A Brief Critique of Federal Vision

In 2004 proponents of Federal Vision published a book, simply entitled, The Federal Vision.[1] This volume, a collection of essays written by eight different authors,[2] expounds the lectures delivered in January 2002 during the pastors’ conference hosted by Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Louisiana. The conference speakers—John Barach, Steve Schlissel, Steve Wilkins, and Douglas Wilson (defenders of Federal Vision and contributors to the book)—addressed the topic “The Federal Vision: An Examination of Reformed Covenantalism.”[3] The teachings that resulted in this conference came to be known as Federal Vision theology or Auburn Avenue theology.[4] Unfortunately, these speakers, along with other supporters of Federal Vision, have formulated covenantal views that have serious problems on two particular doctrines: salvation and the sacrament of baptism. These problems are evident in Steve Wilkins’s essay “Covenant, Baptism and Salvation.”[5] What follows is a brief critique of this essay.

The term federal in Federal Vision comes from the Latin word foedus which means covenant. Thus, Federal Vision (as its name signifies) is a theological system or movement whose vision is to redefine the traditional Reformed understanding of covenant theology. Indeed, at the heart of this movement is the concept of covenant. As Wilkins, an avid advocate of the movement, says, “The foundation of all of God’s dealings with man is covenant. It is the basis of all that God has done, is doing, and will do in time and on earth. Nothing can be understood rightly apart from an understanding of covenant.”[6] Wilkins defines covenant as “a real relationship, consisting of real communion with the Triune God through union with Christ”[7] And, according to Wilkins, it is “baptism [that] unites us to Christ and His body by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). Baptism is an act of God (through His ministers) which signifies and seals our initiation into the Triune communion… At baptism we are clothed with Christ, united to Him and to His Church which is His body (Gal. 3:26-28).”[8]

Let us carefully look at Wilkins’s view of baptism in relation to the covenant. Notice again what Wilkins has said, “baptism unites us to Christ.” And Wilkins adds elsewhere: “covenant is union with Christ. Thus, being in covenant gives all the blessings of being united to Christ. There is no salvation apart from covenant simply because there is no salvation apart from union with Christ, and without union with Christ there is no covenant at all.”[9] Wilkins’s statement implies that baptism is a means of saving grace, a doctrine that the Bible clearly condemns (Rom. 3:28). His assertion, therefore, means that children who have been baptized are in union with Christ. And, to be in union with Christ is to be in covenant with God. “[T]hose who are in covenant,” writes Wilkins, “have all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places”—which obviously includes salvation.[10] In short, for Wilkins, baptized children are not only in union with Christ and in covenant with God, but they also possess one of the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places, namely, salvation. Let me make some critical observations here:

First, Wilkins, no doubt, teaches baptismal regeneration, an erroneous and dangerous doctrine. He says, “To be saved by grace then requires that we be united to Christ (Eph. 2:5-6).”[11] Earlier Wilkins has stated that it is baptism that unites us to Christ. Now, if salvation requires union with Christ, and if baptism unites us to Christ, it follows that salvation is by baptism. Here is another example: Wilkins asserts, “If [someone] has been baptized, he is in covenant with God.”[12] And what does it mean to be in covenant with God? For Wilkins, it means to be in union with Christ. And to be united to Christ means to be saved. So, for Wilkins, to be baptized is equal to being saved. The Bible teaches otherwise: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).

Second, Wilkins makes baptism a ground for the assurance of salvation. He suggests that baptized children are in covenant with God which means that they are saved. Listen to him again, “The apostles did not view the covenant as a place of potential blessing or a place of fantastic opportunity—they viewed it as salvation, because it meant fellowship and communion with the Triune God.”[13] Yet, ironically, Wilkins notes that if these baptized children “fall away in unbelief, they lose these blessings [one of which is of course salvation] and receive a greater condemnation than Sodom and Gomorrah. Covenant can be broken by unbelief and rebellion, but until it is, those in covenant with God belong to Him and are His. If they do not persevere, they lose the blessings that were given to them.”[14] Here is then my third observation: Wilkins teaches that salvation depends on us; it depends on our faithfulness to God. Note what Wilkins states, “To be in covenant is to have the treasures of God’s mercy and grace and the love which He has for His own Son given to you. But the covenant is not unconditional. It requires persevering faithfulness.”[15] Observe what covenant requires (or salvation requires): persevering faithfulness. Wilkins’ statement reveals that salvation relies upon our faithfulness; it relies upon our work of righteousness, rather than upon Christ’s righteousness. The Apostle Paul, writing to Titus, declares, “[God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy” (3:5).

My fourth observation is connected to the third point. Wilkins teaches that salvation can be lost. If the covenant people (those who have been baptized and are united to Christ) fail to persevere, they lose the salvation that has been given to them. However, Wilkins is quick to explain that if these covenant people do not persevere and thus lose their salvation, that is because God has not ordained them to salvation from eternity past.[16] On the other hand, Jesus teaches that those whom He has saved will never perish: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John. 10:27-29).

Finally, since Wilkins presumes that all those children who have been baptized are saved, he minimizes the importance of preaching the gospel—a gospel that all the children of the covenant need to hear. Parents have the responsibility to share this gospel with their children. This is the gospel of which Paul is not ashamed, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

I therefore conclude that Federal Vision theology is a departure from the Bible. For this reason, this theology must be rejected. I firmly believe that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in the Lord Jesus Christ alone (Eph. 2:8-9).



[1] Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, eds., The Federal Vision (Monroe, La.: Athanasius Press, 2004).

[2] John Barach, Steve Wilkins, Rich Lusk, Mark Horne, James B. Jordan, Peter J. Leithart, Steve Schlissel, and Douglas Wilson. For brief bios of these men, see Guy Prentiss Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2006), 8-10.

[3] The lectures are available for purchase online: http://www.cmfnow.com/thefederalvisionanexaminationofreformedcovenantalism–1of12.aspx

[4] See Brian M. Schwertley, Auburn Avenue Theology: A Biblical Analysis (Saunderstown, R.I., American Presbyterian Press/Iola, Wis.: Covenant Reformation Press, 2005); and E. Calvin Beisner, ed., The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004).

[5] Steve Wilkins, “Covenant, Baptism and Salvation,” in The Federal Vision, 47-69.

[6] Wilkins, 47.

[7] Wilkins, 58 (emphasis removed)

[8] Wilkins, 55.

[9] Wilkins, 58.

[10] Wilkins, 58.

[11] Wilkins, 56

[12] Wilkins, 67.

[13] Wilkins, 60.

[14]Wilkins, 60-61.

[15] Wilkins, 64.

[16] Wilkins, 61.



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