Sunday, September 18, 2011

Conversation with a Federal Vision pastor

by: Wes White

It seems that Federal Visionist Douglas Wilson was asked the same type of questions Pastor Wes White has posted on his blog some time back. A commenter on my blog took offense at my labeling of Douglas Wilson as a heretic, and directed me to the two videos someone did with Doug Wilson using the same questions Wes White placed in the imaginary conversation in the above video.

The two videos can be seen in two parts here (Part 1, and Part 2).

Let's examine Wilson's answers as follows.

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Inquirer: I’m not a believer, but I have been listening to Christian radio a lot. I heard your ad on the radio, and I decided to visit your Church and see what it’s about. ... I have been thinking that I want to become a Christian, what do I need to do?

Wilson: Believe in Jesus. So... um... there are different ways to answer the question. So when you say, "What do I need to do?" if you are assuming what good works do I need to perform in order to be worthy to become a Christian, then the answer is none. You can't do anything. You can't do anything. But when.. the Gospel is preached.. preached in the book of Acts and the people say, "What shall we do?" Peter said, "Repent and be baptized." And what that is is a shorthand form of "Repent of your sins, believe in Jesus and join yourselves to God's people." That's a summary. And so, the moment of becoming a Christians is when you repent and believe, and the shaping life of discipleship occurs in the context of a church.

Wilson's answer may sound orthodox to some, only because Federal Visionists are very good at obfuscation. None of the FVists ever claim to believe in salvation by works. Rather, their error is that they believe in the faith that justifies as being a "living faith" similar to how Roman Catholics believe in it. From the classical formula of faith being defined as cognitio, assentia and fiducia, FVists smuggle in works through the backdoor, not the front.

We note that Wilson's answer includes the idea of joining a church. We note here that the question posed by the inquirer is not "What good works do Christians do?" but "What do I need to do to become a Christian?" This proves the confusion of justification and sanctification by the FVists. Becoming a Christian is not predicated by whether a person joins a church or not. Which church after all did the thief on the cross joined himself to? What happens to someone who becomes a Christian in Saudi Arabia and cannot find a church to attend? Is he or is he not a Christian if he cannot find a church to attend?

Inquirer: Well, actually I was baptized as an infant, does that mean that I am a Christian?

Wilson: It means you are covenantally bound to Christ. So consequently if you are baptized in infancy, assuming it was baptized by an orthodox Christian church — if you were not baptized by a sect or a cult — but if you were baptized by a Christian church, that means that you are returning to the faith now. You are not coming to the faith for the first time. You have been covenantally connected to Christ, and now if you are believing in Jesus genuinely for the first time, then you are finally going to be... your profession of your heart is going to match up with your baptism which is the way it was supposed to be.

We can notice the hedging of Wilson's answer. While certainly not as plain as White's imaginary answer, nothing that Wilson says here contradicts White's assessment of Wilson's answer. According to Wilson, the inquirer is considered covenantally a Christian but has not actually returned to the faith until he believes. The term for this is called "covenant breakers." In his debate with James White, Wilson affirms Roman Catholic baptism and argues for its validity. This shows us the lengths to which Wilson believes in his "objective covenant." The hedging against sects and cults is only for those who deny the Trinity as Wilson states in that debate, not for those who deny the Gospel as the Roman Catholics do.

So Whites' imaginary answer is essentially correct. Covenant breakers are still considered Christians, just believers who are fallen away from grace and must return back to grace in order to be saved.

Inquirer: But how do I get forgiveness of my sins and new life?

Wilson: By asking God to forgive your sins for the sake of Jesus Christ. So Jesus Christ died on the cross, was buried, He rose again from the dead. Because of that, we can have forgiveness of sin. So when you cry out to God, you are to cry out to God in Jesus' name, which is shorthand for saying, "I have sinned and I have no basis for appealing to you other than the death , burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ." So because Jesus died, you died to sin. Because Jesus rose, you are freed from that sin. So you have to come to God through Jesus, through faith in Jesus.

The issue here is not whether what Wilson says is wrong. Of course the answer is correct. But that is besides the point since apart from baptism, you are not saved according to the FV system. The more pertinent question to be asked here is whether Wilson thinks that a person can be saved apart from baptism and joining the church, and his answer seems to be no.

White's imaginary answer goes to the heart of FV sacramentalism. It is not referring to the existential state of "returning to faith," but the so-called objective covenantal reality which is true of every person in this so-called "objective covenant." Baptism in the FV system confers the reality of new life and forgiveness of sins, but it is lost existentially when a person "falls away from his baptism," whether that occurs at birth after infant baptism, or later when one backslide as an adult.

Inquirer: Wow. What I heard on the radio made me think I had to be converted or born again first. Is that true?

