A Second Look at the Federal Vision

A while ago, I posted a review of what is called the Federal Vision. Since then I’ve come to understand it a bit better and want to take another look at what they believe.

The Federal Vision believes that one can be “in Christ” and not be eschatologically saved. Baptism places one “in Christ” (Gal 3:27). Under the Old Covenant if the head of the household was in the covenant, his entire household was in the covenant. Male infants were circumcised not because of their faith, but because of the faithfulness of the head of the household. Likewise in the New Covenant, if the head of the house comes to faith, his household is considered to be in the covenant. Infants are baptized and therefore “in Christ”. In discussions I have had with some Federal Vision adherents they advocated baptizing unbelieving spouses provided they didn’t object. This is based on 1Co 7:14 where children are “holy” and unbelieving spouses are “made holy” because of the believer.

The idea that one could then be “in Christ” but not be a believer is based on a few different texts. One is the parable of the vine and the branches from John 15. There are branches that are really united to Christ and yet are unfruitful and are cut off. These unfruitful branches are baptized unbelievers who do not come to faith and eventually apostatize and are removed. Likewise, the allegory of the olive tree in Romans 11 is employed to demonstrate that there can be branches in the tree that are unfruitful and are later removed. Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds (tares) from Matthew 13:24-29 is pointed to to support this idea. A person can be in the church, they explain, and be a weed. They could be “in Christ” and not be a believer. Similarly, the curses of the New Covenant would apply to these people. Namely, Hebrews 6:4-8 and again the threats of the branches being removed.

What the Federal Vision adherents are looking at is the continuity between the covenants. This is how it was under the Old and there is nothing changing it under the New. In fact, the texts cited above would support the fact that these things remain the same. Federal Visionists even find statements in the Westminster Standards that appear to support their view, therefore, they claim that there is room within the orthodox Reformed faith for this view.

Part of the difficulty in understanding the Federal Vision comes in the fact that they tend to define theological terms slightly differently than most Reformed folks are used to. Because of these slight changes it can appear to their opponents that they are denying sola fide or embracing baptismal regeneration. These are fighting terms within the Reformed community.

I won’t even begin to attempt to translate their vocabulary. From what I can tell, the real underlying issue is the idea that one can be in Christ and not be saved. That is, one can be “in Christ but not of Christ”. Does such a category exist? Indeed, under the Old Covenant, one could be descended from Abraham and in Israel and yet be sons of the devil and not real Israel. Does the same apply for being “in Christ”?

To begin to analyze that we need to consider the text I cited above, Galatians 3:27. I looked at it this morning as the Federal Vision drifted into my mind during morning devotions. I think this verse really begins to get at the question and then we can take a look at the vine/tree things and finally the curses.

Galatians 3:27 is, of course, in a context that must be considered and that context is significant to this discussion. The exact quote from the ESV reads “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” The question here is who ‘you’ is. More accurately, who ‘you’ are as the pronoun there is plural. So who is it referring to? The previous verse indicates that it is those who are sons of God through faith. So who is it who are baptized and put on Christ? Those who have, through faith, become sons of God. Calvin, in his commentary, argues that an unbeliever who gets baptized has not put on anything but water. So for the Federal Visionists to claim that baptism actually unites one to Christ regardless of faith is to miss the point of this text.

So then, what does it mean to be united to Christ, to be “in Christ”? The sheer number of verses that use the phrase are too many to list here. Look at all of them here but let me call out just a few of the strongest terms:

  • There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. – Rom 8:1
  • Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2Co 5:17
  • Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places – Eph 1:3

These verses make it sound like being in Christ is an extremely great thing! There is no condemnation, those in him are a new creation and we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing. I just don’t see that middle ground of someone being “in Christ” who ultimately falls away. Where is the person who is “in Christ” apart from faith in these verses? Such a case doesn’t exist.

What of the vines? These parables make it sound as if a person can be united to Christ but not be fruitful and ultimately to be pruned off. The first thing that needs to be said about this is that it is at least parable and at most allegory. It is dangerous to develop doctrine from parable. Federal Visionists do not start with these parables but rather they use these to illustrate their point that one can be “in Christ” and yet not be a true believer and ultimately saved.

