Tag Archives: Federal Vision

We Distinguish…(Part 5) — Active/Passive Obedience

Romans-5.19

In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

On the first of January, 1937, a dying J. Gresham Machen mustered up the strength to send one last telegram to his friend John Murray: “I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” One of the founding fathers of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church made a point of stressing Christ’s active obedience in his last hours on this earth. It would be, however, a grave mistake to assume that this doctrine is uniquely Presbyterian. Not only is it found in the Three Forms of Unity, it’s also shared with confessional Lutherans (as I’ve demonstrated here).

We speak of a distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience. We need to carefully define the terms, because they have sometimes been misunderstood as opposites. In normal English conversation, “active” and “passive” usually are opposites. “Passive” is typically denotes inactivity. However, in the context of Reformed theology, the word “passive” is derived from the Latin passio and it refers to Christ’s suffering – something in which he was definitely not inactive. Passive obedience, therefore, refers to Christ’s obedience in suffering the wrath of God against our sins. Christ’s active obedience speaks of his obeying the law of God perfectly in our place throughout his life – an active, positive righteousness that is imputed or accounted to believers. In Christ’s passive obedience we have the payment demanded so that our sins can be fully forgiven. In his active obedience we have the perfect conformity to God’s law demanded of all human beings. These must be taken together, and when they are, they form the basis of our justification (our being declared right with God as Judge).

This distinction is valuable because it points up how good the good news really is. We are not just promised forgiveness in Christ. In our Saviour, we are promised and given perfect righteousness in the sight of God. As God looks at us in Jesus Christ, he sees people who have been perfectly and consistently obedient to his law. Because of Christ’s active obedience imputed to us, God sees us as flawlessly obeying him not just in the externals, but also 100% from and in the heart.

When it comes to biblical support, there’s really no debating the passive obedience of Christ. The Bible is clear that he suffered in obedience to God’s will so that we can be forgiven all our trespasses (e.g. Hebrews 2:10-18). But what about the active obedience of Christ?   According to Romans 2:13, “doers of the law will be justified.” Galatians 3:10 reminds us that if you do not do everything written in the law, you are under a curse. God demands perfect obedience to his moral law. Romans 5 is one of the clearest places speaking to the fulfillment of this demand in Christ. There Adam and Jesus are contrasted in their disobedience and obedience. Says the Holy Spirit in Rom. 5:19, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” The “one man’s obedience” there refers to Christ’s work on our behalf, including and especially his obedience to all of God’s law. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 reminds us, all our sins were imputed to Christ, and all his righteousness is imputed to us.

Since it’s found in Scripture, it’s no surprise to find it in the Three Forms of Unity. For example, it’s implied in chapter 2 of the Canons of Dort, in the Rejection of Errors #4. The Arminians taught that God had “revoked the demand of perfect obedience to the law.” The Synod of Dort said that this contradicted the Bible and was part of “a new and strange justification of man before God.” At the bare minimum, the Canons of Dort maintain that God still does demand perfect obedience to his law. However, the Canons do not explicitly say how this demand is to be met.

But that is not to say that the Synod of Dort ignored this issue. Far from it! In fact, the denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ was an issue amongst the Reformed churches of that period. As a result, the Synod of Dort edited article 22 of the Belgic Confession on this point to clarify that Christ’s active obedience is essential to Reformed orthodoxy. The revised article 22 reads (the underlined words were added by Dort): [God] “imputes to us all [Christ’s] merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.” This result brought the Dutch Reformed churches into line with the English and the French – they had also previously ruled that Christ’s active obedience was a non-negotiable point of Reformed doctrine. Later, in 1693, the Walcheren Articles appeared in the Netherlands and these were even more resolute on this question. Denying the imputation of the active obedience of Christ is not an option for Reformed confessors.

Unfortunately, in our day there have been some who have either denied or minimized this point of doctrine. I’m thinking especially of some figures associated with the Federal Vision movement. I’ve briefly addressed their teachings in a booklet (which you can find here). Suffice it to say that attempting to sideline this doctrine: 1) requires a dishonest handling of the Reformed confessions, 2) requires a reconfiguration of the biblical doctrine of justification, and 3) robs Reformed believers of comfort, joy, and strength in Christ.  This is not making a mountain out of a doctrinal molehill.

For those who would like to read more on this important topic, Dr. N. H. Gootjes has an excellent essay entitled “Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience.” It’s in chapter 4 of his book Teaching and Preaching the Word. I also have a copy available online here.

 


Now Available: Federal Vision

Federal Vision cover

Many of the churches with membership in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) have condemned Federal Vision theology. But where do the Canadian Reformed Churches stand on this issue? In this booklet, Canadian Reformed pastor Wes Bredenhof presents the view that Federal Vision falls outside the bounds of the Three Forms of Unity. He explains that Federal Vision advocates have no credible claim to the theological heritage of the Canadian Reformed Churches. Finally, he calls for his own church federation to clearly recognize Federal Vision theology as a deviation from the orthodox faith.

