What the Federal Vision Still Does to the Definition of Faith

What the Federal Vision Still Does to the Definition of Faith

The FV position can be summarized this way: The certain kind of faith that God gives in the justification of a sinner is a living, active, and personally loyal faith. Since faith itself includes the necessary virtues for justification, faithfulness to the gospel message does not require upholding the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience. The basis for the sinner’s final justification is perseverance in the covenantal responsibility to maintain an obedient faith—those who do not, will be cut off.

Between the years 2001 and 2004 a group of writers within the Reformed community banded together forming a theological system and movement known as the Federal Vision or Auburn Avenue Theology.[1] Under the rubric of covenant theology, this movement has posited a false dichotomy between Biblical and Systematic theology, redefining many confessional Reformed categories and terms. For our purposes, we will briefly explore and evaluate the teachings of the Federal Vision on the nature of justifying faith and the place of good works in the believer’s salvation.

In A Joint Federal Vision Statement, signed by the central proponents of the FV, a series of affirmations and denials are presented. The statement on “Justification by Faith Alone” reads,

We affirm we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone. Faith alone is the hand which is given to us by God so that we may receive the offered grace of God. Justification is God’s forensic declaration that we are counted as righteous, with our sins forgiven, for the sake of Jesus Christ alone.

We deny that the faith which is the sole instrument of justification can be understood as anything other than the only kind of faith which God gives, which is to say, a living, active and personally loyal faith. Justifying faith encompasses the elements of assent, knowledge, and living trust in accordance with the age and maturity of the believer. We deny that faith is ever alone, even at the moment of the effectual call.[2]

In the affirmation section, standard Reformed language is employed. Justification is described as a forensic declaration, received by faith alone which is described as the hand gifted by God by which we are accounted righteous for the sake of Jesus Christ alone. In the denial, however, we find a clear presentation of the FV’s understanding of the nature of this justifying faith.

There are two important points to observe. First, the FV statement correctly denies that faith in God’s act of justifying the sinner can be understood as anything other than that which has been given by God. But when prompted as to what kind of faith justifies, and what is the kind of faith that God gives, the statement is unequivocal: justifying faith is “a living, active, and personally loyal faith.” For the FV, faith justifies not because only apprehends Christ but also because it obeys or because it contains Spirit-wrought sanctity and the virtues of love and hope. Faith is not merely apprehending and resting in Christ; but it also must be active, living, and loyal.

Here we notice that certain virtues are inculcated into the nature of the faith that God gifts into the sinner for his justification.[3] This certain kind of faith by which God justifies a sinner includes virtuous qualities. For instance, Doug Wilson writes,

So when we use phrases like “obedient faith,” others should just hear “new heart faith,” or “living faith,” or non-disobedient faith.” It should not be seen as a faith that has to perform a requisite number of good deeds so that it can earn its way unto heaven. Rather, obedient faith is the only kind of saving faith God gives.[4]

Because the FV generally denies the existence of merit, many fail to understand whether there is any real concern with the FV’s formulation. But the formulation is elusive. Wilson writes, “Obedient faith is the only kind that God ever gives, and when He gives it, this justifying faith obeys the gospel, obeys the truth, obeys His salvation. Faith that does not obey the gospel is not justifying faith.”[5] Wilson is able to deny that a sinner earns anything before God because he affirms that justifying faith is a gift from God, but the kind of saving, justifying faith that God gives to the sinner includes certain virtues.[6] Steve Schlissel writes, “Nothing in the Bible teaches a kind of faith that does not obey. Obedience and faith are the same thing, biblically speaking…To believe is to obey.”[7] Peter Leithart criticizes the Protestant doctrine of justification as being “too rigid in separating justification and sanctification.” Instead, Leithart proposes that justification and definitive sanctification should be viewed as the “same act” in God’s declaration of the sinner as righteous.[8]

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