Let’s start with John 15. Jesus’ verbiage is quite strong. He says “Every branch of mine” (v2). He then makes it even clearer: “you are the branches” (v5). Who are the “you” here? It is plural and is referring to those to whom he is speaking, namely his disciples. So is Jesus telling his disciples, on the evening before his crucifixion that they had better be fruitful or they’ll be cut off? Perhaps he is speaking of Judas as the one who will be cut off. But Judas has already left to do his deed (13:30).

Maybe Jesus is speaking about the Jews since the Old Testament uses vine imagery to depict unfaithful Israel (Ps 80, Isa 5, Jer 6, Ezk 17 & Hos 10)? But one must ask in what sense are the Jews who don’t believe in Jesus engrafted into him at this point? That doesn’t seem to fit.

Perhaps D. A. Carson’s comments are the most appropriate:

But the…view, that these dead branches are apostate Christians, must confront the strong evidence within John that true disciples are preserved to the end (e.g. notes on 6:37-40; 10:28). It is more satisfactory to recognize that asking the in me language to settle such disputes is to push the vine imagery too far. The transparent purpose of the verse is to insist that there are no true Christians without some measure of fruit. Fruitfulness is an infallible mark of true Christianity; the alternative is dead wood, and exigencies of the vine metaphor make it necessary that such wood be connected to the vine… 1D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 515.

It is asking too much from this parable or allegory to prove that branches may be vitally united to Christ and then cut away and thrown into the fire. Jesus’ point is fruitfulness, not a discourse on covenant inclusiveness.

What of the olive tree in Romans 11? This is another hotly disputed passage and not a wise place to build doctrine but we’ll go there anyway. What I believe is happening here is that the olive tree represents God’s covenant people throughout the ages. There were fruitful branches and unfruitful branches but when Jesus came, a covenantal shift occurred. Those unfruitful branches were removed and fruitful branches from a wild olive tree were grafted in. How were they grafted in? By baptism? No, by faith (11:20). The old branches who lacked faith were removed leaving, it must be understood, branches with faith. Other branches with faith are grafted in and those branches are warned not to become proud but to “stand fast through faith”. So what kind of branches are in the olive tree now? Both wild and domestic branches who have faith. Period. There is room on the tree for faithless branches.

Continuing on our theme of developing doctrine from parables, lets look at Matthew 13:24-29 and the parable of the wheat and tares. This is one that is often pointed to to defend the notion that the church is made up of both believers and unbelievers. However, that isn’t how Jesus interprets the parable for us in 13:36-43 where he tells us explicitly “the field is the world” in verse 38.

Moving back on to solid ground, lets take a look at 1Co 7:14. I won’t pretend that I have this one figured out but I do know that the way the Federal Visionists handle it won’t work. The idea here is that children and an unbelieving spouse are made holy by the believer in the household. The term “holy” then means that they are in covenant with God, they are set apart by him covenantaly. Therefore, they should be baptized. The infant cannot reject their baptism and so they just get it. If the unbelieving spouse is willing they may be baptized also.

Here is where things get dicey. The argument Paul is putting forth in 1Co 7 is that it is permissible for a believer to remain married to an unbeliever hence his talk of being/being made holy. So if the holiness of the unbeliever is the premise upon which the two may remain married and if the spouse were to reject baptism then by implication are they not now unholy? This passage is taken to mean covenantal holiness and baptism is understood to be the seal of the covenant. So if the person were to reject baptism, then they would no longer be holy. If that is the case, then based upon Paul’s argument (that the unbeliever is sanctified by the believer and therefore the marriage is permissible) marriage is no longer permissible if the unbeliever doesn’t submit to baptism. This would appear to set Paul’s entire argument on its head.

This leaves us with the curses of the New Covenant. Specifically Hebrews 6:4-8. The other one cited is the threat of being removed from the olive tree in Romans 11 and we’ve already touched on it. The threats in Hebrews 6 are difficult to anyone who believes that to be in the New Covenant is to be truly saved and that real salvation cannot be lost. It sounds as if the author of Hebrews is saying the opposite. But upon more careful examination, I don’t believe that is what is being said. Notice the words used, “enlightened,” “tasted,” and “shared.” These don’t seem to be terms that apply to a believer.

