Timeline Snapshot of Justification Debate
Reading the comments online over the role of our works following John Piper’s words in his foreword for Thomas Schreiner can be a little confusing. The reality is, the comments you read are the tip of an iceberg. Under the water there is a vast labyrinth of debate over biblical, systematic, and historical theology. My goal, in this post, is to give you a snapshot of that labyrinth, as succinctly as I can. The end will include a recommended bibliography.
(Dates are approximate)
- 1954: WTS professor (1930-67) John Murray (1898-1975) in The Covenant of Grace: A Biblico-Theological Study says covenant theology “needs recasting.”
- 1958: Neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) rejects the Covenant of Works because God’s dealings with his creatures are exclusively gracious, thus teaching monocovenantalism (same covenant both pre and post-fall). Gospel always precedes law.
- 1973(?): In The Adamic Administration, Murray rejects the Covenant of Works on the grounds that it does not account for the elements of grace present. Eternal life was a promise of grace to Adam, not a meritorious reward to be earned. Lev 18:5; Rom 10:5; Gal 3:12 state the obedience all image bearers naturally owe, not a principle of works. Murray indicated that he had actually been impacted a bit by Barth’s argumentation on the nature of the Covenant of Works.
- 1976-1982: Norman Shepherd (1933-) succeeded Murray in the chair of systematic theology at WTS (began teaching there in 1963). In a 1975 faculty discussion, Shepherd affirmed that works are an instrument of justification. The “Justification Controversy” begins when Shepherds’ students affirm that we are justified by faith and works in their ordination examinations. Shepherd further develops on Murray to fully embrace monocovenantalism, rejecting a “works-merit” paradigm in favor of a “faith-grace” paradigm to describe Adam’s pre-fall relationship to God, which is the same as ours today. The “antithesis between the covenant of works and an antithetical covenant of grace” is “schizophrenic.” He rejects the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, arguing that justification is only the remission of sins, which we receive through obedient faith. The controversy raged for 6 years until Shepherd was finally let go, though not fired for his unbiblical and unconfessional views. He was never tried for heresy (he was transferred to the CRC).
- 1981: An intended merger between the OPC and the PCA failed because of the OPC’s toleration of Shepherd’s doctrine of justification.
- 1965-: Richard Gaffin, after studying at WTS, began teaching there 2 years after Shepherd (1965-2014?). Gaffin was an outspoken, ardent defender of Shepherd throughout the justification controversy. His support for Shepherd continued long after Shepherd left. In 2000, Gaffin endorsed Shepherd’s book on monocovenantalism The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism, saying “God’s covenant is the only way of life that fully honors both the absolute, all-embracing sovereignty of his saving grace and the full, uninhibited activity of his people.” Gaffin has never recanted or withdrawn his support for Shepherd. Romans 2:6-16 becomes a central point for Gaffin’s theology. In his lectures on Romans, he says “It’s a life and death situation that’s in view here. Further, this ultimate judgment has as its criterion or standard… good works. The doing of the law, as that is the criterion for all human beings, again, believers as well as unbelievers. In fact, in the case of the believer a positive outcome is in view and that positive outcome is explicitly said to be justification… Eternal life follows upon a future justification by doing the law.”
- 2001: The 68th OPC GA votes to add Romans 2:6,7,13,16 as proof-texts for WLC90. It was not present in the original.
- 2002: Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church hosted its annual pastors’ conference with speakers Douglas Wilson, John Barach, Steve Wilkins, and Steve Schlissel addressing the topic “The Federal Vision: An Examination of Reformed Covenantalism.” This launched the Federal Vision movement, of which Norman Shepherd is often referred to as the father.
- 2002-03: John Kinnaird (1935-), a ruling elder in the OPC and vocal defender of Shepherd during the controversy (calling for judicial action against those who continued their opposition to Shepherd), is found guilty of teaching justification by faith and works by his session (congregation) for statements such as “[T]he pre-Iapsarian (before Adam’s sin) Covenant of Works with Adam, [is] but [a] sub-part of the Covenant of Redemption… It is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous on that Day of Judgement. WCF XXXIII.I and II Romans 2:1-16.” “On the day of judgment I will hear God declare me to be righteous… The reason will be first because it will be true because God will have changed me so that I am really and personally righteous. After all, we will be crowned with righteousness. This is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in my sanctification in this life.” The verdict is upheld by the Philadelphia Presbytery (regional rule of elders). However the verdict is then overturned by the OPC GA on the basis of the 2001 addition of proof-texts to WLC90. Richard Gaffin defended Kinnaird as an expert witness during the trial and led the move to overturn the verdict on the floor of the GA where he said “In that future aspect of justification, the sanctification of believers – by which we could also say, their obedience, the good works for which they have been created in Christ Jesus – in that future judgment, in that future aspect, the sanctification of believers over the course of their lives, however imperfect, will come into consideration. Sanctification will come into consideration at the final judgment… That’s good news.” Kinnaird recently came to Piper’s defense.
