Re: Sumpter, White, & Wilson on “Federal Vision Baptists?”

Too Long; Didn’t Read synoposis:

  1. Sumpter acknowledged that the Joint Federal Vision Statement (which Wilson still affirms) is incompatible with the reformed law/gospel distinction and must be rejected.
  2. He clarified that he and Wilson agree with Shepherd that eternal life would have been a gracious gift received by Adam through faith alone, but they disagree with Shepherd in that they believe it would have also been a reward due for work performed.
  3. Thus Sumpter and Wilson are not Shepherdian. But they are also not Westminsterian. They are Shepminsterian. Being Westminsterian would require them to reject the JFVS on the Adamic Covenant (of Works) and then revise their systematic and exegetical theology accordingly.
  4. While clarifying some points, the White & Wilson discussion did not address any of the above (didn’t even mention the JFVS). It was a surface-level softball discussion in response to RSC’s 5 points, not a response to what I argued.


Last month I wrote a post titled “Federal Vision Baptists?” I’m very thankful that many people expressed appreciation for the post, explaining that they previously did not understand the concerns but now they do. Toby Sumpter and Doug Wilson both responded on their blogs (here and here). Doug Wilson and James White also posted a video discussion response to my post. I am thankful for all of these replies.

Some (many?) people were introduced to the Federal Vision controversy for the first time through my post. I took it for granted that people were aware of it and understood Wilson’s history in it, thus I did not elaborate on any of the history. I rather focused very specifically on one point: the law/gospel distinction articulated in the CoW/CoG distinction. For those who have not studied the controversy, it would be quite easy to conclude (from Wilson’s response) that I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about and that I was simply duped by RSC. If that is your reaction, I would simply urge you to carefully re-read what I wrote and to withhold judgment until you have taken the time to study the controversy more closely.

Along these lines, some have been mistakenly led to believe that Wilson’s discussion with White proved that 1) Wilson is not FV and 2) Wilson is simply Westminsterian. A couple of brief Twitter threads illustrate this (here and here).

The second thread:

Sadly, no, we’re not done.

My original post was long. This one will be as well. There’s no way around it. Wilson’s errors are complicated and require a lot of care to untangle. That task may not interest everyone. This post is written for those who are interested. If you read, please do so carefully.


At the end of Wilson’s post he says that my criticism of his theology is really about my disagreement with his “effective opposition to all of that woke foolishness.” To clarify where I stand on that issue, please see my 3-part critique of the social justice movement in the reformed church. Tom Ascol referred to this series as “Perhaps the best analysis I’ve seen of the social justice debate.” I do not mention this to commend myself, but to state as clearly as possible that my criticism of Wilson has nothing to do with being woke.

I chose to address Wilson’s errors because I have seen his influence grow in baptist circles (who are largely unfamiliar with FV), in large part because of Apologia Church. A quick glance at my post directory shows that a detailed understanding of baptist covenant theology is the focus of this blog. Hence my post “Federal Vision Baptists?” was right in line with the focus of this blog as a whole.

Kline/R. Scott Clark?

To clarify another point, I am not a Klinean (though I appreciate many things he had to say). I disagree with Meredith Kline on numerous points. Most pertinent to this discussion, I believe the CoW was an act of voluntary condescension distinct from creation, whereas Kline does not (with implications for how we understand merit – see here and here). Thus I disagree with R. Scott Clark on that point as well.


My focus was to explain Norm Shepherd’s rejection of a specific and carefully defined distinction between law and gospel, to show Sandlin and Wilson’s agreement with Shepherd on this specific and carefully defined point and to show the implications of that rejection. Shepherd specifically defined “law” in the Reformed distinction between law and gospel as the belief that Adam could earn a covenant reward by his obedience to the law.

[T]he distinction between law and gospel corresponds broadly to the distinction between covenant of works and covenant of grace… That is to say, Adam would earn or achieve whatever eschatological blessing and privilege was held out to him on the ground of perfect law keeping. In this covenant, justification is by works… I would like to offer a different way of looking at the Adamic covenant… Whatever blessing was in store for him was not a reward to be earned by performance but a gift to be received by faith… Paul writes in Romans 4:4, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” [4] If Adam had turned a deaf ear to Satan and obeyed the Lord’s command, he would not have received what was his due, but a gift. He would have received that gift by faith.

(Law and Gospel in Covenantal Perspective)

Note very carefully Shepherd’s appeal to Romans 4:4. He understands that reward due and gracious gift are mutually exclusive. Something cannot be both a gracious gift and an earned reward. It must be one or the other. Shepherd says eternal life has never, ever been a reward earned. It has only ever been a gracious gift received through faith. Shepherd’s rejection of justification by faith alone flows from this starting point. I showed how he winds up redefining both “faith” and “alone” as a result. (I would encourage you to re-read my post to make sure you fully understand these points.) Sandlin stated his agreement with Shepherd’s rejection of this specific and carefully defined distinction between law and gospel.