Now available from Reformed Fellowship — click here to order.


Some Recommended Resources on the Doctrine of the Covenant of Grace

As mentioned here previously, I’ve been preaching a series of catechetical sermons on the doctrine of the covenant of grace.  Someone asked me to provide a list of recommended resources.  First, some caveats.  The list is not comprehensive, not by far.  These resources are in no particular order.  My mentioning them does not mean that I agree with every single detail, term, or formulation in them — indeed, some of them do contradict each other at certain points.  In sharing them, all I mean to say is that I have learned something valuable from them and perhaps you can too.

The Covenant of Grace, John Murray (Philippsburg: P&R, 1953, 1988).

This was the very first thing I ever read about covenant theology.  It’s a dense little booklet of 32 pages.  It’s not included in Murray’s 4 volume Collected Writings.

The Main Points of the Covenant of Grace — Klaas Schilder.

This was a speech delivered by Schilder in 1944.  It’s a fairly good summary of his covenant theology.  He emphasizes the dynamic and relational nature of the covenant of grace.

Covenant and Election, J. Van Genderen (Neerlandia: Inheritance Publications, 1995). 

A good overview of the history of this topic.  The author also proposes helpful ways of outlining the similarities and differences between covenant and election.  This was one of our textbooks in seminary.

Teaching and Preaching the Word: Studies in Dogmatics and Homiletics, Nicolaas H. Gootjes (Winnipeg: Premier, 2010).

Here I’m thinking especially of chapters 4 (Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience), chapter 8 (Sign and Seal), chapter 9 (The Promises of Baptism) and chapter 17 (Can Parents Be Sure?  Background and Meaning of Canons of Dort, I, 17).  Dr. Gootjes was my dogmatics professor in seminary and probably the biggest single influence on the way I think about the covenant of grace.  I hope that his material on covenant theology in the Reformed confessions will someday yet be published.

Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).

Bavinck tackles the covenant of grace in volume 3 and he’s worthy of careful study.  In volume 2, he also has a notable discussion of the covenant of works.

An Everlasting Covenant, J. Kamphuis (Launceston: Publication Organisation of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, 1985).

This is a more technical work which traces some of the finer details in the debates over covenant theology leading up to the Liberation of 1944.

Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, ed. R. Scott Clark (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2007).

This is a collection of essays by the faculty of Westminster Seminary California.  There are some important cautionary notes sounded in this volume directed against the false teachings of Federal Vision theology.  In a series of articles in The Outlook, I addressed the question of whether some of the authors mentioned above should be condemned with the Federal Visionists.  You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.  It’s also available in Korean here.


Synod Carman 2013 (5)

Our Synod finished its business last night.  Not all the Acts have yet been posted, but they should be soon.

Today I’ll make some comments about a few matters found in articles 113-134.

In article 122, there are some noteworthy decisions regarding the CanRC edition of the Heidelberg Catechism.  As mentioned here, the Standing Committee for the Book of Praise proposed a change to QA 115.  Synod decided to leave well-enough alone.  However, there were also a few changes proposed by one of the churches and a couple of these were taken over by the synod.  Answer 10 says that “He [God] is terribly displeased with our original sin…”  It will now read, “He is terribly angry with our original sin…”  In Answer 75, “everlasting life” will be changed to “eternal life” in order to make it consistent with Answer 79.

The matter of women’s voting came up again in article 125.  At Synod 2010, the Fellowship CanRC in Burlington appealed a decision of Regional Synod East on whether or not this issue was a matter of local regulations.  Synod 2013 decided that Synod 2010 erred in the way it handled that matter.  Synod 2013 then proceeded to deal with the appeal and denied it.  It reaffirmed that the issue of women’s voting is in fact a matter of the churches in common and not a matter for local churches to decide by their own regulations.

However, perhaps the most interesting items in these acts are found in the articles dealing with the United Reformed Churches.  From a superficial CanRC standpoint, the process is continuing.  Our committees were all reappointed.  Our church unity coordinators were also mandated to urge the URCNA to reappoint all their subcommittee counterparts.  Should those counterparts be reappointed or mandated with a call to engage the CanRC subcommittees, we will be ready and waiting for them.

But…there is a fly in the ointment here and it’s not a tiny one.  In article 126, in the “Considerations,” one can find interaction from some of the churches with the report of our Coordinators for Church Unity.  URC brothers who are paying attention will undoubtedly read some of this with concern.  Three local churches wrote letters to our synod stating that “some points of Federal Vision can find sympathy in the Canadian Reformed Churches.”   One church wondered whether the URCNA “has a clear picture of the Federal Vision movement.”  Though for the sake of honesty and transparency it’s necessary that these sentiments be expressed, I deeply regret that they live in our federation.  At least now the URCNA will have a clear justification for their concerns about pursuing full federative unity with us.  There are now official CanRC documents stating that there is sympathy for “some points of FV” in our churches.  One church wonders whether our brothers in the URC even understand the FV — that despite the fact that they’ve been engaging it and studying it at length for over a decade.  Let’s be realistic:  a merger in my lifetime is now certifiably a pipe dream.   If it happens, it will be nothing short of miraculous.  Moreover, those of us in the CanRC who are concerned about FV clearly have our work cut out for us.

