Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

18 Dec 2023

Analysis and Critique of the Federal Vision Teaching of Justification (Part 3)

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Read Part 1 in this series here. Read Part 2 here.

Teaching Directly Related to Justification

While FV is not centered around soteriology, its proponents still address issues directly related to justification in their writings. Four specific issues directly related to justification occur within their teaching: the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the role of works, final justification, and apostasy. This post will examine the first two of these four issues.

Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness in Federal Vision

FV writers claim to affirm imputation, or even double imputation. However, they do not affirm the traditional understanding of the imputation of the believer’s sin to Christ and of Christ’s righteousness, both his active and passive obedience, to the believer.

That there is a double imputation of our sins to Jesus and His glory to us is certainly beyond question, and I am not disagreeing with the general doctrine of imputation, or of double imputation. But merit theology often assumes that Jesus’ earthly works and merits are somehow given to us, and there is no foundation for this notion. It is, in fact, hard to comprehend what is meant by it. What does it have to do with my life that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and this good deed is given to me? The miracles that Jesus did were not required of me to satisfy God’s justice…It is not Jesus’ earthly life and “works and merits” that are transferred to us, but His glorified and resurrected life in the Spirit that is transferred to us. There seems to be nothing in the Bible to imply that we receive Jesus’ earthly life and then also His death. His earthly life was “for us” in the sense that it was the precondition for His death, but it is not given “to us.” What we receive is not His earthly life and His death, but His death and His glorified life. What we receive is not Jesus’ merits, but His maturity, His glorification.[1]

A Christian does not need Christ’s active obedience, they argue, because God never required perfect obedience.[2] Christ’s active obedience is still important because it made Him fit to be our sacrifice, but it is not required of Christians.[3] Further, union with Christ makes the imputation of Christ’s righteousness redundant. [4] Lusk provides an analogy to explain his teaching. Suppose there is a woman who is in incredible debt and has no ability to pay her debt. She meets an extremely wealthy man who marries her and cancels her debt. He does not then create a separate bank account and place his money in it. Rather, he creates a joint account where they both share his wealth. In similar fashion, Christ’s works are not imputed to the believer, but he is united with Christ whereby His status as justified, given at the resurrection, is shared by the believer.[5] Christ’s resurrection, not His active obedience, is the real ground of the believer’s justification.[6]

Critique of Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness in Federal Vision

Since FV denies the covenant of works and the concept of merit, it is not surprising that it also denies the imputation of the active obedience of Christ to the believer in justification. Is there biblical evidence for this doctrine? One of the crucial passages on this issue is Romans 4:2–8. Paul here quotes Genesis 15:6 to argue that Abraham’s faith was imputed, or credited, to him as righteousness. To understand what Paul meant, it is important to understand the common Jewish teaching concerning Genesis 15:6. The Jews did not use this verse to show that Abraham was justified by faith and not works. Instead, they read it in light of Genesis 22 to argue that Abraham received merit on account of his faithfulness/work.[7] Paul was using this very passage to argue the opposite: that Abraham, through his faith apart from works, did not merit anything but received something he did not deserve. Thus, Genesis 15:6 does not teach that Abraham’s faith is something that earned righteousness.[8] But Paul does not conclude there. Rather, he argues that not only is Abraham’s faith not a meritorious act—it is not even a righteous standing or covenant faithfulness. Paul shows in verse 5 that Abraham was credited with this righteousness as an ungodly person.[9] It is clear that God reckons a righteousness to the believer that is outside of the believer’s person.[10] Paul then further illustrates his point by looking at David’s statement in Psalm 32:1–2. It is interesting to note the parallel between verses 5 and 6. “[God] justifies the ungodly”[11] is parallel to “God counts righteousness apart from works.” Thus, “justifies” is the same thing as “counts righteousness” in this passage, and it is clear that it is not an intrinsic righteousness but an alien righteousness since it is given to the ungodly, apart from works.[12] In verse 11, it is revealed that Abraham’s justification has nothing to do with his faithfulness to the covenant either since he was not yet even circumcised.[13]

The question of the necessity of Christ’s active obedience centers on the requirement of perfect obedience. Again, there is a biblical basis for this teaching. The very character of God, especially his justice, demands a perfect obedience.[14] The need for perfect obedience in the Garden of Eden cannot be easily dismissed when just one sin brought the fall of all mankind. Perfect obedience was required in the Mosaic Law as well. Although sacrifices were provided to deal with sin, neither punishment nor atonement removed the requirement of perfect obedience.[15] James 2:10 shows that failure in one point of the Law brings the Law’s curse upon disobedience. Besides all of that, holiness is not simply keeping requirements in the Law, and sin is not merely a transgression of rules. Sin, at its core, is a failure to treat God as God. It is a failure to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind.[16] When one overlooks the horrific nature of sin, he may be tempted to think that perfection is not required. When one understands what sin is and who God is, he realizes nothing less than perfection will ever suffice. That is why justification by works can never happen.

