The Reformed church is always reforming. That reformation consists of her constant development of the truth to bring her confession and life more and more into conformity with the Word of God. There is also the constant reality of departure. Churches that once held to the truth in a certain way forsake the truth and adopt false doctrine. In both senses there are developments in Reformed churches today.
The single greatest threat to Reformed churches is the heresy of the federal vision. This false doctrine is a threat to their very existence as churches of Christ in the world. This is because the federal vision denies the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Justification is the message of the gospel recovered by Martin Luther in the Reformation of the sixteenth century and faithfully taught by all the great reformers after him. Justification by faith alone is the truth that God forgives the sins of all those who believe in Jesus Christ and imputes to them Christ’s righteousness by faith alone and for Christ’s sake declares the believer worthy of eternal life. To corrupt this doctrine is to corrupt the heart of the gospel. The false teacher that corrupts this doctrine is anathema. The church that corrupts this doctrine has become the false.
The federal vision corrupts the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It denies that the justification of the sinner is by faith only without any works. It teaches especially that the sinner’s justification in the final judgment will be by works. Men like Norman Shepherd, Richard Lusk, Peter Leithart, Douglas Wilson, and James Jordan have introduced this into Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
The federal vision’s starting point for its denial of justification by faith alone is the doctrine of the conditional covenant. Thus far this root of the doctrine and many of its evil doctrinal consequences have not been condemned at the broader assembles. The conditional covenant has had widespread and almost universal acceptance in Reformed churches. Those who taught it in the past defended the error by saying that the conditions were fulfilled by grace. The federal vision has aggressively developed this idea. For it the covenant is made with both elect and reprobate alike—with Jacob and Esau so that God promised to be the God of Jacob as well as Esau. In the covenant, God gives grace to all. The continuation of this covenant on earth and perfection of this covenant in heaven depend on the faith and obedience of the covenant member by grace. For this reason, the federal vision teaches the covenant member can, and often does, fall out of the covenant and perish. Furthermore, the final judgment will be based partly on the work of Christ and partly on the covenant member’s faith and obedience by grace: what one does in the covenant by grace will be part of the reason for his salvation. For the federal vision salvation is partly by Christ’s work and partly by the works of the sinner. For the federal vision salvation must be based on the covenant member’s works by grace because the covenant is conditional.
This heresy has swept over Reformed churches like a typhoon. Because of their commitment to the conditional covenant these churches are completely powerless to defend against this heresy. Every Reformed and Presbyterian church and church member must be on his guard against the subtlety of this soul-destroying heresy. Every Reformed and Presbyterian church and church member is called to reject that false doctrine and those who teach it, even if they promote it with the charisma, eloquence, and authority of the angel Gabriel.
The widespread acceptance of this false doctrine, chiefly its doctrinal foundation of the conditional covenant, has led to another curious development in the Reformed church world. That development is the redefinition of the charge of antinomianism.
Antinomian means against law. The term describes the heresy that denies the necessity of good works in the life of the justified believer and that excuses sin in the life of the professing Christian by appeals to grace. Its blatant form is the doctrine that the child of God has been delivered by grace to sin freely. Its subtle form is the denial that the justified believer must do good works and that he must be exhorted to do good works. This heresy was present in the Old Testament in Jeremiah 7. It was present in the New Testament in Revelation 2 among the “Nicolaitans” and in “that woman Jezebel”. It troubled Luther in John Agricola and Calvin in Geneva. It remains a real threat today.
The development is the redefinition of the term antinomian. This is found in the book, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest?, by the well-known, learned, and articulate author, Mark Jones.
In his book he minimizes the classic definition of antinomianism, “we have not understood the debate if we simply identify antinomians as those who flatly reject the use and necessity of the moral law in the life of Christians”.1
This comes out in the repeated warnings that antinomianism “must not be confused with the etymological meaning of antinomian (i.e., ‘against the law’)”.2 By this he also minimizes wickedness of life in violation of God’s law as the measure of the antinomian.
This minimization of the classic definition of antinomianism as “against law”, and its necessary minimization of wickedness of life as the measure of the antinomian is evident in the Reformed church world today. For example, where is the law of God about marriage honoured today? It is ironic in the extreme that the warnings against antinomianism come from those who by appeals to grace defend or fail to condemn the rank violation of the law of God concerning marriage by pew and clergy. Excuse for sin by appeals to grace is antinomianism. This practice is widespread with regard to divorce and remarriage, so that those who live impenitently in that sin are given an honourable place in the pew and the offices. Antinomianism is present wherever that takes place and whoever does that is an antinomian. This all seems to pass Mark Jones by in his pursuit of a definition of antinomianism.
