“Grace is a covenantal relationship between persons.” Douglas Wilson
Two months ago Pastor Douglas Wilson of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, officially split from the doctrinal faction that he established — the Federal Vision. He did not repudiate any FV doctrines; he disavowed the name only, which suggests a break from the camp.
So we have been considering various aspects of the Federal Vision from a Moscow perspective. Today’s post will furnish an example of Doug Wilson redefining the theological term grace (charis). He did this in his book “Reformed” Is Not Enough [RINE], very early in the Federal Vision controversy, when the doctrine was still known as Auburn Avenue Theology, and he never did it again. To understand why Mr. Wilson redefined grace, you have to understand the Federal Vision dilemma: On the one hand, FVers claim to affirm the Westminster Confession of Faith; on the other hand, the Federal Vision doctrine of baptism contradicts the WCF. FVers believe in baptismal union with Christ and baptismal regeneration. Consequently they need to bridge the gap between baptism, which Westminster affirms, and instantaneous union with Christ conferred by the sacrament, which Westminster does not affirm. Douglas Wilson passed through the horns of this dilemma by redefining the word grace:
But how is it possible to see the sacraments as efficacious, which the Protestant fathers certainly did, but at the same time recognize that they have no magical power in themselves? We must not think of ourselves as empty receptacles and the sacraments as filled decanters, full of spiritual juice, which are then poured into us. Rather than seeing the question of the sacraments as this kind of an ontological and metaphysical question, we have to see it as a covenantal and relational question. We are persons and we are communing with God, who is tri-personal, and we do so in the sacraments. They are therefore performative acts. A man might say the words “I do” a million times during the course of his life, but when he says them in a church in front of witnesses with his bride across from him, the words are a performative act, and they change everything.
Grace is not a fluid that can fill up a reservoir. Grace is a covenantal relationship between persons. Now the Scriptures do tell us that grace can be both added and multiplied. “Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus Christ our Lord” (2 Pet. 1:2; cf. 1 Pet. 1:2; Rom. 1:7). But we have to be careful not to fall prey to abstract nouns. If I pray that someone’s marital happiness will increase, I am asking that a relationship between persons will flourish and not that something will happen in their marital “tank,” something that can be checked with a dipstick. (“Reformed” Is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the Covenant [Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2002], 91–92; emphasis original.)
Note the words “Grace is a covenantal relationship between persons,” because this statement is false. The word grace (charis) does not mean “covenantal relationship”; it means “unmerited favor.” Grace is one of the most elementary & critical terms in Christian theology. It is one of the first words that all Christians learn. “For by grace — unmerited favor — have you been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Douglas Wilson reads Greek; he also teaches theology to CREC ministerial students. He knows what charis means. But he could not contrive another way to reconcile the FV to Westminster. So the self-declared wordsmith hammered a new definition to fit his need — and blamo — now the “grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments” (WCF 27:3) actually constitutes “a covenantal relationship.” And three pages later Mr. Wilson doubled down:
If grace is a covenant relationship between persons for blessing, and if sacraments are performative acts, Peter Leithart makes it clear that there are more than the two options of “evangelical” immediacy or sacerdotalism.
In criticizing Warfield on these points, I am not affirming a “sacerdotal” view of salvation, but suggesting that the antithesis between sacerdotal and evangelical is a false one that a Trinitarian account of sacraments (and salvation) will help us to escape.
. . . . In the presence of God, all our sacramental acts are performative acts. God has established the meaning of these acts, and so that is what the action in context means. This is different from saying that the sacraments mean something the way a detached label means something else. The baptismal water is simply water — until it is applied in such a way that makes the action a performative, covenantal act. (Ibid. 95)
We know that Douglas Wilson didn’t believe his redefinition of grace, for three reasons:
- He never repeated this claim again — that “grace is a covenant relationship.” In fact, he contradicted it twice:
Grace is a feature of relationship. God is gracious to you, and imparts grace to you, because you are His friend. (The Table of Graciousness, November 20, 2005; emphasis added)
We have been using the word grace to describe this. But grace is not a substance, like it was spiritual motor oil for your engine. Grace is a function of relationship; grace is personal. (A Garden of Grace, November 3, 2012; emphasis added)
- Six months after publishing “Reformed” Is Not Enough, he ditched his redefinition and adopted the Federal Vision party line that a “covenant is a relationship between persons,” which we documented here. The FVers had already bridged the gap between baptism and Westminster; however Mr. Wilson didn’t know this when he wrote RINE.
- Douglas Wilson used the correct definition of grace many, many times throughout the years, before and after RINE, which we will document next. This one time only he temporarily put grace on the rack, to defend an indefensible theological point.
To my knowledge Douglas Wilson has never retracted or bothered to account for his redefinition. Flimflam today is forgotten tomorrow. But seven years after RINE he wrote this gem:
“At the same time, grace is what it is, and cannot be redefined by sinful man into anything else.”
Though he already demonstrated that he doesn’t believe this either.