Ego, Repentance, and the Federal Vision

Richard Baxter and John Owen once had a long drawn-out written debate. I don’t remember what the issue was. Owen was by far the better scholar, of course, and there was no way that Baxter would win. He didn’t win. Instead, after receiving a monstrously huge reply from John Owen that simply answered everything Baxter had rejected, Baxter’s response was remarkable. He said something to the effect of, “I should never have taken on John Owen in debate.” Baxter changed his view on the issue in question.

It seems fairly clear (and I think all sides would agree on this) that the FV is under attack. There is extensive written argumentation now on both sides of the debate. It is a parallel situation in many ways with Baxter/Owen. Of course, I personally would put FV in the position of Baxter, and the critics in the place of Owen.

What is the major obstacle to the FV repenting of their views? What is it that is the stumbling block? I believe it is the fact that so much emotional (and other) capital has been invested in the position, that to change one’s position would be seen as weakness on the part of any of the advocates. Almost every minister I know has an ego. I am certainly no exception. And I know that I myself have invested rather a lot of emotional capital in my critical position. And I know that I would personally feel weak if I changed into a FV advocate. I feel like I would lose the respect of many people whom I greatly respect. Probably FV advocates feel the same way.

What I am getting at, though, is that ego should not (though it often is) be the issue. The issue should be the truth. Is it possible to separate these issues? Baxter did it. Wes White did it:

Yes. Indeed, by the grace of God I have changed. Here’s what happened. I was very much into the Federal Vision and Norman Shepherd for several years. I even met with Shepherd and other pastors to discuss all these issues over the course of that time.

Coming out of Wesleyanism (my full name’s John Wesley White), I thought Shepherd’s theology (along with others) was the way to bring Arminianism and Calvinism together. I thought we could all come together in Canterbury with a moderate Calvinism and a strong institutional Church with bishops, high Church liturgy, and sacramentalism.

Then, the Lord hit me over the head with the idolatry of high Church Anglicanism. I was ready to join the Reformed Episcopal Church in seminary. I visited one of their affiliate Churches, and they had incense burning to crucifixes, prayers to and for the dead, idols of Mary, the mass, etc. It sickened my soul. In that moment, I understood the whole point of the Reformation. They were contending that the Gospel itself and hence Christ had priority over the institutional Church. In the over-exaltation of sacraments, the liturgy, the robes, the purportedly apostolically-descended bishops, something was lost, and what was lost was Christ and the Gospel.

After that rude awakening, I began to think that these old reformers had a point. So, I thought I might actually read them instead of looking in them for snippets to prove my point. I read Francis Turretin, Heinrich Heppe, Wollebius, Francis Pieper (to understand the Lutherans), and others. I found that these people actually understood both the errors of modern evangelicalism and the papacy and steared a Biblical course right down the middle (with Lutheranism slightly veering in the wrong direction!).

In regards to Shepherd, from that moment on my opposition obviously began. I studied him again over the past year as well as the justification controversies of the 16th and 17th century. I’ve come to the conclusion that Shepherd’s view track not primarily with Rome but with the Sociniano-Remonstrant viewpoint. I argued this at length in the recent Mid-America Journal of Theology.

Finally, the main point of all this is that whatever I counted gain before I know count as loss for the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ and to be found in Him not having a righteousness of my own from the law but a righteousness that is from God and by faith. When I hear the law, I do run in terror from it because on the basis of the law I have no righteousness before God and am damned eternally, and I do run to the Gospel because in Christ I have all that I need for an eternal and everlasting salvation.

Shepherd turns us away from Christ and unto ourselves, and this is what the FV, following him, also tends to do. I pray, John, that you will come to see that. And, of course, I still see it yet imperfectly, and what I need to learn each day more and more is that I have no righteousness of my own and a perfect one in Christ and so truly live as one who boasts only in the cross of Christ.

So, this is a call for repentance for FV advocates. I believe that the truth of the matter lies with the critics, who are rightly interpreting the Word of God, and the WS. It is no shame to change one’s position to the truth. (I am presupposing the truth of the critic’s position, of course. I have argued for this rather extensively on my blog.) In fact, one would gain the respect of the majority of the Reformed world, not lose it.