But what, then, is his definition of antinomianism? His first question to determine whether a theologian is antinomian is ominous: “are there conditions in salvation?” He asserts about supposed antinomians that “the divine element and the human responsibility”, what he calls the “conditional aspect of the covenant of grace”, were not upheld by “the majority of antinomian theologians”.3
He further explains about conditions in the covenant in the book, A Puritan Theology,
The conditions of the covenant were principally faith in Christ and its fruit of new obedience. The former condition was understood, against the Antinomians, as an antecedent condition, so that no blessing procured by Christ could be applied to the believer until he or she exercised faith in Christ…To maintain that the covenant of grace is not conditional…has no biblical warrant, for that reason, the Reformed orthodox spoke of requirements or conditions demanded of those who would inherit the promise of salvation.4
For Mark Jones the covenant is emphatically conditional. To speak of it as unconditional is not Reformed, but antinomian. This is also a new definition of antinomianism. By means of it, denial of the conditional covenant and the defence of the unconditional covenant of grace may be smeared as the gross false doctrine of antinomianism, in a similar way as denial of the well- meant gospel offer and defence of the particularity of the call of the gospel are slandered as hyper-Calvinism.
In this connection it is significant that Mark Jones makes precisely that connection himself in his book, Antinomianism. He vaguely defines antinomians as those who “make Christ totally responsible, not only for our imputed righteousness, but also for our imparted righteousness”.5 He is criticizing the thought that Christ is our justification (imputed righteousness) and our sanctification (imparted righteousness). Against this view, he makes the supposedly devastating charge, “this view obliterates human responsibility to the point that antinomianism ends us becoming a form of hyper-Calvinism”.6
What Mark Jones believes by hyper- Calvinism he explains in the book, A Puritan Theology: the hyper-Calvinist believes “that God does not sincerely offer grace unconditionally to every hearer of the gospel”.7 That is not historic hyper-Calvinism. Real hyper- Calvinism taught that the church could only preach to the elect. Mark Jones’ version is the redefinition of hyper- Calvinism that is bandied about by proponents of the well-meant gospel offer.
His definition of hyper-Calvinism, though false, is revelatory about his view of antinomianism, since he makes them basically the same. When Mark Jones speaks about man’s responsibility in salvation, he does not mean that in salvation God treats man as a rational creature, so that man is responsible for his rejection of the gospel, even though God reprobated him. By responsibility he does not mean that when God works faith in man he actually believes and repents. When he uses responsibility, he means man’s response to God’s offered grace. When Mark Jones speaks of faith as a condition, he does not mean what so many in the old days meant when they referred to faith as condition, namely, that God works faith in his elect as the necessary means of their salvation. When he speaks of faith as a condition, he means man’s response in the covenant to offered grace, by which man distinguishes himself from others in the covenant equally furnished with grace. By these terms he means what the proponents of the well-meant offer mean when they speak about conditions and responsibility: that God offers grace to all and man must respond to that offered grace in faith and so distinguish himself from others who are equally furnished with grace. For him the supposed hyper- Calvinist, who denies the well-meant offer, and the supposed antinomian, who denies conditions in the covenant, are the same. For him, they both deny a universal offer of grace, a grace made effectual by an act of the sinner and without which the grace of God fails to save the sinner.
By these definitions he makes the denial of conditions in the covenant the new antinomianism. The definition is false, as false as the definition of hyper- Calvinism as the denial of a well-meant offer. The charge of antinomianism is false, as false as the slander that to deny the well-meant offer is hyper- Calvinism.
Reformed churches and believers must be on guard against this tactic. In the face of the legalism of the federal vision, the Reformed church, preacher, and believer must be willing to draw the charge of antinomianism from those who preach another gospel, which is no gospel at all.
This also brings up a positive development in the Reformed church world: the new book by Prof. David Engelsma, The Gospel Truth of Justification. His book was published by the Reformed Free Publishing Association to honour the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The book is a faithful proclamation and defence of the classic, creedal, Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone. All the different parts of the doctrine are explained in clear language over against denials of it past and present. For that alone it is worthy of promotion and study. The book is also a development by its careful and clear relating of the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the unconditional covenant of grace. Thus far, that connection has not been made or not made very clearly or so systematically and thoroughly. Because it was not made, the federal vision exploited the doctrine of the conditional covenant to teach justification by works, deny the gospel, and spread it far and wide. The book demonstrates that justification by faith alone demands the unconditional covenant of grace and at the same time that belief in the conditional covenant demands a conditional justification, which denies the gospel. It proves that because Scripture teaches justification by faith alone, the conditional covenant has no warrant in scripture and the Reformed creeds at all. This book and its development ought to be closely studied by every Reformed believer so that they can better understand these developments both of the false doctrine of the federal vision and the conditional covenant and of the advance of the truth of justification through confrontation with that heresy. This book ought to be promoted vigorously for its stirring and spirited defence of the gospel of grace and the unconditional covenant of grace. In light of these developments the Reformed believer and church ought to recommit themselves to hold fast the traditions and reject every heresy repugnant thereto.
1 Mark Jones, Antinomianism: Reformed Theol- ogy’s Unwelcome Guest? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 124.
2 Ibid., 124.
3 Ibid, 28.
⁴ Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 318.
⁵ Antinomianism, 29.
⁶ Ibid., 29.
⁷ A Puritan Theology, 963.
Written by: Rev. Nathan Langerak | Issue 45