Greg Nichols and Norman Shepherd

From Greg Nichols’ “Covenant Theology”


In sum, Adam’s original relation to God was familial and filial-parental. Thus it was warm and affectionate, not cold or distant. It was not an impersonal relationship between “contracting parties.” It was not between a disinterested judge and an unrelated defendant, or a ruler to an unknown subject. Thus, a “covenant of works” model simply doesn’t comport with its filial-parental framework. Categories like “contracting parties,” “stipulations,” and “penalties” are foreign to this familial relation. Such categories might suitably define a contract between corporations forging a business venture through their lawyers. They seem woefully inadequate to define a parental prohibition. In Genesis 2:16-17 God addresses Adam, not as a lawyer, but as a Father. This prohibition is an integral part of Adam’s filial relation to God. Thus, the covenant of works model wrenches this prohibition from its filial foundation. This is my primary objection to imposing this motif and its categories on this prohibition. (337)


This conditional form [of the Adamic Covenant] is similar to the conditional form of the Mosaic covenant… Observe that if [Adam] had complied with the condition, he would simply have done what was required. He would not have merited or earned anything – because he merely gave what was owed, trust and compliance. (346-7)

God freely blessed Adam with the Sabbath and with the hope it symbolized. Adam did not earn the Sabbath by works. Thus, Adam did not merit his hope by works – but he could sin and forfeit his hope. The covenant of works motif seems to say that Adam had to earn the hope of eternal rest that God gave him freely as a privilege… By eternal hope I refer to this expectation of divine blessing once he fulfilled his mammoth vocation. When he had populated and subdued the earth, he would have entered his rest. (341)


An Evangelical Explanation of the Mosaic Covenant’s Conditional Form
In this conditional promise God doesn’t say: “if you repent and believe, then you will be my special people,” but, “if you keep my law, then you will be my special people.” God said to Adam, if you eat you will die, implying, if you obey you will retain life and Eden. Similarly, he said to Israel, if you obey, you will retain Canaan, but if you disobey, you will be judged and disinherited. As Adam lost Eden, you will lose Canaan…

This teaches the necessity of gospel obedience unto complete salvation…  (Lev 18:5; Matt. 5:20; Rom 8:12-13)

Jesus warned that evangelical obedience was necessary to enter heaven… This is how the conditional promise of the Mosaic covenant applies to the Christian life. It demonstrates the necessity of perseverance in gospel faith and holiness. …The law is gracious because it teaches us that if we live a holy life, mortify the deeds of the body, and keep evangelically the commandments of God, we will go to heaven, not to hell. (233-4)

Norman Shepherd

Norman Shepherd taught a false gospel of works righteousness at Westminster Theological Seminary by arguing good works are instrumental to justification. He paved the way for the Federal Vision.


One of the primary points emphasized in the Sandy Cove lectures (July, 1981) is that the obedience required of Adam in the “Creation Covenant,” had he rendered it, would not have been meritorious. Adam was a son, not a laborer. The concept of wages earned, reward merited, is not appropriate to the father-son relationship. This is not a point made somewhat incidentally by Mr. Shepherd along the way, but a point that is evidently fundamental in his theology of the covenant.

Reason and Specifications Supporting the Action of the Board of Trustees in Removing Professor Shepherd


Mr. Shepherd rejects not only the term “covenant of works” but the possibility of any merit or reward attaching to the obedience of Adam in the creation covenant. He holds that faithful obedience is the condition of all covenants in contrast to the distinction made in the Westminster Confession. The Westminster Confession states in Chapter Vll that the first covenant “was a covenant of works wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” In contrast, in the second covenant, the covenant of grace, the Lord “freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved.”

Reason and Specifications Supporting the Action of the Board of Trustees in Removing Professor Shepherd


He describes the requirement of our covenant-keeping obedience in terms drawn from his description of Adam’s covenant-keeping. We have resources that Adam did not have, Mr. Shepherd shows. We have forgiveness of sins in the blood of Christ; we have the Spirit to move us to obey; but we also have the same covenant condition to meet, and the same threat for disobedience.

