The Vision Forum: A Dispensational Perspective (Part 1)

by Pastor Gary Freel

Christian leaders are frequently asked for information about any number of particular organizations. It is daunting, at times, to keep up with not just the ministries that exist already but also the new ones that seem to form on a daily basis. There is no way to keep abreast of each and every one or every minute detail about them, but occasionally we are able to provide information as the Lord enables us with the time and adequate interest shown concerning a specific organization. Vision Forum (hereafter “VF” will be used to identify the organization) is one such ministry about which we have received inquiries. Our purpose is not to unnecessarily criticize those who are trying to be of help and encouragement to Christians, especially Christian families in these days. We are not seeking to undermine in any way what VF is trying to accomplish. It is easy to attack and criticize everyone for faults and frailties we all have, and we do not intend this article to be a personal assault on any individual or even VF in general. Rather, we want to examine biblically what VF is, what they are attempting to do and some of the results we see produced from their ministries. The world, the flesh and the Devil have declared all-out war against the family as well as good, solid, Bible-believing local churches. The evidence for this is seen in the rate of divorce, the staggering percentage of births outside of wedlock, the abortion rate, marital infidelity and church splits. The following information about VF is from their own websites: www.visionforumministries.org and www.visionforum.com. In this article, we will look at some elements of VF exclusively, and, Lord willing, in a second article, we intend to look at an auxiliary ministry, Family Integrated Churches (FIC).

A History of Vision Forum

A brief history of the organization is helpful in giving us a proper understanding of the goals and ideas that drive VF in the ministry they have today. Doug Phillips is the founder and director of VF. He is the son of the former presidential candidate from the U.S. Constitution Party, Howard Phillips. From his testimony, a major tributary for his theological training appears to be Pastor Robert Gifford of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church, from which Phillips developed an appreciation for apologetics and God’s sovereignty. He received his B.A. in American Studies from The College of William and Mary and his J.D. from George Mason University, also studying law under Supreme Court nominees Judge Robert Bork and Judge Doug Ginsberg (www.homeschoolchristian.com). Phillips then served as a staff attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Fund and then as the national director of the Center for Home Education. In 1998 he and his wife, Beall, formed the Vision Forum and then later Vision Forum Ministries in San Antonio, Texas. Phillips currently serves as an adjunct professor of apologetics with the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and appears with ICR in their Back to Genesis conferences. He has authored a number of articles for a variety of publications including World magazine, the Houston Chronicle, Education Reporter and others. Thus, his influence extends well beyond his own sphere of ministry with VF and FIC.

The Purpose of Vision Forum

VF’s website states it is “a ministry designed to communicate a vision for the restoration of the Christian family and the rebuilding of culture for the glory of God.” Again, we reiterate that we find no fault with their desire to serve families in this way. The need for godly homes has reached crisis stage, especially in the western culture in which we find ourselves today. It is obvious that both biblical truth and practice have been abandoned when it comes to the roles of families in our society (Eph. 5:19-6:4; 1 Pet. 3:1-7; Col. 3:18-21; cf. 1 Tim. 1:9-10; 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 3:1-5). However, we do not believe that a strictly Christian culture has ever existed, much less one that can be “rebuilt” for God’s glory. Rather, Christians have typically lived in pagan cultures, including in the United States of America, as a small minority. Our mandate is not to build some type of Christian culture out of our society; our mandate is to make and mature disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:19-20). As believers in local churches, we are not to set out to make this world a better place for our posterity, to “bring in the kingdom,” or to establish some form of utopian society for succeeding generations. Not only do most churches and ministries not have the finances or the resources in terms of human capacity to achieve such a lofty goal, but this is simply not God’s purpose for believers during their time on earth. It also should be noted that attempting to place unregenerate people—political leaders and citizens—under the requirement of God’s Law in an attempt to create a culture for God’s glory is something that has been unsuccessfully attempted for centuries by the Roman Catholic Church and even some mainline Protestant groups, particularly in Europe. Today, Christians must understand their biblical mission and mandate, and attempting to “rebuild” a Christian culture is nowhere to be found in Scripture.