Wilson: Yes. Jesus said that unless you are born again, you wouldn't be able to see the kingdom. So none of this makes any sense to an unregenerate, unconverted person. So.. um.. the Bible teaches that God gives life and then we are alive. God gives eyes and then we see. God gives ears and then we hear. So the illustration I am fond of using is when Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, He was calling him out of a condition of death. And when Jesus called Lazarus, it wasn't a case of Jesus pulling and Lazarus pushing. Lazarus wasn't helping. After Jesus quickened him, after Jesus brought him to life, then Lazarus did a bunch of stuff. So yes, you must be converted; you must be born again; you must be ... your heart must be changed. And when it is, then all of this stuff we are going to be talking about on Christian discipleship and the follow up and the result of that will then makes sense to you.

No one denies that the Federal Vision believes that existentially repentance is necessary. But what is the relationship of this and the covenant reality? We note here that in White's imaginary conversation, the relation is this: that believers are to be assured by their objective covenant reality. In his word "Just walk according to the grace that you have received in baptism." If one wants to fault White here for not admitting that FVists do believe in the existential need to repent, that is straining at a gnat to swallow a camel.

Inquirer: This is amazing. I was wondering if I would get to heaven, but what you’re saying is basically that in baptism I have a free ticket to heaven. Am I understanding that correct?

Wilson: Um... no. In baptism you don't have a free ticket to heaven. If someone is baptized and if they don't have faith — they don't have a living evangelical faith in Christ. If someone is baptized and they don't believe in Jesus, and the Bible says they we must believe in Jesus, then that baptism is a ticket to hell, not to heaven. If a husband puts a ring on in a wedding ceremony, that does not make him automatically faithful no matter what. A baptism is like a wedding ring. And so it is a covenantal sign and formalizes your obligations. So if a faithful husband, if someone who truly loves his wife, puts his ring on and said, "This means that I am the happiest man alive." Well, because he really loves his wife, it does mean that. If a cheating, adulterous hound puts the ring on, does this automatically mean that he is happily married? Well, he is an idiot. It doesn't work that way. So if you ...um... Baptism ..um... is just like the Gospel preached. When you hear the Gospel preached, hearing sermons does not put you in with God — you have to respond with faith. With everything God offers, the only appropriate response is faith. So God offers the Gospel in a sermon, faith is the response. If God offers Himself in the sacraments, Baptism and the Lord's Supper, the only appropriate response is believing Him, trusting Him, faith.

But then what is "faith"? According to the FVists, faith must be living and therefore works is smuggled in through redefinition of faith as including "fiducia." Can a person has faith apart from joining a church? Can the thief on the cross be saved by faith, or is his faith deficient because he did not join any church or has not gone through "Christian discipleship and appropriate follow up"?

So if we want to nuance White's answer, the answer to the question by Wilson is simply, "No, you get these benefits, but only if your faith includes the living component to it."

Inquirer: But I keep hearing on the radio that we are justified without works. Now, is that true?

Wilson Justified apart from works, yes. We are not justified by anything we do, or prepare ourselves to do. In Rom. 9, it is said that it is not of him who wills, of him who runs, but it is God who shows mercy. God doesn't save us because of good works, doesn't save us because we sang in the choir, doesn't save us because we were in the Boy Scouts, doesn't save us because of our boys(? unintelligible) should like... none of that. So.. um... When people are saved, it is because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ being given to them as a gift plus nothing.

Same reply as above. What exactly is "faith"?

Inquirer: So, I can lose my justification?

Wilson No. What God gives, GOD gives. So if someone is um... one of the elect, then (you may have pick up on the radio if you are asking questions of a Calvinistic pastor). So we believe that God has settled and determined that who is going to be saved and who lost. Um... from all eternity. If someone has, ... if God has begun a good work in one of the elect's life, then He will complete the good work that Ge began. That doesn't mean that someone cannot be attached to a church, be it baptism or false profession and baptism or all the different ways that people join a church, the wheat field as Jesus said has tares in it - there's weeds in the wheat field. Ummm.. but those people who fall away are people who fall away who they ... never had the root of the matter in them. If people are truly converted by God, one of the elect, then they are going to persevere, eh.. to the end.

The problem here is that the FVists bifurcate on the definition of election. The orthodox line will be given when they deal with what they call "decretal election." But the issue is that they believe that this is not possible to know so we must focus on "covenantal election." Those who are covenantally elected can and do fall away, and this is the problem in their theology. So decretally, nobody can lose their salvation. But covenantally, one can lose and gain one's salvation, depending on whether one "perseveres in faith."

Instead of believing in two ways of being in the covenant as per 1 Jn. 2:20, they believe that there are two ways of being elected. Those who are in the covenant are all truly elected but can become reprobate if they do not keep up their perseverance in the covenant. So such people who fall away were indeed at one time truly justified.

So, can one lose one's justification? According to FV, yes and no. Wilson gives the PR answer by thinking of it along the lines of decretal election, but if one deals with covenantal election, then one can see the error of the FV.