Reason and Specifications Supporting the Action of the Board of Trustees in Removing Professor Shepherd

As the Lord God came to Mount Sinai to deliver his commandments to Moses and all Israel, so also the Lord Jesus came to another mount to deliver the commandments of the new covenant to his disciples and to the church of the new covenant…. Far from abolishing covenant obligation, Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). (The Call of Grace)

The obedience required of Israel is not the obedience of merit, but the obedience of faith. It is the fullness of faith. Obedience is simply faithfulness to the Lord; it is the righteousness of faith. (The Call of Grace, 39)


The ‘covenant dynamic’ of Mr. Shepherd makes the function of our obedience in the covenant to be the same as the function of the obedience of Adam in the covenant before the fall. … Adam’s covenantal obedience in the garden did not merit any reward; neither does our covenantal obedience. But both are required by the covenant command. The threat for disobedience is eternal death. This threat is as real for us as it was for Adam in the garden. The warning of the New Covenant must not be blunted or made hypothetical in any way. God’s threat to Adam or to Israel was not idle, and the same sanction of the covenant is directed against us in the New Covenant.
Reason and Specifications Supporting the Action of the Board of Trustees in Removing Professor Shepherd

Further Reading:

24 thoughts on “Greg Nichols and Norman Shepherd

    1. You’re welcome Pascal, though I wish it wasn’t necessary. I’m a little disappointed this hasn’t been mentioned before, given the book’s popularity.

      Also, I wasn’t able to find any discussion or affirmation of the imputation of Christ’s Active Obedience in the book.


  1. Wow! I’m occasionally reading Greg Nichols work (for some reason I find it not keeping my interest). I read quotes #1 and 2 with disappointment. I’ve not yet made it to #3 – which shocks me! I don’t think SGCB should be carrying it and I wonder if the endorsers have read it closely.


  2. Some more quotes from Shepherd:

    Eternal life is promised as an undeserved gift from the Lord. He forgives our sins and receives us as righteous because of Jesus Christ and his redemptive accomplishment on our behalf. At the same time, faith, repentance, obedience, and perseverance are indispensable to the enjoyment of these blessings. They are conditions, but they are not meritorious conditions. Faith is required, but faith looks away from personal merit to the promises of God. Repentance and obedience flow from faith as the fullness of faith. This is faithfulness, and faithfulness is perseverance in faith. A living, active, and abiding faith is the way in which the believer enters into eternal life.

    Call of Grace, p. 50

    Our evangelical tradition… shares with Roman Catholic theology the basic idea that good works are meritorious… From this perspective, ‘justification by faith alone’ is not only a useful formula but also necessary if we are to avoid any suggestion that justification and salvation are by the merit of good works. The integrity of the gospel hangs on this formula. And again, this is true as long as we subscribe to the basic notion that good works are meritorious.

    The problem is that this perspective [(merit)] offers no way of accounting for the gospel demand for both faith and repentance as necessary for forgiveness of sins and no way of accounting for obedience as necessary for entering eternal life.

    “Justification by Faith Alone” 86


  3. Summary of Shepherd’s errors:

    1) Denies the concept of merit

    2) Therefore denies the covenant of works

    3) Therefore denies Christ merited anything

    4) Therefore defines forensic justification as only forgiveness of sins (rejects imputation of Christ’s righteousness)

    5) Defines faith as including obedience (faithfulness).

    6) Argues that the process of sanctification (regeneration) is prior to justification.

    7) The “works of the law” that we are justified apart from are works done in an attempt to merit a reward (Rom 3:28). This does not have reference to “good works” of the believer (obedience of faith), which is necessary for justification (Gal 5:6).

    8) Christ’s covenantal righteousness was his living, active, obedient faith. This faith was credited to Christ as righteousness.

    9) The same obedience of faith is required of believers in every covenant. This active faith/obedience is credited to believers as righteousness (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:11; 1:5; 16:26)

    10) Argues there is a “not yet” aspect of justification.

    11) Our works will be judged on the last day to determine if we go to heaven or hell.