  • Eph 1:18 doesn’t just say that a believer is enlightened, rather “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.” That is much stronger than just enlightened.
  • Titus 3:4-7 speak of the goodness of God toward a believer and it goes much further than only tasting it. The goodness of God our savior includes a justifying grace.
  • In Acts 1:5 Jesus promises not to allow his disciples to only “partake” of the Holy Spirit but that they will be baptized in the Holy Spirit.

In other words, what is described in Hebrews 6:4-8 sounds like someone who flirts with Christianity but doesn’t really commit. Indeed, the author goes on to say “we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation” in the very next verse! The curse in Hebrews does not apply to on united with Christ but to someone who just touches the edges and doesn’t commit.

In the end, I find a lot of the presuppositions of the Federal Vision wanting. They do not seem to be supported by the scriptures they cite. Still, it is good to understand it better.

1 D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 515.
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  • Tim, thanks for the long and thoughtful post! One of the things I’ve been coming to believe is that there are three categories of people in the New Testament: those who are lost, those who are saved, and those who profess belief (including lost and saved). This third category is charitably described as “believing, in Christ, repentant, etc.) because of the profession of those in it. The category includes the church visible, professing followers of Christ, and is the category to which the warning passages are addressed. What do you think? Do you see problems?

    This would mean that even though the Bible refers to every church member, professor of Christ, as “in Christ, believing, elect” (as it addresses the visible churches in all the letters), it is only doing so phenomenologically, because they all appear to be in Christ, and there is no evidence yet that any are outside of Christ. Those who are members of the visible church and are said to believe really have “temporary” or “delusive” faith, though until that faith manifests itself as “false” those who have it are treated as though they truly believe. Thoughts?

  • I don’t know Tom, I mean, I agree with your first paragraph but not so much the second. It seems a bit duplicious for the Bible to call someone “in Christ” who is not in fact in Christ. They may be part of the visible church but they are not elect in any sense of the word. They are deceived. “They went out from us, but they were not of us” 1Jn 2:19. They started with them but then departed, proving that they were not really of them.

    To me, it seems like the Biblical language is watered down in order to accomodate that idea. I mean a false professor may have some external association with the church and therefore the New Covenant, but they are not part of it. The seal of the New Covenant is the Holy Spirit. Circumcision in the New Covenant is heart circumcision, done without hands. We are not included in the New Covenant based upon profession but based on God’s work. Humans seeks to recognize those in covenant by looking for the things covenant members would do: profess faith, seek to follow Christ, hate sin, be inclined toward greater obedience.

  • I just think Paul and the other NT writers take people at their word. If you give a credible profession of faith in Christ, then you’re regarded a believer, elect, etc. I don’t see why that is duplicitous. If people give no reason for us to doubt that they are in Christ, then their credible profession should lead us to regard them as being in Christ. I’m also merely following John Gill; see his Body of Divinity, page 570 #3, and page 571 #4. He speaks of a “two fold” being “in Christ.” (1) There are some who are truly in Christ. (2) There are others who are in Him by profession.


  • Yea Tom, I don’t disagree. I think I’m still arguing with the Federal Vision instead of talking with someone I agree with! :)

    What I mean is that we cannot know the heart of man. Like you said, we take them at their word. If they make a credible profession, we accept it. We disciple them, preach to them, administer the sacraments to them, and love them assuming they are real believers. That may include telling them that they are in Christ, new creations, and heaven-bound. Until they prove otherwise. Similiarly, we may preach to all before us that they if they do certain things they will not inherit the kingdom of God. They may be elect and regenerate and saved. They may be deceived and unregenerate and unsaved. The church will be mixed. For the elect, the message will be a means of sanctificaiton (provided it is from God’s word) and to the unregenerate, it maybe a means of moving them towards real conversion or a means of driving them away.

    So are they provisionally in Christ by profession? I don’t know, I’d like to read Gill. I don’t own it. It may be that the FV is making me hesitant to affirm it. I need to cool my heels and reassess it. That prolonged arguement with True-Catholic at dw.com kind of hot me heated up! :)

    I’ll see if I can find Gill on line and take a look. I’m open to correction on this for sure.

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