FV, TR, Presumption, Assurance, and Despair

I do not intend to make an argument here. There is plenty of that elsewhere on this blog and in numerous other sources. I just want to point out something that occurred to me this morning that I find interesting and maybe helpful concerning FV and TR perspectives. If I lost you on that last sentence, reading on might help define for you some distinctions between FV and TR emphases.

The TR brethren typically frame God’s promises in the context of eternal, decretal election, while the FV brethren typically frame God’s promises in the context of historical, outward, objective covenant. The TR believe that the FV “covenant promises” lead to presumption, while the FV believe that the TR “election promises” lead to despair.

The TR brethren typically frame scriptural warnings in the context of reprobation, while the FV brethren typically frame scriptural warnings in the context of historical, outward, objective covenant. The TR believe that the FV “covenant warnings” lead to despair, while the FV believe that the TR “hypothetical warnings” (only a reality for the reprobate, hypothetical for the elect) lead to presumption.

So for the FV, promises and warnings are typically framed in the same context (covenant), while for the TR, promises and warnings are typically framed in opposing contexts (election/reprobation).

Note what the PCA Study Committee on FV/NPP/AAT considers the FV position promotes:

“The Committee views the FV position as ultimately leading to presumption or despair, not assurance. At the heart of their belief is the view that water baptism serves as the means for uniting each participant to Jesus; those baptized receive all the benefits of Christ’s mediation except final perseverance. Our concern is that some of those who are baptized will simply presume on God’s grace, “continuing in the covenant” without “apostatizing” but also without justifying faith (cf. Matthew 22:1-14); others will be driven to despair, working for a salvation out of “covenant faithfulness” instead of resting and receiving Jesus alone for their salvation.” ~ “The Report” pg 34

Their concern is a legitimate one. We can agree on this. Where we disagree is that I don’t see this concern as something unique to the FV.

Election vs. Covenant Promises
For the TR, affirming the promises that accompany baptism (Acts 2:38-39) *to all baptized Christians, head for head*,  will lead the Christian to presume that he is “in” on the basis of his baptism and that this status is sufficient for salvation.

For the FV, affirming the promises that accompany baptism *only for the elect* will lead the Christian to wonder in despair if that includes him individually. A contemporary Christian folk band of a reformed baptist persuasion by the name of Caedmon’s Call expresses this sentiment in a song entitled “Prove me wrong”. The song’s opening verse goes like this:

Sometimes I fear maybe I’m not chosen
You’ve hardened my heart like Pharaoh
That would explain why life is so hard for me

And I am sad Esau hated
Crying against what’s fated
Saying father, please, is there any left for me

Hypothetical vs. Actual Warnings
For the TR, expressing the scriptural warnings that accompany baptism (Acts 2:40) *to all baptized Christians, head for head* in a “this could happen to you” fashion denies all sorts of Calvinistic points of doctrine and leads the Christian to despair, constantly wondering whether or not he will be able to do the work of covenant faithfulness sufficient for eternal salvation.

For the FV, expressing scriptural warnings in a hypothetical, “you’re elect, this can’t happen to you” fashion is akin to teaching a child he cannot be physically hurt or killed. The child, presuming himself to be impervious to harm, will attempt more and more dangerous feats until he inevitably proves his teacher wrong. Likewise, the Christian, presuming himself to be impervious to spiritual harm, will attempt more and more feats dangerous to his soul until he finally falls away in his sin.

Presumption, Assurance, and Despair
I think both persuasions can agree that there is a continuum of faith and fear with presumption on one end (faith without fear), despair on the other end (fear without faith), and assurance somewhere in between (faith and fear). Saving faith trembles (WCF XIV.II). I also think we can all admit that there are challenges to both systems that can lend toward one extreme or the other or both. Are there no presumptuous or disparaged among the TRs? Are all the congregants in FV churches fully assured of their salvation? No and no.

The main challenge I see is the number and diversity of souls being ministered to. To put it in the simplest terms I can think of, innately, some folks are too happy and some folks are too sad. The former spend too much time beholding God’s goodness and not enough time beholding His severity (Romans 11:22), and the latter have the opposite problem. There are those who tend to doubt their salvation and need to be encouraged with covenant promises, and there are those who tend to think church membership is salvific in itself and need to be threatened with scriptural warnings. And because there is a heteronomos at work in our members, those who need badly to give heed to the warnings typically latch on to the promises and vice versa.