  4. Roca DeGibraltar

    A Summary of Greg Nichols’ View of Christ’s Active and Passive Obedience and Its Relationship to the Believer’s Justification
    “Christ’s active obedience is his perfect compliance with all the requirements of God’s law. He always did what God’s law requires and he never did what it forbids…. In his passive obedience Christ was willing to suffer the curse of the law. Because his Father had given him this cup to drink, he obediently drank it. He submitted to the will of his Father. We must not, therefore, misconstrue passive obedience to mean that Christ was not personally active in his suffering. He threw his whole heart, mind, soul and strength into embracing the cup that the Father had given him. He was at all times actively obeying God when he suffered the curse of the law. He loved his sheep, and out of that love, willingly laid down his life for them…. The virtue of Christ’s obedience is our righteousness. As Adam’s sin was the ground of our condemnation, so Christ’s obedience is the ground of our justification. His perfect life is sole the basis of our acceptance and pardon. Unless God imputes the virtue of Christ’s obedient life to us we have no salvation. God imputes Christ’s virtue to everyone who believes in him. Believers receive this divine gift of righteousness by faith, and by faith alone.” ~ Greg Nichols, “The Doctrine of Christ” (unpublished lecture notes, 2011), 325-26.


    1. Thank you, though I wish there were more to read. From this short paragraph it is not clear whether he agrees with the full meaning of active obedience nor how it fits with what he has written in “Covenant Theology”. Shepherd recognizes that a denial of merit requires a rejection of Christ’s active obedience, and thus he argues that justification equals the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s passive obedience.

      Nichols argues that New Covenant obedience is the same as Old Covenant obedience, which is the same as Adam’s obedience. If Christ’s obedience as the Second Adam is parallel to the obedience of the First Adam, then our New Covenant obedience is the same as Christ’s obedience, which nullifies IAO.

      I’d love to hear more from Nichols on how he reconciles his view of the Covenant of Works with his view of active obedience. Perhaps he is just inconsistent, like John Piper, in which case we should be thankful he is not as consistent as Shepherd. But either way, the question remains. Please let me know if you have more insight.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Roca DeGibraltar

    Brandon, I am certain Greg Nichols affirms Christ’s active and passive obedience. I know this because I’ve taken his course. He affirms the same doctrine of justification as is articulated by James Bannerman in The Doctrine of Justification (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth,
    1984), which is one of the primary textbooks he uses for the class. If you are sincere when you say, “I’d love hear more from Nichols on how he reconciles his view of the CoW with this view of active obedience,” you can audit his course on soteriology offered through Reformed Baptist Seminary. Or, download the syllabus here, which contains his email and send your questions to him.



    1. Thanks Roca. I will try to find some time to audit the course. It sounds like he is just inconsistent then and has not carried through with the consequences of his rejection of merit.


  6. Hi Brandon,

    (Caveat: I am a student of Pastor Nichols in academy)

    After reading this blog post (and another), I’m concerned at what seems to only rise to a level of indirect, implicit or understated criticism of Pastor Nichols. The critique above places passages by him and by Shepherd in close proximity and presumes an unstated solidarity or point of similarity between them. I’m afraid I’m not following the objection; is there more to your criticism than that? If not, I fail to see it as an effective one. Its a style of criticism that I generally find unedifying, and generally too open for abuse for guilt by insinuation, association and “fruit inspection”.

    Kind Regards in the Lord,

    Brock Organ


    1. Hi Brock,

      Thanks for your thoughts/feedback. I’m sorry you found the post unedifying. My intention was not to be indirect, implicit, or understated. My point was to show Nichols’ agreement with Shepherd on several points, thus I numbered the points above the quotes. Thankfully, I do not believe Nichols holds to all of Shepherds damnable errors. However, I also do not believe Nichols’ points of agreement are incidental. The denial of merit is the foundation of Shepherds errors, and Nichols agrees with it. Therefore the rest of Shepherds errors logically follow, though I am thankful Nichols is not consistent in following all of those errors. Hopefully that helps clarify. Please let me know if it does not.

      What opportunity have you had to study the Federal Vision controversy?