- 2004: The 2004 OPC General Assembly reversed the proof-text change as the result of an overture by the Presbytery of Connecticut and Southern New York.
- 2005: Richard Gaffin delivers lectures at the Auburn Avenue pastors’ conference, together with N.T. Wright. Gaffin’s lectures become his book By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation.
- 2012: Federal Vision proponents publish a festschrift for Norman Shepherd titled Obedient Faith.
- 2013: Mark Jones writes foreword to 2nd edition of Gaffin’s book, which was “deeply influential in [his] own theological thinking.” Asking “what could I possibly say that is not already said better in this book?” Mark answers “it ocurred to me that extensive references to early modern Reformed divines (ca. 1500-1800) were absent… So I am happy to provide some historical background, especially when some have questioned Professor Gaffin’s theology in relation to the early modern period.” Thus Jones’ work has been to establish historic precedent for Gaffin’s view of justification.
- 1980: Daniel Fuller (1925-), son of the co-founder of Fuller Theological Seminary and professor at FTS (1953-93) writes a critique of both dispensationalism and covenant theology Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum?: The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology in which he argues there is no antithesis between law and gospel. Therefore “the law and the gospel are one and the same.” In subsequent papers he affirms “Moses was justified by the work, or obedience, of faith… good works are made the instrumental cause of justification.” Fuller says the Covenant of Works is the “highest kind of blasphemy” because it puts God in man’s debt. “[T]he blessing Adam was to receive after passing his probationary test [was] a work of grace rather than the payment of debt.“
- 1991: John Piper, former student of Fuller, writes a foreword to Fuller’s The Unity of the Bible: Unfolding God’s Plan for Humanity in which he says “No book besides the Bible has had a greater influence on my life than Daniel Fuller’s The Unity of the Bible. When I first read it as a classroom syllabus over twenty years ago, everything began to change… God’s law stopped being at odds with the gospel. It stopped being a job description for earning wages under a so-called covenant of works (which I never could find in the Bible)… The whole question of how saving faith relates to obedience was transformed. Obedience is not just tacked onto faith as a disconnected evidence… The life-changing effects of Fuller’s ‘The Unity of the Bible’ are not a fluke.”
- 1995: John Piper writes Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God in which he says “Daniel Fuller’s vision of the Christian life as an ‘obedience of faith’ is the garden in which the plants of my ponderings have grown. Almost three decades of dialogue on the issues in this book have left a deep imprint. If I tried to show it with foot-notes, they would be on almost every page.”
- 2007: Piper writes The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright in which he says “Gaffin’s exegetical efforts in By Faith, Not by Sight and the careful work of many other scholars [i.e. Fuller], and my own efforts to understand Scripture persuade me that this is the true biblical understanding of the function of works in the final judgment.”
The list could go on for pages and pages, but hopefully this helps give a snapshot of what’s going on below the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t included here any of the response to this view, particularly that of Kline and his followers. Kline was the most vocal critique. However, Kline made some fundamental errors and intentionally rejected parts of the confession regarding the Covenant of Works. Thus his followers, though correct of justification by faith alone, are off the mark on other areas that make their response somewhat ineffective. A lot of what you’ll see online is argumentation between these two schools of thought, focused in WTS and WSC. I don’t fully side with either, though WSC does get sola fide correct.
In a subsequent post I will be reviewing Gaffin’s book and referring to this timeline. The key issue in this debate is the Covenant of Works/covenantal merit. The law/gospel antithesis is the Covenant of Works/Covenant of Grace distinction. When that is rejected, one must re-interpret what justification apart from works means. These men do so by arguing that the works Paul has in mind are works done with a sinful motive to earn reward. We are justified apart from those works, not because they are imperfect, but because we cannot earn anything from God. However, as James says, we are not justified by faith alone apart from works. What James is referring to is “the obedience of faith.” Paul and James are referring to the same justification, but they are referring to different works. Justification is apart from self-wrought works of merit, but not apart from Spirit-wrought works of faith (so they say).
It all starts with the rejection of the Covenant of Works.
[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 Current Justification Controversy O. Palmer Robertson
- A Companion to the Current Justification Controversy John W. Robbins
- Faith, Obedience, and Justification Samuel E. Waldron
- The Doctrine of Justification John Owen
- Can the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Be Saved? John R. Robbins
- Can the Presbyterian Church in America Be Saved? Sean Gerety
- The Changing of the Guard Mark W. Karlberg
- Christianity & Neo-Liberalism Paul Elliot
- The Emperor Has No Clothes Stephen Cunha
- Not Reformed At All John W. Robbins & Sean Gerety