There is no fundamental gospel-law distinction… I do not believe this [Gen 2:16-17] has anything to do with what is traditionally termed a prelapsarian (or pre-Fall) “covenant of works”: that eternal life was something man was rewarded as merit for his obedience. Before the Fall, this view alleges, man was to merit eternal life and afterward Christ must merit it for us. I disagree… [E]ternal life was not something that Jesus was “rewarded” for being extraordinarily virtuous… Eternal life, even in the prelapsarian period, was of grace, and not of merit.

Gospel, Law, and Redemptive History: “Trust and Obey

Note that both Shepherd and Sandlin acknowledge in their essays that they are departing from the reformed tradition on this point. I do not recall anyone objecting to my representation of Shepherd and Sandlin on this point. The Joint Federal Vision Statement agrees with them on this point.

The Covenant of Life

We affirm that Adam was in a covenant of life with the triune God in the Garden of Eden, in which arrangement Adam was required to obey God completely, from the heart. We hold further that all such obedience, had it occurred, would have been rendered from a heart of faith alone, in a spirit of loving trust. Adam was created to progress from immature glory to mature glory, but that glorification too would have been a gift of grace, received by faith alone.

We deny that continuance in this covenant in the Garden was in any way a payment for work rendered. Adam could forfeit or demerit the gift of glorification by disobedience, but the gift or continued possession of that gift was not offered by God to Adam conditioned upon Adam’s moral exertions or achievements. In line with this, we affirm that until the expulsion from the Garden, Adam was free to eat from the tree of life. We deny that Adam had to earn or merit righteousness, life, glorification, or anything else. [bold emphasis added]

Joint Federal Vision Statement

Because Wilson signed this statement, I assumed that he understood it and agreed with it. I thus critiqued him accordingly, showing how I believed he also subsequently adopted Shepherd’s redefinition of “faith” and “alone.” I concluded with two possibilities regarding Wilson:

  1. At best, Wilson is thoroughly confused on the gospel, having been deceived by Shepherd’s false teaching.
  2. At worst, he is a wolf “speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.”

My Error

In my previous post, I erred on two points regarding Sumpter and Wilson.

  1. I neglected one important statement from Wilson in his CREC exam (stating that eternal life would have been due to Adam as a matter of justice).
  2. I treated Sumpter and Wilson as consistent theologians like Shepherd (who formerly held the chair of Systematic Theology at WTS).

Sumpter’s Response

Toby Sumpter responded with a post titled Stainless Steel Theology, Federal Vision, & the Apologia Crew. He and I had a profitable discussion in the comment section. I encourage you to read his post and the comments. In the comments we were able to clarify that his main objection to my post was that Wilson does not in fact agree with Shepherd’s rejection of the distinction between law and gospel as defined above. Wilson used the same or very similar language as Shepherd, but he did not fully agree.

Sumpter argued that he and Wilson do agree with the historic distinction between law and gospel specifically because they do believe that eternal life would have been a reward due for Adam’s obedience to the law, as well as for Christ’s. This would explain why Wilson still affirms the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, while Shepherd does not. Recall in my previous post I said “Wilson hasn’t quite connected Shepherd’s dots. He still thinks Jesus had to obtain something by his faith, rather than, as Shepherd explains simply receive a gift. Wilson still has some law/gospel baggage infecting his view of the IAOC.” It turns out that is because he does not agree with Shepherd that eternal life was never a reward due. Sumpter pointed me to a brief statement from Wilson in his CREC exam (which I had read and noted previously, but then misplaced and could not find again when I wanted to comment on it in my previous post. That is entirely my fault.).

44. Define “merit.” Could Adam have “merited” our salvation? How did Christ “merit” our salvation? My skittishness about the word merit has to do with my rejection of certain medieval assumptions about merit, in which merit practically becomes a quasi-substance. But as a general term of praise, I have no problem with it (as in, “that argument has merit.”). I agree with John Frame in his foreword to The Backbone of the Bible, when he says that “although I prefer to speak of ‘desert’ or ‘justice’ to speaking of ‘merit,’ Shepherd has not convinced me that the last term is simply wrong.” Had Adam obeyed he would have obtained our salvation, and it would have been a fulfillment of the terms of the covenant, and therefore just and right. The same is true of Christ’s obedience. Christ purchased us, and it is just and right that this happen. My problem with merit is that it tends to drag autonomy behind it. Remove that, and I would not want to quibble over words.

Here is what Frame said at more length:

By his own admission, Shepherd has taken positions contrary to some elements of the Reformed tradition: (1) He denies that merit plays any role in covenant relationships between God and man. (2) He denies, therefore, that in justification God imputes the merit of Jesus’ active righteousness (i.e. the righteousness of his sinless life) to his people… Let’s think first about “merit,” thesis… For Shepherd, the covenant relation [including Adam’s] is more like a family than like a business or school… But even in an ideal loving family, parents rightly expect obedience, and the rewards and punishments are just, and so, in one sense, deserved, however much they may differ from the values of the market.

