In recent years, some Reformed leaders have re-assessed the nature and boundaries of the biblical covenant. What is the covenant, and who is included? How does one enter it? Is it only spiritual, or does it have physical implications? Is it only a way to describe the people of God, or does it actually do anything? These are questions raised by the group espousing the Federal Vision (FV). Important applications include Trinitarianism, biblical theology and typology, justification, and postmillennialism.
Federal Vision isn't a rock band. In 2002, a group of pastors met at the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Louisiana to discuss their developing understanding of the covenant, and found the idea of federation a good metaphor. A federation is a national covenant, and the FV sees the Church as national in the same way old covenant Israel was national: a real, physical group with physical signs of membership, bound and sustained spiritually by God. For the sake of honesty and consistency, the FV has taken this view to its logical conclusions. This desire for doctrinal integrity attracts us to the FV.
FV theologians describe baptism as entrance into the covenant. Therefore, a baptized person should be treated as a covenant member. This doesn't mean every baptized individual is automatically going to heaven, but that they're members of the Christian community and subject to its authority. They're called Christians to distinguish them from those outside the covenant body. Baptized infants are therefore Christians, whether or not they are converted. Those who reject the covenant (whether baptized as infants or professing adults) are excommunicated. Christ referenced this in John 15 with the analogy of unproductive branches being cut off from the vine.
This practical approach to baptism upsets those who view Church membership as dependent on "internal change" rather than "external acts." Some say the FV holds to justification by works, equating baptism with works and covenant membership with salvation, even branding some of the FV defenders heretics. The FV maintains it is not saying baptism automatically "saves" an individual, but that it enters them into covenant with God. The FV denies holding to works justification, affirming justification by faith. (Because of this dispute, many mistakenly equate the FV with the New Perspective on Paul; while some of the issues are similar, the conclusions for the most part are not.) Much of the controversy appears to result from parties speaking past each other or using the same words to refer to different things.
The orthodoxy of the FV position has since been questioned, largely due to seeming and actual differences between the FV and the Westminster Confession. Recently the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) renounced the FV as error. Most of the proponents of FV are ministers within the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). Some of the leaders in the movement are Douglas Wilson, Steve Wilkins, James Jordan and Peter Leithart. A few of these men have even been labeled heretics (though not by the PCA or OPC).
The FV question remains unsettled, but we think the issues are important and deserve consideration. We pray the concerns raised by the FV will further unite the Church, no matter what the final assessment, and that those currently divided will eventually be united stronger than before. We wish to enter this discussion carefully and respectfully, believing there is need for doctrinal development while keeping in mind the teaching of our Reformed heritage.