Federal Theology: Works vs Grace


Concerning God’s Plan of Salvation

The historic reformed faith, in contradiction to some more modern religious innovations, held that God has had a single unified plan of redemption for his elect people from all time. This plan has been revealed by greater and fuller measures from age to age (Heb 1:1) in the narrative of the Bible. This Plan of Salvation is commonly called, by theologians, the Covenant of Grace. This term ‘covenant’ is used to describe the representative nature of God’s Plan, in which all men are either fallen in their representative head – Adam; or they stand in their representative head – Christ Jesus.

Disobedience of Adam; Obedience of Christ

Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: (…) Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. (Rom 5:12,18-19)

The Heavenly Man and the Earthly Man

And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. (I Cor 15:45-49)

The Latin term for an arrangement or agreement between two parties is ‘foedus’, from which we get our English word Federal. From the Lewis and Short Latin Dictionary, we have the following definition:

Foedus: a league, treaty, compact, alliance

From Webster’s 1928 American Dictionary, we have the following definition of Federal:

FEDERAL: [from L. faedus…]

1. Pertaining to a league or contract; derived from an agreement or covenant between parties, particularly between nations.

2. Consisting in a compact between parties, particularly and chiefly between states or nations; founded on alliance by contract or mutual agreement; as a federal government, such as that of the United States.

Early Latin-writing Protestant theologians adopted the term ‘foedus’ to describe the representative nature of God’s Plan of Salvation as found in Scripture and this has been passed down to English-speaking churches as ‘Federal’ or ‘Covenant’ theology. Again, the emphasis of this system of theology is on the fallen nature of man into a state of sin and misery; and on the substitutionary nature of our Redeemer who lived a holy and sinless life, and suffered the full measure of God’s wrath in order to merit eternal life on behalf of his covenanted party – the elect of God (2 Tim 1:9). In this role, Christ stood as a Federal head, a ‘Public Person’, or a ‘surety’ (Heb 7:22) of all those that the Father had given Him, in eternity past.

That this system of interpretation of the Scriptures is the right and true one is beyond dispute. That this right and true system is the historic belief of Baptists can be proved from the first Baptists themselves; for Section 7.3 of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith Declares:

This covenant [God’s Plan of Salvation by Grace] is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament; and it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect; and it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality, man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency.

( Genesis 3:15; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 11:6, 13; Romans 4:1-2; John 8:56 )

Two Ways of Salvation?

The Federal system of theology then sees two ways of salvation in the Bible – that of works and that of grace. Every man born into the world is made accountable to His Creator for perfect obedience and Holiness to His moral law, which is given us in the Scriptures and is stamped into our being. But, we have rejected the Kingship of God, we have cast off his righteousness, and we have made ourselves to rule in place of God. Now that we are fallen rebels, there remains no hope for us – except that we put our whole faith and trust in the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, who came into the world to fulfill all righteousness on our behalf and to suffer and die and to bear away our penalty for sin.

So then, there are two ‘laws’ unto salvation found in the Holy Scriptures: 1) to live lives of sinless perfection, loving God and our fellow man with all our hearts (law of sin and death, Rom 8:2), or 2) repent of your sin and wickedness and trust in Jesus Christ as your righteousness (‘law’ of faith, Rom 3:28).

Law of Works

  • For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:20)
  • And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. (Luke 10:25-28)
  • And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he [Jesus] said unto him, …but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (Matt 19:16-19)
  • Law of Faith

  • But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. (Gal 4:4-5)
‘Law of Works’ and ‘Law of Faith’

Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. (Rom 3:19-28)

Sinner, do you stand condemned under the moral law of God, fallen in your father Adam and without hope? Or, have you turned from slavery to sin and taken hold of the Covenant of Grace in Jesus Christ as offered in the Gospel?

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7 thoughts on “Federal Theology: Works vs Grace

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  5. Psalm 62:12 “Also unto thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy: for thou renderest to every man according to his work.”

    Works-based justification is more gracious than grace-based justification, in that it presents God as placable, able to be pleased. In grace-based salvation God is depicted as implacable, unpleasable, a crazed perfectionist who can think of no better thing to do with an imperfect creation than to burn it in hell forever. But in works-based salvation, God’s forgiveness is able to work together with man’s works without any false dichotomy between the two. The Psalmist here praises God as “MERCIFUL” for rendering to every man “ACCORDING TO HIS WORK.” To the Psalmist, grace would be tyranny. If God could render to an immoral man a great paradise, then he could equally render to a moral man great torment. In such a case, God’s justice would be the opposite of justice. Grace creates chaos and inconsistency: it creates unpredictability, much like a Communist economy. But in a world where God (as in Romans 2:6-10) renders ETERNAL LIFE to those who “by patient continuance in well doing seek glory and honor and immortality” and TORMENT AND ANGUISH to those who “obey unrighteousness rather than righteousness” there is predictability and true justice, and in this predictability and in this consistency there is a MERCY that transcends all the cruelty of that unpredictable and repugnantly inconsistent thing called GRACE.

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