We may not want to use the word “merit” for such desert, but we need to recognize the importance of it… The language of “merit” can be rephrased into the language of “deserving,” which in turn can be rephrased into the language of justice. Although I prefer to speak of “desert” and “justice” to speaking of “merit,” Shepherd has not convinced me that the last term is simply wrong.

This is a crucial point. It means that Wilson rejects Shepherd’s view of the Adamic Covenant and eternal life. It also means he rejects John Murray’s view of the matter (whom Shepherd succeeded at WTS and built upon). Murray said “The promise of confirmed integrity and blessedness was one annexed to an obedience that Adam owed and, therefore, was a promise of grace. All that Adam could have claimed on the basis of equity [justice] was justification and life as long as he perfectly obeyed, but not confirmation so as to insure indefectibility.” Frame says eternal life would have been Adam’s just desert. Murray and Shepherd say no. Here is a table to clarify:

WCFBy nature, man owes obedience to God without expecting anything in return. By covenant, God voluntarily condescends to offer man the reward of eternal life for that same obedience. Thus if Adam fulfilled the terms of the covenant, eternal life would be owed to him as a matter of justice.
Eternal life: reward due (by covenant)
Condition: perfect obedience to the law
MurrayBy nature, man owes obedience to God without expecting anything in return. There is no pre-fall covenant. Eternal life would have been entirely of grace, not something owed, even covenantally.
Eternal life: gracious gift
Condition: perfect obedience to the law
ShepherdBy nature, man owes obedience to God without expecting anything in return. There is a pre-fall covenant. Eternal life would have been a gracious gift received through faith alone (an obedient, living faith that works and trusts in God).
Eternal life: gracious gift
Condition: living faith alone producing obedience to the law
JFVSBy nature, man owes obedience to God without expecting anything in return. There is a pre-fall covenant. Eternal life would have been a gracious gift received through faith alone (an obedient, living faith that works and trusts in God).
Eternal life: gracious gift
Condition: living faith alone producing obedience to the law

I pointed out to Sumpter that the Joint Federal Vision Statement agrees with Shepherd and denies that eternal life was in any way a reward that could be earned by Adam. Sumpter acknowledged that and said the statement was wrong. He said he would write a post clarifying for everyone that an affirmation of the historic reformed distinction between law and gospel requires a rejection of the Joint Federal Vision Statement. (I have not seen that post yet and I have not seen Wilson acknowledge this.)

…But he and Wilson do agree with Shepherd that eternal life for Adam would have been a gracious gift received through faith alone. This is where a tremendous amount of confusion comes in. Shepherd, Sandlin, the Joint Federal Vision Statement, and their critics (including myself) all recognize (per Rom 4:4) that a gracious gift and a due reward are mutually exclusive. They are opposites. Something cannot be both a gracious gift and a due reward. But Sumpter and Wilson believe that had Adam perfectly obeyed, eternal life would have been both a due reward and a gracious gift. They stand very squarely on a logical contradiction.

This was Sumpter’s point about “stainless steel theology.” I was assuming that they understood and affirmed this logical point, and thus criticized them accordingly, when in fact they do not understand and affirm the logical distinction between a gift and an earned reward. Thus I wound up misunderstanding their position, which rests upon contradiction rather than a consistent system of theology. They have one foot in each system (Westminster’s and Shepherd’s).

Steven Wedgeworth wrote a post arguing that Wilson’s doctrine of justification is orthodox. One of the primary statements he used in Wilson’s defense is the statement above agreeing with Frame instead of Shepherd. However, Wedgeworth did not say a single word about what the JFVS says (and Wilson affirms) on this point. I asked him about it in the comment section, which I encourage you to read. I tried discussing this with Wilson in the comment section of his post, but we didn’t get very far.

Wilson’s Response

Wilson also responded in a post of his own. Regretfully, he mistakenly thinks that

  1. The 5 points listed towards the top of my post was my summary of Clark’s take on FV. It was not. That was Clark’s summary of Clark’s take on FV.
  2. That my criticism of him was based upon Clark’s understanding of FV. It was not. My analysis of Wilson is found later in the post and does not rely on Clark’s analysis, but upon my own reading of Wilson.

I quoted Clark’s summary points because

  1. Clark’s post kick-started this recent discussion of FV.
  2. Wedgeworth responded to and interacted with it.
  3. I was continuing that conversation.
  4. The 5 points were helpful in showing how some of the FV issues are related to baptism, while others are not. The point of my post was to help baptists understand how this is not just a paedobaptist issue.

