Article 4 – Covenant and Election

(Series – The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology)

Does the idea of ‘covenant’ relate to the idea of ‘election’?

This article is a study of the way in which covenant and election are related. It relates to the FV doctrine of covenantal objectivity, and the FV doctrine of the undifferentiated nature of covenantal membership.

Norman Shepherd has played a significant role in shaping the way in which certain FV proponents have articulated their understanding of election and covenant. He was professor of systematic theology from 1961 to 1982 at Westminster Theological Seminary (USA) and was the focus of a storm of controversy at the seminary and in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Let us discuss the teaching of Shepherd in some areas.

1. Covenant and Election – He argues that the Reformed Tradition tends to read covenant through the eyes of election. But Election, according to him, must be read through the eyes of covenant. He thinks that to approach the decree independently of, or prior to, the covenant is to deny the incomprehensibility of God, and man’s finitude as a creature. Shepherd says evangelism ‘does not address men in the first place as a mixed multitude of elect and reprobate with a view to separating the former from the later’. Men are to be divided along the terms of covenantal terminology and not decretal terminology (e.g. Evangelism addresses men as covenant breakers in rebellion against God). With this, which covenant does Shepherd have in mind we wonder?

2. The nature of covenantal election – Shepherd claims that scripture speaks of election and reprobation principally in corporate and covenantal and not individual and decretal terms. Shepherd says “men do not need to have insight into the eternal decree of God in order to be able to use the words ‘elect’ and ‘reprobate’ of particular persons”. He offers examples from Ephesians 1:3-14, John 15:1-8, and also the language of these terms as applied to nations in the Old Testament.

3. The Church: Visible and Invisible? – Shepherd undermines the traditional distinction between the Church visible and invisible (WCF 25). Guy Waters asserts that If we are to understand election and reprobation in the sense that Shepherd has maintained, it becomes impossible to sustain with any consistency the distinction between the church visible and invisible.

4. Baptism – Shepherd argues that baptism, the objective sign of the covenant, must be given a higher premium than Reformed theologians have hitherto assigned to it. This will lead into what FV proponents hold as a position of baptismal regeneration. Shepherd has been quoted as saying ‘baptism marks the transition from death to life’. His perspective, is that from the angle of the covenant, baptism then, will ‘mark the point of conversion’.


Shepherd bequeaths some important planks that are picked up in one form or another by various proponents of FV.

  1. Election needs to be understood from the perspective of covenant, not vice versa.
  2. Election and reprobation should be understood in fundamentally corporate, not individual terms.
  3. There is an undermining of the distinction between the church visible and invisible and an understanding of church membership derived from the above considerations of covenant.
  4. There is a concerned emphasis on baptism (rather than regeneration and its marks) as the subjective counterpart of Shepherd’s doctrine of the covenant and church membership. 

These views unfortunately have influenced a number of professing evangelicals in recent times.

– Jesse Huckel

In this series of articles, I will be seeking to raise awareness of a form of covenant theology that is called Federal Vision, as opposed to the covenant theology as expressed in the scriptures and codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith. For the most part, I aim to summarise chapters of the helpful book by Guy Prentiss Waters (The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: a comparative analysis, P&R Publishing Company, 2006).