One of the criticisms I constantly see coming from the most outspoken FV critics as well as those brothers who don’t know any better is that the FV has made the gospel confusing. I think we FVers can agree with the TR sentiment that the gospel is simple and should be presented clearly and plainly. We don’t deny this. But can the TRs brothers agree with the FV sentiment that people are complex?

The Aim of Covenant Promises and Scriptural Warnings
All that to get to this. The aim of covenant promises is to produce faith. The aim of scriptural warnings is to produce fear. These respective ends are what God intended them for. The interesting thing that occured to me this morning is that the TR brethren’s complaint against the typical FV application of promises and warnings is essentially that of over achievement. The FV application of promises, in the mind of the TR, leads to too much faith and not enough fear (presumption), while the FV application of scriptural warnings leads to too much fear and not enough faith (despair). Conversely, the FV complaint against the TR application of promises and scriptural warnings is that it (albeit unintentionally) tends to produce in the hearer the exact oppostite of what God intended.

So if both the TR and FV brethren’s concerns on this matter are granted, which I am willing to do for more than the sake of argument, who is misusing God’s Word? Who is using God’s promises and warnings in the way they were intended to be used (even if in an imbalanced way, giving more heed to one or the other), and who is using them in a way contrary to God’s design?

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13 Responses to “FV, TR, Presumption, Assurance, and Despair”

  1. airplayne Says:

    Just a though/suggestion. Depending on who you intend as your audience there still may be some who do not meet that standard. In light of this please at least parenthetically explain any acronyms or abbreviations. Thank you.

  2. Sorry, bro.
    FV = “Federal Vision” You can find out everything you wanted to know about this movement and more here: http://www.federal-vision.com/

    TR = “Truly Reformed” That is basically the designation given to folks who don’t like the FV. They do not think FV is within the bounds of historic Reformed orthodoxy.

  3. Ron, I think you’ve really have gotten to the heart of the issue here.

    As someone who was not raised on the confessions per say but on the Bible (I was a run of the mill evangelical) I have to say that the FV’s view of the covenant is more consistent with the scriptures both OT and NT. As a Calvinist, over the years I have had a hard time with the exegetical gymnastics that many reformed make of the warning passages (Arminians are right in their charge that reformed types generally downplay the warning passages) It has been the FV view of the covenant that helped me to bridge that problem.

    On the assurance issue I believe we gain assurance as we see the fruit of the spirit (Luke 6:44 – Gal 5:16-24) manifested in our lives, fruit that only the spirit can produce – James chapter 2 is very clear that real faith “works” – it manifests itself in action and is tested. This testing of our faith builds more and more assurance that we are truly born of God.

    The only issue I have with the FV crowd is their steady move away from Presbyterian polity to a more Episcopal polity which I believe is umbilical and inevitably leads to a two tier “priesthood of believer” result as it did with Rome.

    good post –

    Lar

  4. I am seaching for some idea to write in my blog… somehow come to your blog. best of luck. Eugene

  5. I do not intend to make an argument here

    Are those the magic words I have to say to keep you off my back?

    It has taken me a lot longer than I wanted to leave a comment here, because time is short, so this will just be quick. First off, congratulations on finally writing something that makes me go “Hmmm…” instead of stimulating my theological gag reflex.

    For the FV, affirming the promises that accompany baptism *only for the elect* will lead the Christian to wonder in despair if that includes him individually

    Isn’t that a good and necessary thing? Can it even be logically possible to reach assurance (and I’m not saying every decretally elect Christian will) without first asking the question?

    you’re elect, this can’t happen to you” fashion is akin to teaching a child he cannot be physically hurt or killed.

    That’s why TR never preach “you’re elect”, but “IF you’re elect”, and why TR is so angry at FV for preaching “You ARE Elect*”

    The aim of scriptural warnings is to produce fear.

    Hmm. My instinct was to say Obedience. More specifically Grateful Obedience. The (a) problem with the FV is that you don’t believe that the Gospel (the TR Gospel, which you find to be a deficient, watered-down gospel) can actually produce obedience.

    *Decretal election sold separately

  6. Rube, you said,

    Isn’t that a good and necessary thing?

    referring to “TR election promises” leading people to “wonder in despair…” Do you think that is why God put those promises there? That is the major point of this post. Those promises were put there to promote faith and assurance. You didn’t even flinch at the notion that TR preaching of the promises has the opposite effect of what God intended…

  7. Obviously not the despair part; it is a good and necessary thing for visible Christians to wonder in despair about their election. You can’t have assurance (“I know infallibly that I am elect”) if you never wonder (“Am I elect?”); you can’t attain it if you never seek it.

