The outward covenant

The next Tabletalk article (October issue) is on the history of the covenant (pg 8-11, and is also quite good. It seems to turn into a brief against Federal Vision people, though. Here is the end:

"According to them [Fed Vis guys], every baptized person is elect and united to Christ through baptism, but this election and union can be forfeited through faithlessness."

I haven't read many FV guys - mainly just one. But I would agree with the above quote if the words elect and election were removed. We are baptized into union with Christ, but can be broken off if we don't bear fruit (John 15). This doesn't mean we were saved or elect, just part of the visible church for a while. This is probably is a bit more "high view of sacraments" than most Reformed people are comfy with - majority would say baptism is a sign of union with Christ, not that baptism actually does that. The sticky point is that we don't know who is elect, and God has called us to act this way, so by faith we ought to believe what He says in His word about the baptized being buried with Him in baptism, unless their fruit later in life shows otherwise.

Ironically, the same article, a column earlier, summarizes this quite well as it lays out Caspar Olevianus' position (author of Heidelberg Catechism):

"Since only God knows who is elect... the covenant of grace... can be said to be with all the baptized. Therefore we baptize on the basis of the divine command and promise, and we regard covenant children (before profession of faith) and all who make a credible profession of faith as Christians until they prove otherwise. Those who are in the covenant only in this broader sense or externally, do receive some of the benefits of the covenant (Heb 6:4-6), but they do not receive what Olevian called the 'substnace of the covenant:' justification and sanctification. Only those who are elect actually appropriate, by grace alone, through faith alone, the 'double benefit' of the covenant of grace."


  1. Terrific post,Steve! Thank you for it...I knew I liked the Heidleberg!

  2. Steve,

    Please pardon the long comment.

    You’ve (inadvertently) identified the biggest problem surrounding the whole FV uproar. Even after four years of dialogue, too many people still don’t have the slightest clue what the FV proponents are saying but are still willing to criticize them, and I believe this quote from Table Talk (TT) proves it.

    TT says that FV proponents believe all baptized people are elect but their election can be lost. The problem is that the truth of this statement depends on your definition of “elect” and “election”. Since you say this quote comes from a brief against the FV, it’s obvious that TT is using the terms elect and election in their traditional, soteriological context. This is normally a perfectly acceptable way of understanding the terms, but not in the context of FV criticism.

    FV proponents use terms such as elect and election, but usually with a different meaning. Instead of speaking in an individualistic, salvific sense (the commonly understood meaning), FVers use these terms in a corporate, non-salvific, but still Biblical sense. For example, 2 John 1 has a greeting from John to the “eklektos” lady. The NASB translates this as “chosen” although in other places (Mt. 24:22, 24, 31 and the parallel passage in Mark) it is translated as “elect”. The NKJV translates it as “elect”. So, in the NKJV, the passage reads “The Elder, to the elect lady and her children…”

    Did John mean he knew infallibly that this woman was predestined unto eternal salvation? No. He meant she was baptized into the body of Christ. In a corporate sense, she was “elect”. That doesn’t preclude the possibility that she might apostatize in the future, become a covenant breaker, and show herself to be among the damned. It means that she’s a professing Christian. She is elect into the covenant of grace in an objective and legally binding sense but not necessarily in a salvific sense. This is why the FVers say they are trying to recover the objectivity of the covenant.

    So, since I understand the FV use of the words, I have no problem affirming the TT quote in its entirety. In a corporate sense (in the sense meant by John in 2 John 1), all baptized people are elect but this election can be forfeited.

    There’s a need for this constant reminder: the first step in any meaningful debate is to ensure you can state the other person’s position to their satisfaction. FV critics routinely fail to follow this first step.

  3. But, as any preacher knows, it also behooves one to make himself understood. I have a hard time believing that the FV is so complex that Don Carson can't get it right, for instance.

    I think Cal Beisner is the fairest and most insightful critic of the FV, and his work on it is well worth reading for both those who are sympathetic, and those who are not.

    IMHO, he utterly decimates Doug Wilson's "levels of discourse" argument by basically forcing the divide: one cannot be in heaven on one level of discourse, and in hell on another. Either one is saved, or he is lost; either he enjoys vital union with Christ, or he does not. There are unbaptized people who enjoy vital union, and baptized non-visibly apostate people who do not enjoy it. Period.

  4. Conrad, it wasn't as inadvertent as it may appear. I like your redefinition of elect but know that's what it is - redefining - and that most Reformed people just don't like redefining theological terms! Nothing wrong with it in itself, but it tends to throw people off who are heavily relying on certain language for their understanding. Which is precisely why FV folks redefine terms: to take away that reliance and make people think again.

  5. Ken, the claim that FV is not being clear is often a cloaked way of saying, "Use OUR definitions, not yours." Not sure of the writing history behind your DA Carson point, so can't comment. But the problem isn't typically one of complexity as much as a willingness to grant terms, which is confused with giving up orthodoxy in some people's minds.

    Vital union and baptism: is there any reason to baptize then, other than that it was commanded? Is it something we tack on to remind us of God's grace, in good Zwinglian fashion?

    Your distinction at the end makes the FV point: God knows who is elect; we know who is baptized. There are your two levels of discourse. God calls the church in history to deal with one another based on their baptism, and then based on their fruit, improving their baptism or not.

    Of course one is either elect or not, in the traditional sense and in God's eternal decree. That does not obliterate different levels of discourse; it merely establishes one.