The same article also has some more discussion about the status of the Nine Points of Schererville and the Fifteen Points of London.  Some of our churches continue to be concerned about the status of these points in the URCNA.  Our Coordinators have been mandated by this synod to get more clarity on that point, while at the same time discouraging the URCNA from “making further statements of this nature.”  Does anyone else see the problem there?  We need more clarity on what these points mean to the URCNA, but we also urge them to stop making statements “of this nature.”  The nature of these points is unclear — that’s what the CCU is mandated to clarify.  How can we urge them to stop making statements like this until we have a clear understanding of the nature of these statements?

Over the last few years, I’ve not been hopeful for the prospects of federative unity between the URCNA and CanRC.  Today I’m disappointed to say that I’m even less so.  Whatever momentum we’ve had in the last few years is likely to be torpedoed by what our URC brothers read in the Acts of Synod Carman 2013.  This grieves me and, even more importantly, I can’t believe that this would be pleasing to the Lord.


Synod Carman 2013 — Prognosis (4)

Today let’s take a look at what’s happening with the discussions towards federative unity with the URCNA.  This is a process which has been underway for what seems like forever.  Well, actually since 2001, when Synod Neerlandia entered into phase 2 relations.  That’s only been a dozen years (!).  There’s good news and bad news as we survey the various reports on relations with the URCNA.

Some of the good news is found in the report of our Coordinators for Church Unity.  While the Coordinators are realistic about the slowing momentum towards unity, they also see some spots where there are improvements in relations.  But especially noteworthy is the interaction of our Coordinators with the Nine Points of Schererville and the Fifteen Points of London regarding Federal Vision.  As I have mentioned before, it’s good to hear Canadian Reformed voices saying, “Contrary to the Federal Vision movement, we too believe that baptism does not bring about the believer’s union with Christ or justification.  One is united to Christ through faith, and one is justified through faith.”   Well said!

The Church Order Committee is the one committee where the most progress has been made (report here).  A Proposed Joint Church Order has been drafted.  A lot of effort has gone into finding common church political ground for a united federation.  Our last Synod provisionally adopted the PJCO for a united federation.  The last URCNA Synod accepted it for continued study among their churches.  The church polity angle seems to be covered quite well, even if some are not totally satisfied with the end product.

But alas, there is also bad news.  The Committee for Theological Education report is one page.  It will take you two minutes at most to read it.  The URCNA disbanded their Theological Education Committee in 2010, so our committee had no URC counterpart with which to meet.   Our committee concludes, “Since we had no URCNA committee with whom to discuss our mandate, we never convened and can only report that there has been no progress in this matter.”  No progress — that’s very sad.

It’s almost the same story with the Liturgical Forms and Confessions Committee.  This committee has a URC counterpart with which they COULD meet, but the URC committee has no mandate to meet with our committee.  URCNA synods have not mandated their committee to have any discussions with the CanRC.  Now, if that URCNA committee wanted to, they could propose to a Synod that it be made part of their mandate, but there does not seem to be any interest.  Again, very sad.  Our committee is proposing that they be disbanded until the URCNA is willing to play ball.  Having served on this committee in a previous iteration, I can understand their frustration.

What will our Synod do?  Our last Synod wrote a letter to Synod 2010 of the URC.  It was a passionate plea for unity — a call to our URC brothers and sisters to take Christ’s call to unity seriously.  The officers of URCNA Synod 2010 were mandated to write a response, which they did.  The URC letter noted that they didn’t reappoint their Theological Education committee because there was an impasse.  There is no mention of the Liturgical Forms and Confessions committee.  The letter also notes that the feeling in the URCNA is that we should move more slowly towards federative unity in order to build “a lasting unity that will truly glorify God and advance the gospel of peace in our world.”  Moving more slowly can be appreciated, but scrapping committees and not giving other committees an ecumenical mandate might send another message.  I have commented on that before (although some of what I wrote about in 2009 has since been addressed).  Could there be a growing frustration in the Canadian Reformed Churches with this process?   After all, we have invested much (far more than the URCNA), but seen comparatively little in return.  I wonder if this will be reflected in the decisions of Synod Carman 2013.  Can we move forward together in good faith or will we be stalled at a snail’s pace or slower for another dozen or more years?  Following the recommendation of the Liturgical Forms and Confessions Committee will dial things down yet more.  So would disbanding the Theological Education Committee.  That would leave our Church Unity Coordinators with a very long-term project.  But perhaps that’s where we’ll find ourselves next month whether we like it or not (and I decidedly do NOT like it).