    If the criterion for assurance is Sola Fidelity, that will lead to no end of wondering in despair (“Am I faithful enough?”). But if the criterion is “Sola Fide”, then the Christian can stop despairingly working for their salvation, and restfully work because of their salvation.

  8. If the criterion for assurance is Sola Fidelity, that will lead to no end of wondering in despair (”Am I faithful enough?”).

    That is what the warnings are *supposed* to make you ask. Their whole design is to promote perseverance in faithfulness, not presumption.

    But if the criterion is “Sola Fide”, then the Christian can stop despairingly working for their salvation, and restfully work because of their salvation.

    Not if they are busy wondering in despair as to whether or not they are elect. At least admit that there are avenues for faith and fear in both systems. The difference is that one system goes against the grain of what God intended wrt promises and warnings.

    Are the promises supposed to promote faith? Then why do TR promises promote “wondering” (by your own word)?

  9. That is what the warnings are *supposed* to make you ask

    Sez you. The answer to the question “Am I faithful enough” is “I am but an unworthy servant,” and focus on that leads to despair.

    Look, you’re the one who originally paired promises with despair, and in my original response, I was only countering the view that TRs foster “wondering in despair” at all, not focusing on whether despair or presumption or faith or fear or wondering flows from promises or warnings (thus, I didn’t originally address your main point).

    So I would agree with you that it is warnings, more than promises, that promote wondering — but that is not to say they promote fear. We were not given a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear; and we do not come fearfully to Mt. Sinai, but we boldly enter God’s presence.

    I see the purpose of the warnings as promoting thankfulness about what we were delivered from, and trembling about what others will suffer, and more particularly what Christ suffered for us.

    And I would agree that promises, more than warnings, promote faith; but even if I were to grant that somehow TR handling of promises causes despair, I totally fail to see how the FV can reduce that despair by stealing Sola Fide and replacing it with Sola Fidelity; or by stealing decretal election and replacing it with defectible election.

  10. To summarize and conclude:

    We agree that promises are meant to promote faith, but we disagree on what either system’s handling of promises actually does promote.

    We disagree on what effect warnings are meant to promote, and we disagree on what either system’s handling of warnings actually does promote.

  11. So I would agree with you that it is warnings, more than promises, that promote wondering — but that is not to say they promote fear. We were not given a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear; and we do not come fearfully to Mt. Sinai, but we boldly enter God’s presence.

    Again, Rube, you are at odds with the scriptures and the confession. Saving faith trembles at God’s threats (WCF XIV.II; Isaiah 66:2; Matthew 5:3).

    We agree that promises are meant to promote faith

    And yet you admit that TR promises have the opposite effect of “wondering”. Wondering is opposed to Faith.

  12. OK, I now officially regret I ever said anything.

    Saving faith trembles at God’s threats

    Trembling != fear. When I think of the punishment of the reprobate, I tremble, but am not afraid for myself. When I consider the gospel, and realize the punishment Christ bore for me, I tremble, but am strengthened in faith and grateful obedience.

    And yet you admit that TR promises have the opposite effect of “wondering”

    If you recall, I backed away from my original non-consideration of a context of promises or threats, to a more cautious: “it is warnings, more than promises, that promote wondering“.

    But I see no problem with promises to the elect causing the hearer to wonder whether the promises apply to them — whether I they are elect. If you read in the newspaper that anybody with a particular genetic characteristic can sell a pint of blood to a research company for $1,000,000, would that not make you wonder?

    And that’s the end. Buh-bye.

  13. When I think of the punishment of the reprobate, I tremble, but am not afraid for myself.

    And TR warnings don’t promote presumption? When those warnings were put in letters to the Church, do you really think that was what the author wanted his hearers to think? “This can’t happen to me?” No, God uses the knowledge that it can happen to you in order to keep you safe, just like I use the knowledge I have given my children concerning physical safety to keep them safe.

    You still seem to have a problem with the contingency of second causes. The answer to the question, “Why did he persevere to the end,” certainly has an ultimate answer. But that isn’t the only answer.

    I see no problem with promises to the elect causing the hearer to wonder whether the promises apply to them

    This is the problem the FV seeks to address. Every covenant member should know that the promises apply to them, lest they be taught to despair over their election. But they need to be warned that they cannot receive the fruit of those promises unless they receive the promises themselves by faith.

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