Since God requires perfect obedience and man has been unable to perform it, Christ provided the perfect obedience man needed. Several passages speak of Christ’s work in terms of obedience (e.g., Rom 5:12–19; Phil 2:6–8).[17] In fact, Hebrews 5:8 makes the distinction FV says is impossible: that Christ’s relationship as a son does not preclude his ability to earn merit.[18] Christ’s obedience met God’s requirement.

It is clear that imputation is connected to union with Christ, but union with Christ is a bigger concept than imputation.[19] Union with Christ does not make the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer redundant any more than it makes the imputation of the believer’s sin to Christ redundant.[20] Just as union with Christ means that the believer shares in Christ’s obedient death, so union with Christ means the believer shares in Christ’s obedient life. In reality, the teaching on union with Christ indicates that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is a vital part of justification[21] and is a doctrine worth defending.

The doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness should be upheld because of its biblical affirmations. It should be treasured by believers because of the assurance it gives of an entrance into God’s glory that is held upon by the joined demands of the mercy and the justice of God. But there is another consideration, for which this great doctrine must be demanded with great zeal and defended at great cost, namely, the honor and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.[22]

Role of Works in Federal Vision

Because of their zeal to avoid the teaching that individuals can be saved without ever seeking to obey Christ, FV proponents may overemphasize the role of works for a Christian. However, at least some of those associated with FV seem to believe that works play a part in the believer’s justification. Norman Shepherd[23] teaches that faith and good works are requirements for justification and salvation.[24] In fact, faith is good works.[25] To tell a person to obey or follow Christ is the same as telling him to believe.[26] Obedience is an obligation in the New Covenant,[27] and an active faith is how a believer enters eternal life.[28] However, though this active faith is a condition, it is not meritorious.[29]

Steve Schlissel has provided similar teaching. He too states that obedience and faith are the same thing.[30] Faithfulness is a condition that must be met for believers to receive the blessings of union with Christ.[31] He has adopted the New Perspective’s view of Paul on justification, stating that Paul was not dealing with faith vs. works but with the inclusion of the Gentiles in the covenant.[32] Indeed, Romans 2:13 is not a hypothetical statement that justification is possible through perfectly keeping the law (though no one keeps it) but a statement that those who are faithful are justified. The Law can be obeyed, and responding to the Law in faith brings justification.[33] Although obedience and works may be conditions, they are not meritorious and will provide no measure of boasting on the last day.[34] Though not all in the movement have voiced the same teaching, they have done little to contradict it or distance themselves from it.[35]

Critique of Role of Works in Federal Vision

This teaching on the role of works is one of the main reasons that opponents have accused FV of works salvation. The problem stems, in part, from a refusal to distinguish between a consequence and a condition of salvation.[36]  To avoid the idea that faith is not alone, they want to attach works to it at all points in time. However, in justification, it is vital to separate faith from works.[37] It is difficult to see how works can be tied to faith prior to justification when Paul argues so strongly in Romans 4:3-6 that justification is apart from works.[38] Shepherd quotes Murray as supporting the idea that works are always tied to faith,[39] yet Murray actually states “Faith alone justifies, but a justified person with faith alone would be a monstrosity which never exists in the kingdom of grace.”[40] Murray places works after justification, not prior to it. Although justifying faith will always produce works, it is at its heart a resting upon Christ. It “is, at some rudimentary gut level in a person, always an affirmation that it is Christ alone which saves him—even if he cannot well articulate it.”[41]

Read Part 4 in this series here.

[1] James B. Jordan, “Merit versus Maturity” in The Federal Vision, ed. Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2004), 194–5 (emphasis original).

[2] Rich Lusk, “Future Justification to the Doers of the Law” (2003), par. 2 [on-line], accessed 12 December 2007, available from, Internet.

