Federal Vision, Baptismal Efficacy, and what HE said

Peter Leithart’s views on baptismal efficacy do not accord with the Westminster Standards.  There.  I said it.  I do pray that we in the PCA find our confessional back bone to say so, as well.  We will have the opportunity to say so this summer in Greenville – or to be guilty of confessional double-speak.

Having said so, though, I also say that there are others in the PCA whose views on baptism’s inefficacy do not accord with Westminster, either.  Baptism is not a wet baby dedication.  According to Scripture and our standards derived therefrom, baptism is a means of grace, efficacious for the elect, as applied in the sovereign Spirit’s appointed time, the benefits of which must be received by faith.  I have blogged about the pastoral implications of this here.

And William Evans has said it better than I have here.

Published by pastor tony phelps

Pastor of Christ Our Hope PCA in Wakefield, RI

5 replies on “Federal Vision, Baptismal Efficacy, and what HE said”

  1. The question of Federal Vision and how it relates to the Reformed confessions is becoming a very interesting one to me. Thank you for posting. Do you think the FV is heretical or just not in line with the WCF?


  2. Hey Andrew — I’m in the “not in line” camp — but it’s a fairly serious and undermining “not in line”. Here is what I said on the First Things blog:
    * * *
    the use of the term “heresy” in this instance is imprecise and unkind. It is not an inquisition. Putting him out of the PCA is not shorthand for putting him outside the boundary of the visible church and thus consigning him to hell unless he goes to confession.

    The editors of Bavinck’s work “Reformed Dogmatics” suggest that “we must be careful” with the term “heresy”. While it “breaks the unity of the church”, they say that “in practice, there is for [Protestants] an inevitable elasticity thanks to the church’s de facto pluriformity. We are obligated to first of all bind ourselves in spiritual bonds of unity rather than external, institutional ones”. In this, the PCA certainly differs from Rome – we do not seek to find unity in “a specific, hierarchically ordered institution” (Vol 4, pg 275).

    What this means is that Protestants are not in the business of anathematizing people into perdition. It is enough to say that Leithart does not teach what the PCA teaches; but there are great differences among Protestants that are not lethal but adiaphora [in God’s sight — I should have said something like “less serious” or “not fatal”].

    I have expanded upon this in various places. The fact is, from God’s perspective, there are and must be differences which God has permitted. They are ἀδιάφορα, or “indifferent things” to God. That is, God does not really care if we are paedobaptists or credobaptists, Arminians and Calvinsts. He would prefer that we not fight over them, and we should strive to understand these things correctly, but God does not, and we may not, anathematize someone for these types of differences.

    Thus, for the PCA to want to remove Leithart’s credentials as a PCA pastor is absolutely not the same thing as putting him on trial for heresy.


  3. Hi Andrew – I agree with John’s response above. This is not about anathematizing Leithart. FV is not necessarily outside the bounds of the Christian faith, rather, it cannot be reconciled at important points with the Westminster Standards. In my mind, this is more about the PCA’s confessional integrity and our willingness (or lack thereof) to hold our ministers to the doctrinal standards to which they’ve subscribed. I think there is a strong element in the PCA that wants to be broadly Reformed – which creates obvious tensions since the Westminster Standards are a robust confession of Reformed faith (unlike, for example, the 39 Articles which are broadly Reformed).

    Imagine a pastor in the LCMS claiming to be within the bounds of the Book of Concord – while redefining the “real presence” along Calvinistic / spiritual lines. In his own defense, he says he’s simply doing exegetical / biblical theology rather than “confessional” theology. Effectively, that’s what Leithart has done with his doctrine of baptism and the benefits it confers to all the baptized – ignoring / denying the clear qualifications found in the Westminster Standards (e.g., saving efficacy for the elect only, not necessarily at the time of administration, applied by the sovereign Spirit in God’s appointed time, received by faith, etc).

    Leithart and his defenders have used the red herring that he is doing “biblical and exegetical theology, not confessional / systematic.” Confessional Christians, who uphold sola scriptura, believe their respective confessions are derived from the faithful exposition of God’s Word – not some random confession out of thin air, off the top of our heads. The conclusions of so-called biblical versus confessional theology cannot be contradictory, if they are both based on the sound exposition of Scripture. As far as the PCA is concerned, either the Bible teaches Westminster’s version of baptismal efficacy, or Leithart’s. It cannot teach both – unless we want to jump with both feet into the murky pond of postmodern hermeneutics.


  4. One way that I teach the efficacy of the sacraments is to point out the etymology that a sacrament is a “holy” thing. When we come to the sacraments we are coming to “holy ground.” One of the constant themes of Scripture is that holy things are a double-edged sword, either a blessing or a curse, depending on how we treat them. And blessings and curses are real, not just symbolic. The Lord’s supper is a real blessing to those who partake in faith, and a curse to those who take it lightly, as Paul points out in 1 Cor 10. In the same way, baptism is bringing covenant children into the holiness of the church (1 Cor 7:14), as it was the entry of Jesus into his holy ministry (it could not be a symbol of repentance, since Jesus had nothing to repent of!) A covenant child who spurns that holiness falls under greater judgment than a child outside the covenant, just as the Jews who had the law were liable to greater judgment. In either case, the sacrament is efficacious, in bringing a real curse or blessing.


    1. Amen! The covenantal blessing / curse motif of the sacraments is biblical and important to teach. First and foremost, though, the sacraments are Gospel-things – positively promising the blessings of the Gospel to those who receive them by faith. Those who reject them through unbelief invoke the curse & judgment of God – which as you point out is exacerbated by the profaning of these holy things. 1 Pet 3 uses flood imagery in connection with baptism – those who believe are saved through the waters of judgment, but those who do not will perish in the flood of God’s judgment. The Lord’s Supper not only gives believers the benefits of Christ’s death for us but also warns what sinners deserve – death under the curse of God for those who do not believe. I will also point folks to John 3:18 by analogy: “He who believes in Him is not condemned (good news / blessing); but he who does not believe is condemned already (bad news / curse), because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”


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