Article 5 – Covenant and Assurance, Perseverance, and Apostasy

(Series – The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology)

Having begun (in article 1) with the question ‘what is a covenant?’, we have (in article 4) pursued the relationship between covenant and election. We have observed that the common FV presupposition that ‘election is to be understood through the lens of covenant’ has profound implications for the way in which we understand traditional distinctions in Reformed theology.

Here are some questions:

How does this doctrine of the church affect the doctrine of assurance?

And how does it impact the doctrine of perseverance? Or shape a doctrine of apostasy?

The WCF – in Larger Catechism Q.80 – there is a distinction between saving faith, and faith that falls short of saving faith. Second, there is a threefold foundation of assurance. Third, such assurance is ‘infallible’ and enables believers to know they shall persevere. Fourth, this assurance is not of the essence of faith, and believers may waiver in the possession strength and degree of their assurance.

One FV proponent charges the church in general with ‘the failure of covenant consciousness’. Steve Schlissel ties his doctrine of assurance to a doctrine of undifferentiated covenant membership. One thing Guy Waters highlights is that there is a difference between a promise extended to a mixed assembly and the claim that such a promise must be received by all persons in that assembly in precisely the same way. Schlissel doesn’t appear however to entertain this distinction.

Waters notes that we have plenty of examples in the old covenant (e.g. many in the wilderness generation) and in the new covenant (e.g. Judas and Demas) of covenant members who have proven to be no true Christians at all. In other words, there is nothing in either covenant membership or baptism that can provide ‘infallible assurance’ that one is in an estate of grace and salvation.

John Barach’s argument seems to be that any subjective dimension to assurance robs the believer of his ability to grow in grace. We anticipate then a pointed reorientation of the doctrine. How does he do this?

We may outline Barach’s view of assurance as follows: every member of the covenant of grace is united with Christ. Why? Because the covenant is objective and covenant members have been ‘baptised into Christ’.  

We might raise an objection that Barach ‘fields’ in his lectures. Does not 2 Peter 1:10 counter Barach’s doctrine?Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. The apostle Peter points to the believer’s inward graces – wrought by the Holy Spirit – as that which works to make one certain about his calling and choosing. Wouldn’t this militate against Barach’s exclusively ‘objective’ tokens of assurance?

Another question: how do we account for those individuals who have received baptism and yet prove to be no true believers all? (the question of perseverance and apostasy)

Doug Wilson’s distinctive ecclesiology and his understanding of curses in the new covenant shape the way he treats the doctrine of apostasy. He stresses that apostasy is something that must be taken seriously and realistically. Wilson’s comments suggest he conceives the apostate to have been in a more-than-outward relationship with Christ (John 15:6, ‘anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers’). Quoting this verse, Wilson argues that ‘the one cast out as a branch was a branch, and not some bit of tumbleweed caught in the branches’. So according to him, there is such a thing as genuine covenantal connection to Christ which is not salvific at the last day. Wilson says this branch was fruitless and therefore cut away.

They are saying then that the apostate (who is reprobate) was elect by covenant, and that the one who perseveres was elect by decree. When we ask what differentiates the apostate from the one who is truly elect, the only answer appears to be that the later perseveres while the former does not. This of course, offers the believer no possibility for assurance at any given moment.

Waters says that it is baseless to say that Jesus’ analogy in John 15:1-6 teaches that broken branches partook of the sap of the vine. Jesus does not use the term ‘sap’ in this parable. That metaphor is an inference that Wilson has drawn. Waters says, there is no hint in this parable that the broken branches ever existed in any vital, living relationship with Christ. Far less clear is it that the broken branches sustained the same relationship to Christ as those who prove to be truly elect. Conventional Reformed readings of this passage according to Waters, see branches that are outwardly and inwardly united to Christ.

– Jesse Huckel

Recommended reading: Guy Prentiss Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: a comparative analysis, P&R Publishing Company, 2006.