Norman Shepherd: What’s All the Fuss?

Norman Shepherd taught a false gospel of works righteousness at Westminster Theological Seminary in the 70s by arguing good works are instrumental to justification (though he later changed the way he expressed this principle). When asked in their ordination exam how we are justified, graduates were answering “by faith and works”. When asked who taught them that, they said Professor Shepherd. He paved the way for the Federal Vision. Edmund Clowney summarizes:

The debate about justification arose from concern that Professor Shepherd was making obedience as well as faith instrumental to justification. This was occasioned originally by Professor Shepherd’s effort to deal with James 2:24. His argument was that since good works are not the ground of our justification, just as faith is not the ground of our justification, and since both are necessary for our justification, we may question the legitimacy of speaking of faith as the alone instrument of justification (WCF XI:2). Good works, too, may be said to be instrumental.

In 2002, Shepherd delivered 4 lectures titled “What’s All the Fuss?” regarding his views on justification:

  1. What’s All the Fuss? (Part 1): The Biblical Doctrine of Justification
  2. What’s All the Fuss? (Part 2): The Church Doctrine of Justification by Faith
  3. What’s All the Fuss? (Part 3): Job Justified by Faith
  4. What’s All the Fuss? (Part 4): A Parable About Three Men

The thrust of his lectures is to show that the Bible does not teach a works-merit paradigm. He presents his position as the “faith-grace” or “covenantal” paradigm and he opposes this to the “works-merit” paradigm.

Well the preceding is only a sampling of the problems we run into on the works-merit paradigm. We become uncomfortable expressing biblical doctrines using biblical language. Texts get bent out of shape in order to make them fit into a paradigm that does not arise out of Scripture and is foreign to Scripture. And without meaning to do so or wanting to do so we can find ourselves compromising the integrity of what is written in the Word of God.

The biblical paradigm, I would suggest to you, is one that is consistently covenantal without the schizophrenic antithesis between the covenant of works and an antithetical covenant of grace.

Lecture 2, @27:00

In lecture 1 he insists that the biblical doctrine of justification consists in forgiveness of sins only.

According to Paul, justification is simply the remission of sin. Justification is the forgiveness of sin. A sinner is justified when his sin is forgiven so that he is accepted by God and becomes an heir of eternal life.

Lecture 1, @11:15

It does not provide a righteousness not our own, it only forgives our sins. And forgiveness alone is insufficient to eternally save anyone. It merely makes us eligible for eternal life.

By his death and resurrection, Jesus once and for all paid the death penalty for sin so that we could be forgiven. By his death and resurrection, Jesus gave us the power of a new life so that we could really live in communion with one another and with the Lord as covenant keepers. He wrote his law on our hearts so that we would obey and live.

Lecture 2, @37:00

Proverbs 12:28 “In the way of righteousness there is life. Along that path is immortality” That is salvation by grace in the Old Testament and it is also salvation by grace in the New Testament. The works-merit paradigm has no way of accounting for those words in Proverbs 12:28. In terms of that paradigm this is nothing but salvation by merit or works, but it’s presented to us in the bible as gospel.

Lecture 2, @43:40

Faith is not belief in the work of Christ. Faith is our obedience.

Through faith in Jesus Christ, faith in his blood, we can know now that we will stand forgiven, justified, in the day of judgment. This faith is an ongoing reality in our lives. We live every day and every hour of every day by faith. And that faith is a living, active penitent and obedient faith. [Inaudible] By the grace of God we have a living and active faith. The good news of the gospel is that the just will live by faith, even though they do not deserve, in themselves, to live. We are pilgrims on the path of life, the narrow path that leads to eternal life. The Bible calls it the way of holiness. By the grace of God alone we have been placed on that path and we stay on that path and we will reach our ultimate destination.

Lecture 2, @46:00

Yes we have tended to do that [separate the two hinges of justification and sanctification]. And the reason we do that is because of this works-merit paradigm that lies at the bottom of the way that we have structured this doctrine. Because in this paradigm where the meritorious ground for our salvation is the active obedience of Christ imputed to us and not anything that we do for ourselves. And again, within that paradigm that make sense. That’s what makes it evangelical. But it creates a situation in which now we hear any demand for righteousness in the bible, any demand for repentance, as, which of course is a matter of sanctification, as conflicting with justification by free grace so that the stress on sanctification becomes a threat to justification by free grace, within that paradigm. And the way in which people try to account for it is to say, well, the good works, the obedience will automatically flow once we have believed and been justified, then the sanctification will come along. But that isn’t the way that the bible presents it. We’re constantly exhorted to persevere in righteousness and holiness, without which we will not see the Lord. Then I say, what is the paradigm that accounts for that kind of biblical language?

Lecture 2, @56:00

The active obedience of Christ is not the meritorious ground of our salvation because, not because of any inadequacy in it or anything like that, but because there is no such thing in the bible as obtaining salvation by the merit of works. Salvation after the fall or the gift of eternal life before the fall was never granted on the basis of the merit of works but was always a free gift that is received by faith. That is why Adam was tested on the point of faith. Will we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God?

Lecture 2, @1:03:00

We are in the same position as Adam in terms of our need to obtain eternal life. The only difference is that when we sin, it is forgiven. But our works play the same role as they did for Adam before the fall. This is contrary to the London Baptist Confession

London Baptist Confession

19.6._____ Although true believers be not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned, yet it is of great use to them as well as to others, in that as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their natures, hearts, and lives, so as examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against, sin; together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ and the perfection of his obedience; it is likewise of use to the regenerate to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin; and the threatenings of it serve to shew what even their sins deserve, and what afflictions in this life they may expect for them, although freed from the curse and unallayed rigour thereof. The promises of it likewise shew them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof, though not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works; so as man’s doing good and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law and not under grace.

The confession articulates a contrast between the way our good works function and the way Adam’s good works functioned. His obedience to the law was as a covenant of works. Ours is not. This distinction is fundamental to the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone articulated in the confession (note the affirmation of the imputation of active obedience):

11.1._____ Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness by faith, which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God. 

Shepherd is right that this doctrine of justification rests upon the works-merit paradigm and upon the concept of a covenant of works. 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

Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God’s Covenants

With all of that in mind, it is particularly troubling to see people continue to recommend Greg Nichols’ book as a faithful representation of the system of doctrine taught in the London Baptist Confession. Nichols’ book is idiosyncratic and not representative of the confession, nor its signatories (see, for example, here and here). Confessional Reformed Baptists should stop recommending his book as representative of our confessional views.

The similarities between much of what Nichols writes and what Shepherd teaches is striking:

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


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)

Shepherd Analysis

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

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.

Further Reading:

9 thoughts on “Norman Shepherd: What’s All the Fuss?

  1. Pingback: Norman Shepherd and Greg Nichols Contra LBCF | Reformed Libertarian

  2. Pingback: Norman Shepherd: What’s All the Fuss? [Brandon Adams] | The Confessing Baptist

  3. Pingback: The Republication Debate Gets Muddy | Contrast

  4. Pingback: Timeline Snapshot of Justification Debate | Contrast

  5. Pingback: Is John Piper Confessional? | Contrast

  6. Pingback: Kline’s Abrahamic Covenant of Works 1: Murray and Shepherd | Contrast

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s