I should have been more careful to note that Clark’s summary statements needed more nuance. For example, I should have noted that Wilson does distinguish between the Adamic Covenant and the Covenant of Grace, as I saw when I read Wilson. However, you will note that when it came to my own analysis, I nowhere accused Wilson of holding to monocovenantalism. I did not rely on Clark to make my point. (That said, a primary point of the monocovenantalism charge is that FV advocates believe the condition of the Adamic Covenant was the same as our condition in the CoG. In that sense it is still relevant to Wilson’s error, if properly qualified.)

I avoided points 3-5 in my post entirely, thus I did not address any needed nuance or how it applied to Wilson.

Norm Shepherd, Law & Gospel

Wilson says

Brandon simply assumes that I am following Norman Shepherd when I am not. He says, for example, “Wilson follows Shepherd in rejecting” the law/gospel distinction. But I don’t reject the law/gospel distinction. I reject a law/gospel hermeneutic. In the experience of a sinner being converted, I absolutely believe in the law/gospel distinction.

First, I acknowledged in my post that Wilson holds to a law/gospel distinction and that he frequently writes against a law/gospel hermeneutic. I specifically quoted Wilson saying “There is a vast difference between a law/gospel hermeneutic, which I reject heartily and with enthusiasm, and a law/gospel application or use, which is pastoral, prudent and wise.” Thus Wilson’s response here misdirects away from my actual argument about what he believes.

Second, I very carefully defined the law/gospel distinction that Shepherd rejected (see beginning of this post). He rejected an objective law/gospel distinction rooted in the covenants. Wilson affirms a subjective use of law and gospel, but insofar as Wilson affirms the Joint Federal Vision Statement, he agrees with Shepherd’s rejection of this objective, covenantal law/gospel distinction. As explained above, I neglected to account for Wilson’s agreement with Frame. That is, I neglected to account for Wilson’s contradictory stance on this issue. He both affirms and rejects the reformed objective law/gospel distinction rooted in the CoW/CoG.

I grant that this could be confusing, and so great care is needed. Shepherd and I (and others) were talking about some similar questions in Reformed theology that really needed to be discussed. But the fact that we were tackling the same or similar problems does not mean that we came up with the same answers. My answers are definitely not Shepherdian. And I am not a neonomian. I am a Westminster “general equity” theonomist. And I stoutly affirm the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Why is this so hard?

Whether he got it from Shepherd directly, or from one of his Shepherd-influenced FV-friends, the Joint Federal Vision Statement definitely is Shepherdian in its view of the Adamic Covenant and the law/gospel distinction. “Why is this so hard?” Perhaps in part because Wilson is not a consistent theologian (as Wedgeworth also notes). Another reason is given later.

In his series on FV, Wedgeworth has made it a point to insist that Wilson is distinct from all the other FV men in that he has always “remained within the Westminster system of theology.” But even he recognizes something is wrong here. He calls the JFVS section on the Covenant of Life “incoherent.” He suggests “Perhaps here the Joint FV Statement is attempting to hold Shepherdite and non-Shepherdite views together by avoiding the key points of disagreement. But as it stands, this section is confused.” Wilson objected “the FV document was not the kind of consensus document that Steven seems to assume. I drafted the statement[.]”

White and Wilson’s Response

James White and Doug Wilson had a discussion on Wilson’s version of Federal Vision, specifically in response to my post.

Woke Troll

Twice in the video, White and Wilson refer to me as a woke troll, part of the doctrinal downgrade happening in the church right now in relation to the social justice movement. This is false (see above). Regretfully it seems like White judged this to be the case and therefore chose not to carefully consider what I wrote.

R. Scott Clark’s 5 Points

See above. White chose to use Clark’s 5 points as the basis for their discussion. As a result, they did not address what I wrote.


They did not address what I wrote, or even mention the JFVS. See above.

Adam’s Faithfulness vs Our Faith

White asked Wilson about Clark’s second point: How Adam’s faithfulness relates to our faithfulness. Wilson did not answer that question. Instead, he explained that we are justified by faith alone, but justifying faith is never alone. White, impatient with FV critics, commented that this was “Standard stuff that has been taught for a long, long time.” Yes, the answer was standard, but that’s (in part) because it didn’t address the question. The question is about the fact that FV (including Wilson) confesses (per the JFVS) that Adam would have received eternal life through faith alone, and that such faith would have received eternal life because it consisted of “living trust” – like our faith as well. White did not address this point. Westminster does not teach that Adam would have received eternal life through faith alone.

Tricksy Shepherd, Tricksy Doug?

White explains that Roman Catholics believe we are justified through faith by grace, but they sneak works in because they mean something different by those words. He says Wilson’s critics are accusing him of doing the same thing. This is an important point because this is exactly what Norm Shepherd has done. He has redefined faith to include our works. Wedgeworth notes

some of Shepherd’s arguments were contrary to the basic Reformation consensus on faith and works, particularly his attempts to make faith and works co-instrumental in justification. Shepherd modified this proposal and then made new attempted proposals, but his project continually tried to achieve a sort of synthesis along these lines… Shepherd and some FV men did undermine this initial justification by obscuring the distinction between faith and works[.]

