the law in relation to justification concerns only the ceremonial laws or Jewish identity markers which exclude Gentiles from the covenant.

Paul’s condemnation of the works of the law in relation to justification refers to the whole law: ceremonial and moral. The traditional Protestant law/gospel antithesis stands.

Justification refers only to the pardon of sins and not the imputation of Jesus’ active [or preceptive] obedience. Pardon is supplemented by covenant faithfulness which results in final justification.

Justification involves the imputation of the believing sinner’s guilt and liability of punishment to Christ on the cross and our Lord’s perfect righteousness to the believer. The good works or covenant faithfulness of the Christian has nothing to do with justification.

If a person does not continue in obedience the justification received when baptized is removed and the apostate person loses his salvation.

Because a Christian’s justification is achieved solely by Christ it can never be lost. People who apostatize never had saving faith and were never justified to begin with (1 Jn. 2:19; Mt. 7:23).

Sanctification if faithfully continued leads to final justification. The process which leads to justification is synergistic.

The moment a person is justified, the life-long process of sanctification begins. The justification of sinners is monergistic.

The covenant of grace includes conditions. One condition is faithful obedience or good works. The personal righteousness, obedience or good works of believers has salvific “value” (i.e. merit) before God.

The covenant of grace has only one condition which is faith. This faith is a gift. It is instrumental and non-meritorious. It merely grasps the person and work of Christ.

Since faith and obedience are the same thing and we receive glorified life in the same manner as Adam before the fall, the covenant of grace is a watered down covenant of works (i.e. a partial obedience is now required for final justification).

The covenant of grace is radically different from the covenant of works because Christ the second Adam fulfills the terms of the covenant in our place. People who are under the guilt and power of sin cannot achieve or even contribute to their own justification.