alien righteousness

The Federal Vision (The Bad News) – Guy Prentiss Waters (Beautiful are the Feet)

Guy Water’s writes,

“Theologians use two important words in connection with our justification. First, justification isforensic; that is to say, it is a legal declaration. We see Paul underscoring this very point at Romans 8.33-34, ‘Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns?’ Second, justification entails the imputation of Christ’s merits to the believer. We see Paul teaching this point at 2 Corinthians 5.21,‘He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.’ This passage has been called the double exchange—the Christ who was, is, and ever shall be sinless had the sins of the elect reckoned to him so that in him they might be reckoned righteous.

Justification, therefore, is not God ‘wiping the slate clean’ in the sense that he forgives us and gives us a second chance, and opportunity to earn our acceptance before him. Yes, justification means that our sins are pardoned. But this is not all. Justification also means that we are accepted and accounted righteous because of what our Savior has done. We are clothed with the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the words of a well-known hymn quoted elsewhere in this volume:

Jesus, thy blood and righteousness

My beauty are, my glorious dress;

Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,

With joy shall I lift up my head.

Justification, therefore, is not a change that God makes within us (although every justified believer is also and of necessity sanctified).The basis of that declaration is not what God already sees in us nor what God does in us, nor even what God foresees that we will do or he will do in us. Nor does God accept faith instead of good works as the basis of our acceptance. The sole basis of that declaration is without, or outside, ourselves. That basis is the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Jesus Christ (Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 70).

What does faith do in justification? It receives. It receives the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ. Could we possibly boast that we at least have put forward faith? Could we find some kernel of credit here? Not at all! Faith is the gift of God, lest any man boast (Eph. 2:8-10).

What about our good works? Saving faith, after all must produce good works. Do those good works justify us? Are they part of the basis upon which God pardons us and accepts and accounts us righteous? Not at all.Those good works simply evidence that faith is genuine (see James 2:14-16). We must never rely upon those good works as even the smallest part of the basis of our justification. Justification is based entirely on what Christ has done, and all glory goes to our great God.

This, then, is what the Reformers meant when they affirmed sola fide. It is by faith alone that a believer is justified.”(23-24)


The Federal Vision –Guy Prentiss Waters

AF= Author’s footnote

In at least one important respect the Federal Vision is radically different from the New Perspective on Paul: The New Perspective has its origins in scholarship that self-consciously opposes itself to the Protestant confessions. The Federal Vision sees itself as calling the Reformed world to a more thoroughgoing commitment to the Reformed tradition. As such its proponents are ministers, elders, and congregants within church bodies that identify with the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity.

Even so, Federal Vision proponents have expressed appreciation for the New Perspective on Paul. (AF1) For the most part, Federal Vision proponents believe that certain aspects of the New Perspective and Reformed theology are soteriologically compatible. Some Federal Vision proponents, consequently, have been critical of recent Reformed attempts to emphasize the differences between the New Perspective and Reformed theology. Yet, Federal Vision proponents are not all entirely agreed on which aspects of NewPerspective merit some degree of approval. Nevertheless, Federal Vision proponents have often been supportive of Reformed efforts to embrace Wright’s and Dunn’s insights on matters related to justification, particularly in their efforts to recast the doctrine as primarily ecclesiological.

Is it true that insights from the New Perspective on Paul can be incorporated into Reformed theology as easily as some Federal Vision writers claim that they can be? Two examples suffice to answer this question in the negative. One Federal Vision writer has expressed appreciation for certain New Perspective(s) definitions of the “righteousness of God” ascovenantal faithfulness (rather than the righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer for his justification) at key points in the letters of Paul. (AF2)

In so doing, he proposes that the Reformation has illegitimately restricted justification to the legal or forensic sphere. Such a definition of righteousness means that we need to see the Bible’s teaching on justification to encompass divine deliverance from the power of sin as well as from the guilt of sin. He therefore proposes that we should broaden our definition of justification to embrace what he terms definitive sanctification.This proponent consequently defines justification in terms of non-forensic, transformational categories. To put it simply, he conflates justification and sanctification. In so doing, his definition of justification cannot sustain the doctrine of sola fide.

Another Federal Vision proponent has argued that the Reformers were mistaken to see the apostle Paul’s faith/works antithesis as contrasting faith and activity in justification. (AF3) This antithesis is intended, rather, to contrast faith with specifically Jewish practices as markers of one’s inclusion within the covenant community. In so doing, however,this proponent also fails to exclude the believer’s obedience from the basis of justification. To say that one is ‘justified by faith’ need not exclude one’s believing ‘faithfulness.’ Again, this construction of justification by faith cannot sustain the doctrine of sola fide.