  7. Brandon said: //I’m sorry you found the post unedifying. My intention was not to be indirect, implicit, or understated. What opportunity have you had to study the Federal Vision controversy?//

    Hi Brandon, I meant to be charitable and courteous: it was the style of the critique that I find to be generally unedifying. Here is my best faith attempt to represent what points I believe are in your post, please correct me where I am wrong:

    A) Pastor Nichols expresses specific, careful and reputable reservations about a particular representation of the “Covenant of Works”
    B) Norman Shepherd taught a false gospel of works righteousness at Westminster Theological Seminary by arguing good works are instrumental to justification

    From points A) and B) it seems that your post implicitly (and untenably) over-reaches to offer conclusion C):

    C) Pastor Nichols, like Professor Shepherd, teaches a false gospel of works righteousness and argues good works are instrumental to justification

    One need not be a FV scholar (and I am not one) to see that, based on the citations in this post, C) does not tenably follow from A) and B) … Perhaps I have been incorrect with identifying A), B) and C); I would be happy for your clarification, and apologize where incorrect; but the non-edifying weakness with your critique is precisely because A), B) and C) remain implicit and unstated, yet to my reading eye implied and accused. Given my (relatively broad) experience with Pastor Nichols in the academy (3 different ST loci: Doctrine of God, Man & Church) I assess his obvious (to me) love, care, respect and subscription to the 1689 Confession much higher than you seem to evaluate.

    More Regards, Brock


    1. Hi Brock, I took it as charitable and courteous 🙂

      Yes, your A, B, and C are incorrect. I do not believe Nichols teaches a false gospel. Thankfully he is inconsistent. I do believe he has erroneous beliefs that pave the way for a false gospel. What I have demonstrated in these quotes is that Nichols 1) rejects the concept of merit, 2) teaches continuity, rather than contrast, between the Adamic Covenant and the New Covenant in terms of our obedience.

      These two points are foundational to all the rest of Shepherd’s errors (which Nichols does not follow all of). As Sam Waldron notes:

      [T]here is no place in Shepherd’s theology for anything like the dichotomy between law and gospel that lays at the foundation of justification sola fide for the Reformation. If there is no such thing as meritorious works, if Christ’s work was believing obedience, if the obedience of faith is the righteousness of faith, then we are clearly dealing with a system of doctrine that has no way to express the Reformation’s contrast between law and gospel. Such a system cannot consistently affirm the justification sola fide squarely built on this contrast.

      Allegiance to The Westminster Confession is often understood as subscription to its “system of doctrine.” The Westminster Confession accurately represents the Reformation system of doctrine when it grounds its soteriology on a contrast between the law (“the covenant of works”) and the gospel (“the covenant of grace”). Shepherd has no place for such a structure in his theology and cannot, therefore, affirm consistently the “system of doctrine” taught in the Confession he cites so often in his writings.

      -Faith, Obedience, and Justification: Current Evangelical Departures, p. 186

      The foundation of justification sola fide is a contrast between the law (“the covenant of works”) and the gospel (“the covenant of grace”). It is this contrast that Nichols rejects. That is a serious error and it was the point of this post to demonstrate that Nichols agrees with Shepherd and uses similar sentiments to make his argument. Thus the issue should be discussed, which I have not seen done for the most part.

      I am not commenting on Nichols’ love or respect to the confession. I am commenting on his agreement or disagreement with it.

      Again, I’m just curious, how much have you studied the Federal Vision and Shepherd?


  8. Brandon said: //I am not commenting on Nichols’ love or respect to the confession. I am commenting on his agreement or disagreement with it.//

    Well, to the degree that A), B) and C) are accurately and fairly representing your offering in this post, the conclusion C) seems an untenable over-reach and should be rejected.

    Would the author recognize his position in an opponent’s critique?

    I agree with these men:

    A gold standard for constructive Christian criticism must consider the question of whether the critic is accurate in reflecting the views of the author he proposes to criticize. A great danger seen frequently is a criticism that incautiously over-steps and over-reaches, especially with a lack of care with for the content of positions the author being criticized actually holds to.

    So, looking at the post here, one of the first things to inquire about with the statement “Nichol’s … disagreement” with the Confession is to ask whether the assessment is fairly representative of his position. After my (relatively broad) studies of 3 ST loci with Pastor Nichols, and familiarity with his text cited above regarding the nature of the CoW, I can say that I have not found forensic data in his text indicating that Nichols disagrees with the Confession, or is articulating an explicit position that he believes disagrees with the Confession. In that regards, I think you have too quickly presupposed a violation based upon an untenable association fallacy (see A), B) and C) above) rather than adequately diagnosed a legitimate difference. And when men’s (such as Pastor Nichol’s) professional reputations are on the line, I would humbly request that a higher standard for disagreement be called for.