Some of these modified proposals include the idea that Adam would have received eternal life through faith alone and the modification of the traditional threefold definition of faith: from understanding, assent, trust to understanding, assent, living trust.

We deny that the faith which is the sole instrument of justification can be understood as anything other than the only kind of faith which God gives, which is to say, a living, active, and personally loyal faith. Justifying faith encompasses the elements of assent, knowledge, and living trust in accordance with the age and maturity of the believer. We deny that faith is ever alone, even at the moment of the effectual call.

Traditionally and confessionally, this “trust” was “extrospective.” It referred to our trusting in Christ’s work, not our own. The modifier “living” changes this trust into the trust that Adam had: a trusting obedience. In this way Shepherdites sneak works into faith. The Joint Federal Vision Statement chose to affirm both of these modifications.

Wilson says he answers the charge of being “tricksy” by explaining justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to our account – not in any way our infused righteousness (sanctification), because in this life sanctification is always imperfect and I need the perfect righteousness of Christ. I was thankful to hear this admission. I do not believe it is something Shepherd would agree with. In order to avoid any further confusion that he is doing what Shepherd is doing with the language of faith alone, Wilson needs to reject the JFVS’ trickery (more below).

However, that focuses more on the ground of our justification. It does not quite address the real controversy: the role of our works as an instrument in our justification. On this point, Wilson has frequently defended Shepherd and FV’s view of faith as obedience. This is part of Shepherd’s trickery. Shepherd redefines faith to include our obedience such that faithful obedience (“the obedience of faith”) is the instrument through which we receive justification. The OPC Report on Justification said

Though not ordinarily challenging the terminology of “justification by faith alone,” they have changed the definition of faith and have therefore changed the meaning of “faith alone.” (26)…

[S]ome FV proponents clearly depart from the Reformed tradition in its understanding of the nature and definition of faith. FV promoters tend to merge faith (our resting and trusting in Christ) and faithfulness (our obedient response to the gospel that entails good works). To do this leads to the confusion of justification and sanctification. Faith, as it pertains to justification, as to its saving office, is extraspective, looking away from all that we are and do and have to Christ and Him alone. This faith is indeed
never alone, being ever accompanied with all other saving graces (WCF 11.2; 14.2). But it must be distinguished from those other graces so that it is clear that our reliance for pardon and being declared righteous is on nothing other than the blood and righteousness of Christ. i.e., his obedience and sacrifice (WLC 73)…

In speaking of justifying faith, Norman Shepherd, like some FV proponents, stresses its active character, that “justifying faith is not only a penitent faith but also an obedient faith” and that faith “entails obedience to God’s Word.”… To assert, as does our Confession (WCF 11.2), that “faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification…” is to distinguish such faith from all that accompanies it. There would be no point of arguing that “faith …is the alone instrument of justification” if the act of saving faith
itself was to be identified with obedience
and good works. One often hears and reads “trust and obey” used by FV proponents as if they were indistinguishable. *303

*303 See, e.g., Sandlin in BOTB, 63-84, for his contention that since there is no law/gospel antithesis of any kind, the dynamic of the pre-and post-Fall divine-human relationship is, and always has been, “trust and obey.”

And here is where the real divide comes in between the Westminster position and that of the FV: some of the proponents of the FV flatten out the differences between the pre-lapsarian and post-lapsarian worlds and argue that the “faithfulness—or, faith-filled obedience—[that] was the basic requirement for Adam” is still the same for us, “After the fall, of course, the same posture of faith is required….[F]aith is still faith.”

While it is quite proper to argue within confessional orthodoxy that God was kind and benevolent in his dealing with Adam before the Fall, what God required of Adam for him to inherit eternal life and to enter eschatological glory was indeed, as Lusk argues, “obedience,” even faith-filled obedience if by that is meant simply an obedience arising out of trusting. What is now required by faith is something quite different. Faith after the Fall involves the recognition that one cannot obey of his own power and must rest and trust in another to do for him what he could never do for himself. (75-76)

Including works (by use of “faithfulness,” “obedience,” etc.) in the very definition of faith… [is] out of accord with Scripture and our doctrinal standards. (88)

In a post responding to this report, Wilson said

To include faithfulness in the very nature of living faith is not to intrude
works. Faithful faith justifies. Faithless faith does not.

From his exam:

By obedient faith, I mean faith that’s alive and therefore does what God expects of it. And what God expects of faith at that moment in time is to believe in Jesus, believe in the gospel, trust in Christ. Obedience does not refer to a lifetime of good works that gets smuggled into that initial moment of faith so that you’re saved by faith and works. Rather, you are justified by the instrumentality of a living faith that obeys what God requires of that faith – and that is the gospel. And then of course that same faith, which doesn’t go away, subsequently demonstrates throughout the course of the person’s life the same demeanor of obedience, or the demeanor of life, the aspect of life.