[3] Rich Lusk, “A Response to ‘The Biblical Plan of Salvation,’” in The Auburn Avenue Theology Pros and Cons, ed. E. Calvin Beisner (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), 140.

[4] Ibid, 142.

[5] Ibid, 142.

[6] Ibid, 140–1.

[7] D. A. Carson, “The Vindication of Imputation,” in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates, ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varity Press, 2004), 56.

[8] Ibid, 59-60.

[9] Ibid, 60.

[10] Ibid, 61.

[11] All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the 2001 edition of the ESV.

[12] Carson, “The Vindication of Imputation,” p. 61.

[13] Ibid, 63.

[14] David VanDrunen, “To Obey is Better than Sacrifice,” in By Faith Alone, ed. Gary L. W. Johnson and Guy P. Waters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 134.

[15] R. Scott Clark, “Do This and Live” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, ed. R. Scott Clark (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2007), 252.

[16] Carson, “The Vindication of Imputation,” pp. 71–72.

[17] Phil 2:6–11 also supports the idea that Christ earned merit with God. Verse 9 points to Christ’s obedience as the basis of his exaltation. Pointing to the use of χαρίζομαι as an argument against merit commits the error FV tries so hard to avoid elsewhere—forcing a theological concept onto a particular word rather than speaking as the Bible speaks.

[18] R. Scott Clark, “Do This and Live,” 261.

[19] Carson, “The Vindication of Imputation,” pp. 72-73.

[20] Consider again the analogy of the wealthy husband and indebted wife. Unless there is a prenuptial agreement, the husband’s money is counted as his wife’s money upon their union. It may not be a transfer, but it is still an imputation or reckoning. The money is counted as hers because of their union, although it also remains in the possession of the husband. Christ’s righteousness does not have to cease to be his in order for it to be imputed to the believer. Though this is accomplished through union with Christ, imputation can and must still be considered separately, just as reconciliation and regeneration are considered separately from union with Christ. The ramification of denying the imputation of Christ’s righteousness can be seen in the teachings of final justification.

[21] Phil 3:8–9 shows the need for alien righteousness in justification that is only found in Christ.

[22] Richard D. Phillips, “Justification of Christ’s Imputed Righteousness,” in By Faith Alone, ed. Gary L. W. Johnson and Guy P. Waters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 97.

[23] Although Norman Shepherd may not be considered by some to be a part of FV, he is included in this discussion because his teaching appears to be the forerunner to FV and he is often cited approvingly by FV.

[24] Norman Shepherd, “The Relationship of Good Works to Justification in the Westminster Standards” (paper presented to the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary for discussion on October 1 and 2, 1976), 22, 26.

[25] Ibid, pp. 17-18.

[26] Ibid, p. 51.

[27] Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2000), 47.

[28] Ibid, 50.

[29] Ibid, 63.

[30] Steve M. Schlissel, “A New Way of Seeing?” in The Auburn Avenue Theology Pros and Cons, ed. E. Calvin Beisner (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), 26.

[31] Steve M. Schlissel, “A Response to ‘Covenant Salvation’” in The Auburn Avenue Theology Pros and Cons, ed. E. Calvin Beisner (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), 89.

[32] Idem, “Justification and the Gentiles,” 257–8.

[33] Ibid, 260.

[34] Schlissel, “A Response to ‘Covenant Salvation,’” p. 90.

[35] The teaching of Rich Lusk concerning the role of works in justification will be considered under Final Justification.

[36] Phillips, “Covenant and Salvation,” 85. Perhaps more importantly, it fails to distinguish between faith as an instrument of salvation and faith as a cause of salvation.

[37] O. Palmer Robertson with W. Stanford Reid, “Justification at Westminster Theological Seminary: The History of a Modern Controversy,” (1981): 6.

[38] To state that Paul is talking about meritorious works and not covenant faithfulness is unconvincing. If that were the case, in Romans 4:5 Paul must be saying “And to the one who does not work [in a meritorious way] but trusts [and covenantally obeys] him who justifies the ungodly, his faith [and non-meritorious obedience] is counted as righteousness.”

[39] Norman Shepherd, “The Grace of Justification” (paper presented to Westminster Theological Faculty, 8 February 1979), 3–4.

[40] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 131 (emphasis added).

[41] Christopher A. Hutchinson, “A Response to ‘A New Way of Seeing?’” in The Auburn Avenue Theology Pros and Cons, ed. E. Calvin Beisner (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), 48.