We must remember how this impacts people in the church. Someone who is joined the church will be said to be truly justified, and if he falls away then he will be said to be not justified. Yes, it is not a losing of justification in the abstract decretal notion, but do all these nuances matter in the life of the church? What happens is that at one time, the person X will be said to be justified. At another time, the same person X will be said to be not justified. The fact of the matter is that justification can be lost in the FV system, no matter how one desires to nuance it.

Wilson Right, it's not possible for one of the elect to lose their justification. Justification is the declaration that God makes over a person at the point where they are converted. If someone is decretally elect, to use confessional language, if someone is decretally elect, and God justifies them in that decretal, that forensic declaration - that is not possible to lose. You can't lose it, so it's useless to talk about getting it back. If somebody is a false professor, if they come into the church, don't have the root of the matter in them, not truly converted, are they part of the Bride? Do they participate in a covenantal, general way um... in the blessings of the ...eh...Body? Yes. Um.. and I would use the language the Westminster Confession uses: Unconverted people in the visible church share in the common operations of the Spirit. So, there is some measure of blessing for them there. Ummm.... but it is not final blessing; it is not a blessing that cannot be lost; it does not them any good in the end. So it is a common operation of the Spirit... the kind of efficacious justification, no, you can't lose it and therefore can't get it back.

Same answer as above. Wilson focuses on decretal language, yet the main issue here is that the covenantal election in the FV is said to be just as real and objective.

Inquirer: So, can I have any assurance that I will be in heaven? Since many Christians don’t get to heaven, how do I know I’m not one of them?

Wilson: Ok, well. Many professing Christians don't get to heaven. Many covenantal Christians don't get to heaven. But in 1 John 5:13, John writes this, "I write this to you, so that you may that you have eternal life." So knowledge of salvation, knowledge of ... knowledge and assurance of justification, salvation is available and proclaimed through the Gospel, through the various means that God has presented the Gospel to His people, and so that is a ....ummm... that's to be considered the norm. Knowledge that you are loved of God, that you are accepted by Him, that should be the Christian norm. So if someone says... ummm... that what you mean to say that there are baptized Christians who are going to hell? So if that is the case, I am a baptized Christian, how do I know that I am not going to hell? Well, the answer to that is He is a skunk you know? It says in Gal. 5 that the works of the flesh are manifest, the works of the flesh are plain. So if someone is a drinking, whoring cocaine-using person and living like the devil, um.... well, there is no mystery why he is lost. If you love Jesus and you love His people, and you.. worship Him faithfully, and you love the things of God, um... there is no reason to be unsettled in your assurance at all. Martin Luther was once asked, "How can I know I am a Christian?" And Luther said, "Well, say your prayers, man." Look to Jesus, look to Christ. There is no assurance except looking at Christ.

The problem comes about because those who are covenantally elected are said to be truly saved, not that they may be saved. If they are truly saved yet they can be lost, why should those of us who are similarly covenantally elected not be fearful whether we can be similarly lost, since we cannot after all know God's decrees? The answer to look to Christ is correct, but that is irrelevant since after all, the covenantally elect who fall away also looked to Christ while they were still within the church as saved people.

Of course, people can ignore that fact and continue to gain true assurance through looking at Christ, but just simple thinking will show that that hope is logically inconsistent given the teachings of the FV that covenantal election and justification, which is truly present in those who fall away, can be lost. Since one cannot know whether one is decretally elect of not, the fact that one look to Christ cannot be an indicator of whether one is truly saved or not, as the covenantally elect who fell away did looked to Christ too. Therefore, only perseverance in looking to Christ saves, making the action itself a work.

In conclusion, this "conversation" solves nothing with respect to the heresy of the Federal Vision. It does not absolve them of anything at all. It only shows how the FV confuses people with the use of their own lingo on the "objective covenant" thus making salvation conditional upon perseverance while at the same time using the same language of unconditionality and thus sounding orthodox, while limiting the unconditionality of the Covenant of Grace to God's decrees.

4 comments:

Committed Christian said...

I could not help but think how "Roman Catholic" the Federal Vision heresy sounds: the confusion of justification and sanctification, saying that salvation is by God's grace yet one must remain faithful to be ultimately justified, one must do certain things to remain justified, the idea that one can be saved by baptism but not have salvation ultimately, etc.

PuritanReformed said...

@Committed,

indeed it is very similar. In my opinion however, the tendency is more towards Eastern Orthodoxy than Rome. I doubt any of the FVists want to be under the headship of the pope of Rome. Their tinkering around with theology proper, plus the view of covenant as relation, also seems to be a move towards the Eastern side.

Manfred said...

I purchased a DVD of a debate between James White and Doug Wilson on the question: "Are Roman Catholics our Brothers and Sister in Christ?" Wilson says yes they are, because they have been baptized in a trinitarian baptism. He - Wilson - is a heretic.

PuritanReformed said...

@Manfred:

yes, that was the debate I have referred to. I think that issue however is the least of Wilson's errors.