And recall from the previous post:

[I]n the traditional Reformed ordo salutis, the pride of place actually goes to a type of infused righteousness (regeneration)… The new heart is not the ground of justification any more than faith was, which we have to understand as the instrument of justification. Instead of saying “faith is the instrument (not ground) of justification,” we may now say “the regenerate heart believing is the instrument (not ground) of justification.”

CREC Examination Q105

[L]ife and obedience are essential characteristics of the instrumentality of faith

Obedience Unto Justification

[I]t is indisputable that works is the animating principle of faith.

Faith, Dead or Alive?

I am treating obedient faith and living faith as synonymous… it is obedient in its life, and in that living condition it is the instrument of our justification.

Living Faith

Does obedience (in the context of justifying faith) mean works, or does it mean life? If the former, then mixing it into justifying faith is death warmed over. If the latter, then leaving it out is death stone cold. [In context, Wilson is defending Shepherd here.]

Recapitulation Drives Out Grace

Wilson either agrees with Shepherd’s redefinition of faith and is himself being tricksy or he has been tricked by Shepherd and thinks Shepherd is simply saying that the faith that justifies is never alone. To avoid leading people to think that he is being tricksy, Wilson should reject Shepherd’s trickery. Obedience is not what makes faith living. Faith alone justifies, and the faith that justifies is never alone, but the faith that is never alone is not considered as obedient or faithful when it justifies.

Final Judgment

Wilson says that on the last day, our faithfulness is evidence that points to the genuineness of what God did at that moment of my conversion. In response to further questioning by Tom Hicks, Jr., Wilson said on Twitter that our works are evidence to others, not to God. Furthermore, he says here and elsewhere that this justification on the last day is an open vindication, not a forensic justification before God, which already occurred at our conversion. This is different from Shepherdites who believe Romans 2:13 refers to a forensic justification at the final judgment according to the works that we have done. Wilson does believe Rom 2:13 applies to Christians on the last day, but as best I can tell, he limits the meaning of “justification” to “vindication.” For those interested, Sam Waldron makes the same argument. I believe they are wrong, but I do not believe they hold to the same view as Shepherd.

Objective Covenant and Union with Christ

This is a point that even Wedgeworth acknowledges Wilson still has errors on. However, I did not address this point at all in my post because I focused solely on the points that could be common to baptists. Thus it was a surprise to me when Wilson claimed that I caused confusion on this point because, as a baptist, I simply don’t understand Presbyterian covenant theology and I thus got confused by what Wilson says on the matter. I believe I have a decent handle on the wide variety of Presbyterian covenant theologies (though I am always learning). I simply chose not to comment on it. I may do so in the future.

Shrine to Norm Shepherd

Mocking any concern about the Federal Vision’s connection to Norm Shepherd (such as that elaborated upon in the OPC Report on Justification and acknowledged by Wedgeworth), White said “Evidently you have a shrine to Norm Shepherd in your house.” Wilson said “I’m not a disciple, not a follower. Basically that’s something that is read into this whole thing.”

As explained above, one reason people (at least me) believe Wilson is following Shepherd is because Wilson is following Shepherd on a foundational point (see above), though he is also not following Shepherd on that exact same point, and therefore he is not following through with Shepherd’s rejection of justification by faith alone. Importantly, however, Wilson’s agreement with Shepherd regarding the Adamic Covenant has ramifications for Wilson’s exegetical and systematic theology (more below).

White also said “The reason for the association is to say, well, Shepherd was condemned by this person, that person, this group, that group, that seminary, whatever… and so you throw Norman Shepherd’s name out there as a little more dirt to throw on somebody[.]” This is a very disappointing and deficient analysis by White. The reason for associating those who affirm the JFVS with Shepherd is because the JFVS affirms Shepherd’s departure from Westminster. It’s not about throwing dirt. It’s about theology. Again, White and Wilson did not address the actual point of agreement that I showed in my post.

Wilson’s Attitude Towards Criticism

I mentioned on Twitter that the discussion between White and Wilson was helpful in some respects. I did not think it was helpful in responding to what I wrote. But I did think it was helpful in providing a little insight into Wilson’s involvement in Federal Vision. He explained that the Federal Vision controversy began with the 2002 Auburn Avenue Conference. He said the lines were drawn when John Robbins’ “shots were fired” and thus he fell on the side of Federal Vision – even though it eventually became clear that he was not in agreement with the other men on a number of important points.

However, in Federal Vision No Mas, Wilson explained that he himself bares responsibility for leading people to believe he agreed with the other FV men (Wedgeworth likewise says Wilson bears responsibility). In his video with White, Wilson explained that when he faces criticism, he sees it as malicious persecution for his righteousness. He rejoices and, importantly, he sees it as an indication that he needs “to double down here, This is the target. This is where I need to be.” Thus when he was criticized for what he said at the Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference, it seems to me that he “doubled down here” and decided “This is where I need to be.”

