A Brotherly Dialogue on Covenant Theology

David Garst

My friend David Garst and his son Calvin

Here’s my dialogue with Mr. David Garst, an advocate of Federal Vision and member of Covenant Christian Church. Mr. Garst and I decided to make our conversation public, hoping that readers will learn something from our exchange of thoughts on some issues pertaining to covenant theology. This post is by no means meant to be read as a comprehensive debate, but as a demonstration that disagreements can be exercised in the spirit of brotherly love.  


Mr. David Garst: I appreciate Dr. David Murray’s emphasis on the fact that the worst state to be in is to be a baptized pagan or unbeliever (see Dr. Murray’s article “A Plea to Baptized Unbelievers”). But I don’t think the problem is with “those who are baptized as children but never went on to believe for themselves.” I believe God does pass on the gift of faith to baptized children through covenant succession. I have yet to meet a child at church who thinks like an atheist. Therefore rather than “Calling our baptized children to faith,” we ought to encourage them to persevere in their faith. God gives faith to those are baptized but we must be nurtured and grow in our gift of faith always guarding against the weeds of unbelief which threaten to creep in and take over.


Pastor Brian G. Najapfour: May I know the scriptural basis for your belief that “God does pass on the gift of faith to baptized children through covenant succession.” Also, when you say “the gift of faith,” are you talking about saving faith?


Mr. David Garst: I think the primary biblical basis is found in Acts 16:31 where Paul declares to the pagan jailer “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Paul’s gospel promise to the jailer is singular. And yet the promise attached is: “you will be saved, and so will your household.” Compare with Peter’s message to the Jews: “the promise is to you and to your children,” in Acts 2:39. These dynamics of the covenant are reflected in the story of Noah. If Noah would believe God’s word, his household would be saved. The saving faith of infants is clearly pointed out in the accounts of David, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist. In Psalm 22:9-10 David asserts that he had faith as an infant: “You made me trust while on my mother’s breast.” The part that is complicated is the fact that there are baptized believing Christians who fall away. I agree there is a difference between an elect believing Christian and a non-elect believing Christian. The difference is that one’s faith endures and the latter withers. What the elect and non-elect Christian have in common is that they were both at one time “saved” in the sense that they are both truly connected to the body of Christ (Heb. 6:4-6; John 15:6; Rom. 11:16-17, 20).


Pastor Brian G. Najapfour: In regard to your claim that “God does pass on the gift of faith to baptized children through covenant succession,” I don’t think the Scriptures teach such a doctrine. When Paul and Silas say to the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household,” they are not suggesting that if the jailer believes, his household will automatically be saved. His household will be saved, only if they believe. This truth is consistent with the rest of Scripture (John 3:36; 11:25-26; 20:31; Rom. 10:9-10).

Our children’s salvation does not depend on our faith. Our children themselves must personally believe in the Lord Jesus Christ in order for them to be saved. To presume that they are automatically saved on the basis of our faith or because they are covenant children is dangerous. That’s why we also lovingly call our children to self-examination to see whether they truly believe or not (2 Cor. 13:5). Even the demons believe but we know they are not saved, for their faith is not saving (James 2:19).

Regarding Noah, his household was saved from the flood of God’s judgement against sin, not because of Noah’s faith but because of their faith in God. Remember God’s command to Noah in Genesis 6:18, “But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” Note: Noah’s family must also come into the ark. If Noah’s family would not come, they would not be saved from God’s wrath. Noah must enter the ark and so must his family. Noah cannot come on their behalf. They themselves must come. In the context of salvation, parents do not come to Christ on their children’s behalf. Their children themselves must come to Jesus by faith, or else they will not be saved (Matt. 11:28). Salvation is personal. It does not depend on somebody else’s faith.

Now, if it is true that God passes on saving faith to baptized children through covenant succession, how come that not all who descended from Abraham were saved? For instance, if Ishmael received saving faith from God through covenant succession, why was he not saved? If you say that Ishmael was at one point saved, then you must also embrace the unbiblical teaching that a saved person can lose his/her salvation.


Mr. David Garst: My brief answer would be that if we interpret the story of the jailer as “Maybe the household will be saved” then we would have to add the words “if they believe,” after “you and your household.” I agree that baptized infants can grow into adults who leave the church but the same thing also happens to people who become Christians and are baptized when they are adults. If we assume that a new church member who is baptized as an adult to be a true Christian until he shows otherwise then why wouldn’t we assume the same of the baby?


Pastor Brian G. Najapfour: Acts 16:31 does not teach that the jailer’s household would be saved automatically by his faith in Jesus Christ. What it teaches is that the promise of the gospel is also given to his household. And the promise of the gospel is that God will save those who believe in His Son Jesus Christ. Therefore, if the jailer’s household believed, they should also be saved. God does not promise to save those who don’t believe in His Son.

With regard to your last comment, we do not consider a new church member to be a Christian on the basis of his/her baptism but on the basis of his/her faith in Jesus (Acts 11:26). For instance, I call you my brother in the Lord not because you were baptized but because you believed in Christ. Baptism does not make one a Christian. Brother, again thank you so much for engaging with me in this very important subject. God bless you.


Mr. David Garst: Thank you also pastor for your graciousness. God bless you, too.


Baptism Covenant Theology Federal Vision

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.

Baptism Covenant Theology Federal Vision