Examining the Statement of Faith of Vision Forum

Ministries are wise to put before inquirers documents such as doctrinal statements or statements of faith. This enables people to discover what a ministry believes and may further explain the purpose for which it exists. It assists interested parties in understanding more about an organization’s stated purposes and goals. It grounds an organization’s ministry to theological underpinnings. It allows people firsthand knowledge about a ministry’s doctrine and practice. Given the purpose and scope of influence of VF, we find three areas of concern with their particular statement of faith. The first area of concern we see is its brevity. In and of itself, this is not necessarily a negative. However, we live in a day when doctrinal clarity and precision are needed. This is not to advocate cumbersome, verbose, overly technical statements about the issues that are addressed. Given the cultural milieu and numerous heretical ministries today, explanations of terms and ideas are definitely in order. Further, the stated agenda VF seeks to have would seem to necessitate clarity in some areas that are left unaddressed. The brevity of their particular doctrinal statement enables a wide variety of professing believers to cooperate with VF in their endeavors and to utilize their resources without fear of rebuke or correction of certain erroneous beliefs. For example, nothing is said about whether or not VF believes the miraculous sign-gifts have continued into our day or whether they ceased functioning in the first century. Given the extremely detrimental influence and impact the modern charismatic movement has had on the church, the absence of any statement regarding the VF position is disconcerting. We believe in today’s religious context it is important to include a statement dealing with biblical separation from charismatic and Pentecostal individuals and ministries (2 Thess. 3:6, 14; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; Rom. 16:17-20).

On the other hand, VF has expanded clarifications on some matters, such as the doctrines of creation, patriarchy and interpretation of Holy Scripture. For instance, the statement of faith concerning creation reads, “God created the world and all things out of nothing by His powerful Word, planned all things by His wisdom, and controls all things by His sovereign power—all for His own glory. Mankind, and all life on earth, did not evolve but was created by a direct act of God.” Given the popularity of such compromised positions as theistic evolution, old-earth creationism, progressive creationism and intelligent design, VF desired to make sure none of these models could possibly be viewed as even legitimate ways to understand the creation account in Genesis 1-2. In fact, in rather detailed position papers, they spell out, by statements of affirmations and denials, exactly what they intend to convey and teach regarding creationism, biblical patriarchy and interpretation. That these are important to them becomes obvious as one reads the papers. Exactly what is meant by the terms used in their doctrinal statement is clarified and expanded in the papers.

Why this was not done with other issues such as ecumenicity and cessationism raises serious questions about the doctrine of VF as well as its scope of fellowship. Why is it necessary to know VF’s position on these matters? Given the current religious climate, with many viewing ecumenism and the charismatic movement as positive developments, it would have been extremely helpful to let inquirers know where VF stands on these and other issues.

Limited Atonement Teaching

The second concern surrounds VF’s position on the debate about the extent of the atonement of Christ which has raged for centuries—namely, did Christ die only for a particular group of people, the elect? Or, did He die to pay the penalty for the sins of the entire world, all of humanity? VF believes it is the former—that He died for only a select group of individuals. Various statements under different headings on their websites indicate their belief that Christ’s death was limited in the sense that He died exclusively for “His people.” Under the heading “Christ,” we read, “He died on the cross a sacrifice for the sins of His people.” Under the heading “God’s Plan of Salvation,” we read, “Jesus Christ became the representative of His people, taking their sins upon Himself, having offered Himself as a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice and reconcile them to God.”