The result? “[I]n 2002 and 2003, Douglas Wilson was very much an FV spokesman, and his connection to the FV raised its profile considerably” (Wedgeworth). He wrote ‘Reformed’ is Not Enough in response to the initial FV criticism, he vociferously mocked and derided FV critics for many years, and after the Knox Colloquium, the RPCUS, the PCA, the OPC, and the URCNA reports against FV, he helped draft and then signed the Joint Federal Vision Statement.

What happened 10 years later after things quieted down a bit? Wilson wrote a post stating that he no longer wants to be called FV because of substantial disagreement he has with other proponents of FV (note: law/gospel and justification are not mentioned as points of disagreement, even though Wedgewoth acknowledges FV men such as Jordan were Shepherdites and did undermine justification by faith alone). In that post, Wilson confesses

in retrospect, I have come to believe that there were also a number of critics of the federal vision who were truly insightful and saw the implications and trajectories of certain ideas better than I did at the time. I was wrong to treat all critics as though they were all more or less in the same boat.

There were insightful critics and there were bigoted ones, and I should have given the insightful critics more of a fair hearing than I did, and I should have used the behavior of the ignorant critics as less representative than I frequently did. I believe I was wrong in this also.

Not only were some critics insightful in their critiques, but they tended to be the ones who also were fair-minded about other things. Indeed, I think that those two things usually go together.

Because there was a general melee, in the middle of it I did not want to say or write anything that would be twisted and used against me or my friends. But even in the midst of everything, I did find some things on the federal vision side of things worrisome, and in the same way as did some of our critics. I know that I acknowledged this at times, but I should have done a better job of acknowledging it. I should have acknowledged it with great clarity, and I should have been louder…

My tendency in this was simply to circle the wagons, defending myself and defending my friends. I have come to believe that my robust defense up and down the line contributed to the group-think that was going on.

I am thankful for this confession, but why did it take Wilson 15 years to acknowledge some of what FV critics saw almost immediately? I think Wilson’s attitude towards criticism may provide at least part of the answer. Wilson seems to think that any controversy that comes his way is simply “how God tells his story in the world.” God uses righteous men like Wilson and it will result in controversy. So grab the guns.

It seems to me that this attitude still hinders Wilson from seeing errors in his theology. “So when people say I don’t believe in justification by faith when I do, Jesus says ‘Rejoice.’” It may be the case that some people really do hate Wilson and really are intentionally misrepresenting him. But it may also be the case that Wilson really does have problems with his theology that he is overlooking because he dismisses criticism as malicious persecution.

Becoming Westminsterian

In my previous post, I left the reader with two options regarding Wilson. In light of the responses to my post, I do not believe that Wilson fully agrees with Shepherd. Nor do I believe he is thoroughly confused about the gospel. I do, however, think that he is confused and inconsistent. He holds two mutually exclusive ideas about Adam and it has consequences for how he interprets what Scripture says about faith and works.

I do not believe that Wilson is fully Shepherdian (like Sandlin is). But neither is he Westminsterian. He is Shepminsterian. As Wedgeworth noted “I believe that there are important points of his theology which can be criticized, even parts related to FV. He did not always maintain a perfect consistency in his writing.” Wedgeworth also noted, regarding FV as a whole “Every heretic has his verse, as the saying goes, and often the only way to resolve a theological dispute is to press for strict consistency and clarity of definition.” My hope is that Wilson will look closely at the errors he has learned along the way (whether from Fuller, Shepherd, his Shepherd-influenced FV friends, or anyone else) and that he will change his mind and reject them, embracing a theology consistent with sola fide. Chief among these errors is his agreement with Shepherd that had Adam perfectly obeyed the law, eternal life would have been a gracious gift received through faith alone. That is a rejection of Westminster’s doctrine of the Covenant of Works. Affirming Westminster’s doctrine would entail at least the following implications:

  1. Eternal life would have been a reward earned (by covenant), not a gift.
  2. The phrase “faith alone” could not have been applied to Adam’s reception of eternal life.
  3. Paul’s use of “works” and “works of the law” does not merely refer to subjective, autonomous misuse of the law but also to objective, correct interpretation of the Adamic Covenant.
  4. The Adamic Covenant (“the law” Gal 3:12) was not “of faith” – referring to the means of obtaining eternal life.
  5. All covenants do not simply have the same conditions (believe and obey), but rather, the function of faith/belief as an instrument of receiving Christ’s righteousness in the CoG replaces the function of works/obedience in the CoW as the means of obtaining eternal life.

The following elaborates on a few points as it relates to Wilson.

Faith Alone?

