Posted by David Gadbois
Bob Mattes has gone and stolen my thunder again in his recent post. Well, sorta. I started writing this post after a few folks were discussing the validity of FV’s idea of “covenantal justification” in the combox of an earlier post of mine. Hopefully this can complement Bob’s excellent comments by focusing on this specific issue.
I have six main objections to the idea of a “covenantal justification” that elect and non-elect members of the covenant share.
1. It is usually a term that FV proponents use in a completely undefined manner. Appending the adjective “covenental” to the term “justification” does not give meaningful definition to the term. Responsible systematic theology does not just toss out terms, concepts, and ideas that are devoid of cognitive and definitional content. In both pastoral and academic contexts, such ideas are worse than useless, since they cause confusion as well as fail to answer or illuminate questions of theology. It does no one any good to have terminology that is a shell or container that is empty of meaning. FV is compelled to offer this undefined term because of considerations explained under #3.
It is true that much Christian doctrine does contain mystery. But even in a doctrine like the Trinity, we find both a meaningful and coherent definition of what the Trinity is: three co-eternal persons who share one divine essence. There is much mystery involved in this, as we ask how this can be so and contemplate all of the ramifications and questions that come from this truth. So it cannot be comprehended. But we know that this is true, so the fact that three persons share one divine essence can be apprehended. Therefore, the reality of mystery in Christian doctrine cannot be used to defend FV’s error at this point.
2. Insofar as FV indexes the meaning of “covenantal justification” to the traditional Reformed doctrinal category of “justification”, it is incoherent. As Bob Mattes pointed out, such a reality is “digital” or binary – either it is present, or it is not. No gray area. Either Christ has satisfied the legal claims of God’s law on the sinner, and the sinner is reconciled to God and declared judicially righteous or He has not. The perfect demands of God’s law proceed directly from God’s nature as perfectly just. So there is only one, undivided courtroom in which the sinner’s legal, judicial status is decided, and the sinner can be either judged guilty or acquitted unto reconciliation with God and eternal life. There is no room for a half-way, temporary, or quasi-justification or forgiveness.
Justification takes place once for all. It is not repeated, neither is it a process; it is complete and for all time. There is no more or less in justification; man is either fully justified, or he is not justified at all. (Berkhof, ST, pg. 513)
Neither can this justification be of a corporate nature. This does not mean that there are not groups of justified sinners who can be rightly labeled a “justified body.” It means that God judges the judicial status of individuals, and appropriates either eternal life and reconciliation or else punitive damnation to individuals accordingly. Either according to the works that the individual has done, or according to the works of their Substitute.
Further, the doctrine of limited atonement tells us that only the elect, and not NECMs, have been atoned for by Christ’s work. So how can the non-elect have a justification that has not been effected by Christ’s subsitutionary atonement? Should we not ask, along with Paul in Romans 3:21-26, how God can be just and yet be the one who justifies sinners.
3. FV is forced to postulate the existence of a “covenantal justification” because FV theology posits the existence of a parallel ordo salutis, where benefits accrue to NECMs that are similar or analogous to various counterpart ordo salutis benefits that belong exclusively to ECMs. But there is neither a logical nor exegetical reason to believe in the existence of this parallel ordo.
The reprobate may be in covenant with God. They may enjoy for a season the blessings of the covenant, including the forgiveness of sins, adoption, possession of the kingdom, sanctification, etc., and yet apostatize and fall short of the grace of God.” (Wilkins, The Federal Vision, p. 62)
FV proponents such as Wilkins teach that this parallel ordo must exist because these benefits are said to be true of the audience of Paul’s epistles. Therefore, they conclude, such benefits (such as those listed in Romans 8, Ephesians 1, and I Corinthians) must be true of the whole visible church, whether elect or not. But this completely (and unjustly) dismisses the standard Reformed interpretation of Paul’s epistles, that Paul speaks to his audience with a presumption of charity, where he assumes that his audience is regenerate and elect. FV’s hermeneutic demands of Paul the sort of precision that we do not even normally demand in modern speech. Depending on the forum and medium, we often speak in the second person plural to potentially-mixed audiences in a generalizing way, making implicit assumptions and have unspoken and non-explicit qualifications.
It also ought to embarrass FV proponents that verses such as Romans 8 guarantee the perseverance of these “elect” who have justification and that the “elect” of Ephesians 1 have the seal of the Holy Spirit and are thus predestined for eternal salvation. We often have to walk our Arminian friends through the “Golden Chain of Redemption” in Romans 8, showing them the unbreakability of the ordo salutis. Why are we having to explain that to Federal Vision proponents as well?
4. There is no lexical or semantic basis for establishing the idea of a “covenantal justification.” Yes, it is true that the dikaio word group has a broader semantic range in the NT than is used in our definition of justification as a category of Reformed systematic theology. It can sometimes be used, as in James 2, to mean something like “to publicly vindicate”, rather than “to be declared righteous” in the divine law-court, as Paul uses it in soteriological contexts. But neither of these meanings establishes a separate sort of “justification” that is “covenantal” rather than decretal.
If FV wants to say that “covenantal justification” means that NECMs are “declared righteous” in some sense, then in what judicial sphere or law-court and according to what principle of law is this declaration made? If the answer is anything other than the divine law-court, according to the demand of perfect obedience required by the law issued in the Covenant of Works, then this “justification” cannot result in reconciliation to God, and adoption as a son and heir to eternal life. I then refer the reader once again back to Bob Mattes’ latest post.
5. More broadly, there is no exegetical basis for establishing the idea of “covenantal justification.” Even going beyond the “microscopic” level of lexical considerations, the NT never uses the term “to justify” or “justification” to refer to or define an alternate reality other than the so-called “decretal” sense that applies to the elect alone (when speaking of justification before God in soteriological contexts). Nor does it ever apply these terms to refer to all members without exception, including non-elect, within the covenant.
6. Positively, Romans 1-3 tells us what the status of non-elect covenant members is. They are not justified. Paul says that Israel, God’s covenant people, is in the same exact boat as Gentile sinners. These NECMs are “lawbreakers” who are not any better than non-elect non-covenant members (v. 9), and “alike are under sin.” Paul says that both groups are “not righteous”:
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave, they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.
Paul’s conclusion? There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
On account of all of these considerations taken together, we can cast a just conclusion. And let us be frank: FV’s “covenantal justification” is a big pile of sophistry. Transparently so. It exists, not as a serious, well-defined category grounded on systematic or exegetical concerns. It is an idea cobbled together to prop up FV’s inflated notion of quasi-salvific benefits that supposedly accrue to non-elect covenant members. It is a silly idea in service of bad theology and is thoroughly worthy of ridicule.