    //The foundation of justification sola fide is a contrast between the law (“the covenant of works”) and the gospel (“the covenant of grace”). It is this contrast that Nichols rejects.//

    Sorry, I think Nichol’s criticism of some understanding/presentations of CoW is more subtle, careful, specific and measured than that. The layout of your post above places two texts in side by side association and offers a conclusion based upon a presumed point of identity or solidarity that isn’t explicitly stated and seems to be an over-reach. I think that approach is less than edifying, and open to the kinds of perils noted above: guilt by insinuation, association and “fruit inspection”.

    //Again, I’m just curious, how much have you studied the Federal Vision and Shepherd?//

    I am but a sophomore student. 🙂


    1. Brock, did you read what I already commented? A B and C are not “accurately and fairly representing [my] post”

      Once again, the quotes are not guilt by association, they demonstrate agreement on foundational errors. If someone doesn’t recognize their own quote, it’s not the critic’s fault.

      I refrained from adding any personal comments to this post, not because I wanted to deceitfully insinuate anything, but because I wanted people to draw their own conclusions. If you’re not familiar with the intricacies of Shepherd’s errors or the history of the Federal Vision controversy, then I would simply note that this post isn’t intended for you. You may prefer something like this:

      (Down the road when you get time, I would recommend reading “The Current Justification Controversy” by O. Palmer Robertson as well as “The Companion to The Current Justification Controversy” by John Robbins as starting points, followed by the PCA Federal Vision report)

      Thanks for sharing your concerns. Again, I’m sorry you found the post unedifying. That was not my intent.


      1. Brandon said: //Brock, did you read what I already commented? A B and C are not “accurately and fairly representing [my] post”//

        Yes, I did indeed misread your response. My apologies. 🙂


    2. Btw, Shepherd also “expresses specific, careful and reputable reservations about a particular representation of the “Covenant of Works””, as do the rest of the FV advocates.


      1. Brandon said: //Btw, Shepherd also “expresses specific, careful and reputable reservations about a particular representation of the “Covenant of Works””, as do the rest of the FV advocates//

        Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my concerns. I’ve probed enough into the issue to see my guilt by association concerns validated (at least at a prima facie level).

        May you face critics that take only the highest and godliest of approaches in their criticisms of you, ones that would sooner expose their own personal reputation to unwarranted scandal than to mischaracterize the personal reputation of another.

        Kind Regards!


  9. I read Nichols book a few years ago and found him inconsistent in his handling of the Mosaic Covenant. In the chapter discussing it, he considered it as part of the covenant of grace. In summing up the covenant of grace, late in the book, the Mosaic Covenant was not mentioned.


  10. James White has cited Nichols’ work as his main covenant theology resource. Thankfully, many that have taken that resource as their main one have not come to Shepherd’s conclusions. SGCB, which is very near me and I visited recently, don’t tend to have a dog in the fight and just put out multiple works by Puritans, Presbyterians, Reformed/Calvinistic Baptists of different stripes, etc. that are generally helpful. I don’t know what Mr. Gaydosh’s view is, and as such have no problems with him outside of him being an avid Alabama fan.


  11. markmcculley

    Engelsma–Highlighting the difference between Hoeksema and the men of the Federal Vision is the fact that, although they deny that Adam could have merited higher, eternal life, the advocates of the Federal Vision allow that Adam might, nevertheless, have obtained the higher life for himself and the race by “maturing” into that life through his obedience. Hoeksema would have condemned this notion as heartily as he did the notion of earning. The appeal to Hoeksema’s rejection of the covenant of works by the men of the Federal Vision is mistaken because Hoeksema’s fundamental objection against the covenant of works was different from that of the proponents of the Federal Vision. Hoeksema’s objection held against Adam’s obtaining higher life for himself and the human race in any manner whatever. Viewing the covenant with Adam in light of God’s eternal decree to glorify Himself by realizing His covenant in Jesus Christ, Hoeksema insisted that only the Son of God in human flesh could obtain the higher and better heavenly and eternal life for Himself and elect humanity, in the way of His cross and resurrection.


  12. Pingback: 1689 Federalism & Theonomy Are Not Compatible – Josh Robinson

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