How can someone affirm that Adam would have received eternal life through perfect obedience to the the law and affirm that it “would have been a gift of grace, received by faith alone,” (JFVS)? What in the world does “alone” mean in that instance? On this point we have three options:

  1. Wilson disagrees with or doesn’t understand the JFVS.
  2. Wilson holds to a logical contradiction: Adam would have received eternal life through his perfect obedience to the law and at the same time he would have received eternal life as a gift of grace through faith alone apart from his perfect obedience to the law.
  3. “Alone” in this statement does not refer to “apart from his obedience to the law” but rather to something else (i.e. “apart from an attempt to earn without faith”).

The clearest statement of justification by faith alone in Scripture is Romans 3:28 “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” If you recall from my previous post, Wilson defines “works of the law” as “deeds without faith.” This is what he means by “autonomous works” – works done in one’s own strength without faith.

We distinguish between obedience and works because Paul does. In the Pauline vocabulary, deeds without faith is works. Deeds done in faith is obedience.

Obedience and Life

In the New Testament, obedience is a good word. Also in the New Testament, works is not

Like a Gelatinous Pudding

When Paul talks about grace and works driving one another out, he is talking about grace on the one hand and autonomous works on the other.

Obedience and Works

It turns out this is precisely how Wilson understands “alone” in this part of the Joint Federal Vision Statement.

[H]ere are some terms that one ought not be allowed to interchange as though they were synonyms — obedience and works. Not one of us believes that the WCF was wrong to say that Adam had to obey. He disobeyed, and here we are in a sinful world. Had he obeyed, we would not have been. We all hold to the necessity of that obedience, as the Confession says. So when we deny that the gift was conditioned upon Adam’s “moral exertions or achievements,” we are denying the idea of autonomy. We are not denying the idea of trusting obedience, upon which continued bliss absolutely depended. For proof of this, consider another part of that same section in our statement, a passage which Lane failed to cite. We said, “We affirm that Adam was in a covenant of life with the triune God in the Garden of Eden, in which arrangement Adam was required to obey God completely, from the heart.”

The question is not whether we hold to the requirement of obedience. We all hold to that. We are all confessional on this point. The debate is over the nature of that obedience. Was it an aspect of God’s grace to man, or was it to be autonomously rendered by man?

Obedience and Life

So Wilson believes, per the JFVS, that if Adam had perfectly obeyed the law he would have been justified by faith alone – which Wilson explains means justified by trusting obedience: faithfulness. At least in Adam’s situation, Wilson believes that justification by faith alone means justification by faithfulness. Thus there is a reason why I and others have suspected he is being “tricksy” like Shepherd with his affirmation of a Christian’s justification by faith alone. If “justification by faith alone” means the same thing for pre-fall Adam as it does for us, then Wilson denies the gospel. If “justification by faith alone” means something different for pre-fall Adam as it does for us, then Wilson is completely equivocating on this vital phrase, thus creating for himself the problem of people misunderstanding him. Revising his theology by rejecting this Shepherdian doctrine of the Adamic Covenant would enable Wilson to use the phrase “faith alone” consistently and without equivocation.

“of Works” Scripture References

Currently, Wilson rejects the scripture references provided in the WCF, WLC, and 2LBCF regarding the Covenant of Works. WCF 7.2 says “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works” and references Gal 3:12 “And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them.” The Covenant of Works operated upon a principle of law (earned reward) not a principle of faith (gracious gift of an alien righteousness). Wilson does not believe that Gal 3:12 refers to the Adamic Covenant. He believes it refers only to a Pharisaical misunderstanding of the law. It refers to the “works of the law” mentioned above: the autonomous attempt to obey without faith, the attempt at “self-justification.” Properly understood, the law is of faith and always has been. Remember, there is no objective law/gospel distinction in Scripture. Thus Paul cannot be referring to the objective law in contrast to faith. He can only be referring to a subjective abuse of the law to try to justify oneself apart from God’s gracious enabling.

I am a Westminsterian Puritan, and have been throughout this entire controversy.

If Wilson wants to be Westminsterian, he must affirm an objective, covenantal law/gospel distinction. Wedgeworth points to the JFVS “We affirm that justification is through faith in Jesus Christ, and not through works of the law, whether those works were revealed to us by God, or manufactured by man.” He notes “This assertion retains a sort of ‘works principle’ over and against which justification through faith in Jesus Christ is contrasted. Both works ‘revealed to us by God’ and those ‘manufactured by man’ are contrasted against ‘faith.’” I would like further clarification from Wilson on what specifically is meant by “works revealed to us by God” and where he would find that idea in Scripture.

I encourage readers to read the comments I left on Wilson’s blog.


This is an important, but complicated topic. I am happy that Wilson departs from Shepherd’s rejection of Adam’s ability to earn (by covenant) the reward of eternal life. But he must also reject Shepherd’s claim that eternal life would have been a gracious gift received through faith alone. That is self-contradictory and it is not the teaching of Scripture.

Once again, I am happy to be corrected on any errors I have made. I would be happy to discuss this issue further on a podcast with Sumpter or Wilson if they have any desire to.