However, Scripture declares that Christ died not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world (Jn. 1:29; 5:51; 2 Cor. 5:14; 1 Tim. 2:6; Heb. 2:9; etc.). Jesus Christ is the wrath-removing sacrifice for the sins of all humanity (1 Jn. 2:2; Rom. 3:25). His death on the cross was adequate payment for every sin every person has ever committed. It is only by individuals coming to Him in faith that sins can be forgiven. A plethora of texts in both Testaments makes it abundantly clear that the death Christ died was adequate to pay for the sins of every sinner. The gospel is God’s message to the entire world, not just the world of the elect.

It is somewhat puzzling to see people who would stand in vehement opposition to limited atonement utilizing and promoting a ministry that clearly stands in favor of it. But it illustrates how easily people can and do overlook important doctrinal issues, perhaps without realizing something much larger is at stake, namely, fidelity to truth. We believe this is something that should be considered carefully as one considers utilizing VF.

Covenant of Grace Teaching

Our third concern centers around another aspect of the VF’s statement of faith. The statement includes a heading titled “The Covenant of Grace,” in which we read the following:

All of history after man’s fall into sin is a progressive outworking of God’s covenant of grace. Beginning with the first promise to Adam after the fall and continuing throughout history to the end of the ages, God orders all things in view of his [sic] single purpose of redeeming a people to Himself through Christ.

Some explanation is in order. Covenant theology teaches that after Adam was created, God made a Covenant of Works with him, whereby if Adam (as representative of humanity) would obey, then God would give him eternal life. However, in Genesis 3, we learn that Adam disobeyed, so God promised the Covenant of Grace, whereby the elect of God, of all ages, are given eternal life. Some Covenant theologians also believe and teach, as a third element, the Covenant of Redemption, which was made between God the Father and God the Son in eternity past, in which both determined that the Son would die on the cross as the penalty for the sins of the elect. The Covenant of Grace is said to be the outworking of this Covenant of Redemption. Theologian Louis Berkhof, writing in support of these covenants, admits that nothing in the text of Scripture explicitly supports the so-called Covenant of Works, but it is something that must be inferred by the threat Adam faced should he disobey God and partake of the forbidden fruit (Systematic Theology, p. 216). As one studies further into these elements of Covenant and Reformed theology, one finds this to be typical of the system, namely, that many aspects are inferred from a variety of texts, especially when it comes to teaching on prophecy.

Obviously, the above is greatly simplified. If readers desire more information on the Covenants of Redemption, Works and Grace, it can be found in systematic theologies by Robert Reymond and Louis Berkhof, both of whom write promoting these covenants. Charles Ryrie’s Dispensationalism includes a chapter briefly discussing the origin of this teaching as well as information about leaders who have taught this interpretation of Scripture. Further, Ryrie also critiques the supposed biblical texts that are used to support these covenants. Also, the book There Really Is a Difference! by Renald Showers provides further explanation and evaluation of Covenant Theology that is both succinct and readable, explaining the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. These latter two evaluations are from a traditional dispensational perspective.

Conclusion

This article is not written out of a desire to demean or undermine a ministry that is trying to solve a serious problem. We live in a troubled world racked with sin and its impact in the lives of individuals, families and local churches. If God’s people, as husbands and wives, as parents and youth, would seek to study and apply His Word themselves and as local churches would seek to minister according to the dictates of His Word, many of the struggles faced by all believers would diminish if not disappear.

Does a ministry like VF provide biblical solutions to the problems faced by individuals, families and churches? Given their propensity toward strongly reformed and reconstructionist views on the topics cited and others to be examined later, we do not believe they do. While the desire to promote godliness is certainly commendable, the fact remains that the methodology is just as important in terms of being faithful to the Lord and His Word. We must continually attempt to “prove all things” and tenaciously cling “to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21) in the midst of a world determined to go its own way in rebellion against the Lord and His Christ (Psa. 2). People must beware of the theology that drives ministries like VF and understand that the desire to live godly must be rooted and grounded in a proper interpretation of Scripture.

— Gary Freel is the pastor of Grace Bible Church of Fresno in Fresno, California. This article was originally published in Foundation magazine, Issue 1, 2010.