Federal Vision challenges to sola fide have come from yet another quarter: its innovative re-reading of covenant theology. Its claims to the contrary notwithstanding,the Federal Vision compromises and undermines rather than refines and advances historical covenant theology. Historic Reformed covenant theology sees God having made two covenants with men: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. God entered into a covenant of works with Adam in the Garden of Eden.The condition of that covenant was personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience, manifested in the command to Adam not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The sanction set forth was death. Adam,representing in that covenant all his posterity descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned, and his posterity sinned in him and fell with him. God has purposed to redeem his elect by the covenant of grace. The Second Adam, theLord Jesus Christ, represents the elect as their mediator. In behalf of the elect, the Lord Jesus Christ obeys the law perfectly makes full satisfaction to divine justice. It is this perfect obedience and full satisfaction that are imputed to the believer and received by faith alone for his justification. The covenant of grace is a covenant of grace to the elect because it is a covenant of works to Jesus Christ.

Federal Vision proponents question this doctrine at a number of points. (AF4) Some proponents have criticized the doctrine of the covenant of works. One proponent in particular objects to the ‘works’ principle of the first covenant. (AF5) This principle, he argues, misconceives and distorts the relational and familial character of the covenant. (AF6) He also argues that the work of Jesus Christ for the elect should not be understood in terms of merit.Consequently, the believer does not receive the merits of Christ for his justification. Jesus’ active obedience—his perfect obedience to the law—is not imputed to the believer for his justification, but rather is said to be precondition for the believer’s justification. The believer, in union with Christ, partakes of the verdict pronounced over Jesus at the resurrection. Jesus had to obey the law in order to receive this verdict. The believer, in union with Christ, is said to share in this verdict. He does not, however, have Christ’s obedience imputed to him.

Other Federal Vision proponents reason in similar fashion,some affirming this conclusion regarding imputed righteousness more forthrightly than others. None believes that he is setting out to attack the Protestant doctrine of justification. We must nevertheless press the question, what kind of doctrine of justification emerges when one denies the imputation of Christ’s merits to the believer? It cannot be the doctrine of the Westminster Standards or of the Scripture.

Federal Vision innovations in the arena of covenant theology cause problems not only for the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’ righteousness to the believer for his justification, but also for the doctrine of sola fide. One encounters the argument that merit should be excised entirely from covenantal thinking. As we have see, one proponent contends that it is illegitimate to extend this term to Christ’s own work on behalf of the elect. But this objection tomerit extends in another direction as well. Rightly asserting that the believer can in no sense merit favor or acceptance with God, some Federal Vision proponents wrongly create a place for what is said to be the believer’s non-meritorious obedience in justification. In other words, provided that the obedience in view is not meritorious but faith-produced, it is thereby said to be acceptable as at least part of the basis of the believer’s justification.

This doctrine can have at least two significant consequences. Two Federal Vision proponents speak in such a way as to include one’s works as part of the basis of his justification. (AF7) One Federal Vision proponent will argue that one’s faith-produced works may even be conceived as instrumental in justification. (AF8) If that is the case, then justification is not by faith alone. Justification is by faith and works. To say that one’s faith produces works constitute even part of the basis upon which the believer is justified is to deny the doctrine of justification by faith alone.” (28-31)

The Author’s Footnotes:

1.) For elaboration upon and full documentation of the points raised in this and in the following paragraphs, see chap. 3 of Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: AComparative Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006)

2.) See Peter Leithart, “’Judge Me, O God’: Biblical Perspectives on Justification,” 203-35 in ed. Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, The Federal Vision (Monroe, LA: Athanasius, 2004).

3.) See Steve Schlissel, “Justification and the Gentiles,”327-61 in the The Federal Vision.

4.)  For elaboration upon and full documentation of the points raised in this and in the following paragraphs, see chaps. 2 and 3 of Waters, The Federal Vision.

5.) See Rich Lusk, “A Response to ‘The Biblical Plan of Salvation,’” ed. E. Calvin Beisner,TheAuburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision (FortLauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), 118-48. Compare also RalphSmith, Eternal Covenant: How the TrinityReshapes Covenant Theology (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2003); James B. Jordan,“Merit Versus Maturity: What Did Jesus Do for Us?” 151-200 in The Federal Vision.

6.) FV arguments against the covenant of works often illegitimately equate works and merit.In other words, objecting to the claim that Adam’s obedience in the first covenant was to be “meritorious,” they therefore dismiss the works principle of the first covenant. But such a conclusion does not follow. Many Reformed theologians, firmly committed to the confessional doctrine of the covenant of works, maintain its works principle without speaking of the obedience required of Adam in terms of merit.

7.) See Rich Lusk, “Faith, Baptism, and Justification”(2003); “The tenses of Justification” (2003); and Steve Schlissel,“Justification and the Gentiles, in TheFederal Vision, ed. Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner (Monroe, LA: Athanasius,2004), 237-61.”

8.) See Rich Lusk, “Faith, Baptism, and Justification.”

Taken from the book titled, By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification, editedby Gary L. W. Johnson & Guy Waters. Published in 2006. Typos are all mine.

Available on Kindle here:

PCA’s Report of Ad Interim Study Committee on Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theology

OPC’s report on Justification to the 73rdGA

URCNA’s Report of the Synodical StudyCommittee on the FederalVision and Justification

Westminster Seminary Faculty’s Statement on Justification:

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