  6. Steve,

    Since you said you would agree with the quote if the words elect and election were removed, I thought that you had missed the "redefinition" aspect of the dialogue. That's why I said I can affirm the whole quote, understanding what the FVers mean by their use of the words.
    Forgive me if I assumed wrongly.

    At the same time, they would probably argue that the redefinition took place when the Reformed church lost sight of the wider range of meaning that the Bible gives to these terms. That's why they talk about recovering something that was lost.

    BTW, I don't think it was nearly as lost as some make it out to be. I can read Berkhof and get the basics of what the FV all seems to be talking about.

  7. Ken,

    Speaking about Cal Beisner's forcing the divide, you said "one cannot be in heaven on one level of discourse, and in hell on another." I have to respectfully disagree.

    Of course, one is either "in heaven" or "in hell" given a single frame of reference, or a single context. But without assuming a common context, there is no contradiction in asserting that a person is both "in heaven" and "in hell". There is more to a contradiction than simply asserting A and not A. One must assert both A and not A at the same time, and (here's the important part) in the same context.

    It is the FVs critics' refusal to recognize that there are two different contexts involved that creates the false impression of a contradiction.

    A person can be "in heaven" (in the corporate context - i.e., baptized) and not be "in heaven" (in the traditional, salvific context). No contradiction because the contexts aren't the same.

  8. Steve,

    Very respectfully, I must disagree with your take on the clarity of the FV. The war is over definitions, yes. But, another cardinal principle of communication is clear definition of terms. In terms of Scripture, Scripture must be the basis of the definitions. Thus, all Christians ought to have common definitions, right? Do you really think that those of us who take extreme umbrage with the FV are just trying to cling to cherished formulations? Could you not at least grant (as Wilson cannot seem to) that our concern is to protect the Scriptural teaching on salvation?

    And, RE Baptism, there are, of course, more than two views (yours and Zwingli's). Baptism is a covenantal sign. Thus it attests blessings for faith, and cursings for failing to believe. (the "conditions" of the new covenant). By your definition, you must define "vital union" to be something less than the Bible defines it, namely as a temporal and eschatological guarantee of salvation. In short, your vital union does not avail to and of the end, unless you want to argue that all the baptized are finally saved.

    I think the relevant passages here are those out of Romans: what advantage hath the Jew? In short, the advantage of being raised in the visible bounds of the covenant community are "much in every way." The proclamation of the gospel, the life of faith lived out corporately, etc. etc. NOt to be sneezed at, as some FVers do. But, what is the real circumcision, the one that avails before God? The fleshly one? Or, the one of the heart?

    The danger of the view you state above should be obvious: nominalism. I know Doug Wilson denies its existence. But, I am sorry, I have seen too much of it to buy that. THink of this: the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son. He enjoyed all the advantages of the father's house. He never left home (that is, visibly apostatized). Should we assume that he is therefore saved? In my reading, that is the opposite of the conclusion Jesus would have us to draw. Outwardly, he never departed. He did everything he was supposed to do (ie objectively faithful). But, inwardly, he was lost. The blessings of the covenant community become curses if one doesn't own them in personal repentance and personal faith, whether one visibly apostatizes or not.

    And, herein lies the problem. I point this out in a chapter that I wrote (which may see the light of day sometime!) in which Dr. Joel Garver and I address the topic of baptism and what it "does." I may be willing to grant that justification, election, regeneration, union with Christ etc. may mean MORE than we have traditionally taken them to mean. It seemeth to me, however, that the FV folks argue that they mean less. For isntance, election is not only the unconditional promise of God to save all who are his, it may also mean the temporal covenant-keeping of those who are finally lost (less than its Biblical meaning), regeneration is not only the internal renovation of the heart (which some even deny), it is walking faithfully in the covenant people of God (less than its biblical meaning).

    And, frankly, as one on the other side, I would have to humbly submit that the reasons for so doing are hung on faulty exegesis. To argue from John's address to "the elect lady" that there is some sort of temporal election is flimsy at best, for instance. Any person with a seminary degree knows that, and most "ordinary" Christians do, too.

    Conrad, you illustrate the genius of Doug Wilson. If you get to make up your own rules of logic, you can win the argument, especially if you confuse logical validity and truth. On that premise, of course a person can be both in heaven and in hell, saved and lost. But, I would submit, to most people, that looks just like what it is: absolute nonsense. A person is either truly saved or truly lost. If a person is corporately in heaven, but personally in hell, what good does it do that person that he was corporately in heaven? What good does it do to assure a person he is corporately in heaven, if ultimately he winds up in hell?

    All of this is so much Schilderianism, and it is the death knell to preaching the gospel within the context of the covenant community (which, after all, is what Jesus did). IF every baptized person is granted the benefit of the doubt, presumed regenerate, told they are regenerated, justified, and in heaven, then are you not granting false assurance to those who are finally lost?

  9. One of my famous one more things:

    Berkhof FV?

    Hardly: What about where he says Baptism does not effect but strengthens, faith?

  10. Ken,

    Just for the record, I didn't make up my own rules of logic. All I did was state the full law of noncontradiction.

    The law of noncontradiction states, in the words of Aristotle, that "one cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time".

    A true contradiction requires more than simply affirming "A and not A".

  11. Conrad,

    With all due respect, I think it matters most to an individual not whether he is a citizen of heaven here, but whether he is a citizen of heaven or hell in the life to come, and that was Beisner's quite obvious point.

    This once again illustrates how FV objective covenantalism does not truly solve the problem of assurance. All it does is wind up creating false assurance, by telling people who are finally lost, "you're saved, and you have nothing to worry about. After all, you're baptized!"