Re: James White’s “Newness of the New Covenant”

In 2004 (part 2 2005), James White wrote The Newness Of The New Covenant: Better Covenant, Better Mediator, Better Sacrifice, Better Ministry, Better Hope, Better Promises in defense of credobaptism. He wrote from the perspective of one covenant of grace differently administered and sought to answer the question “Exactly what is the nature of the covenant in the blood of Christ (Lk. 22:20; Heb. 13:20), and how does it differ from other administrations of the covenant of grace?”

His answer was that the difference between the Old and the New is that only some of the members of the Old covenant were saved, while all of the members of the New covenant are.

[T]hat which the New Covenant provides in perfection the Old only provided in part or in picture… [W]here something is found in both covenants, it will be seen to be partial and incomplete in the Old, finished, total, and perfect in the New…

The Old Covenant was, by nature, breakable. Why? Because it did not, in and of itself, effect the change in the heart and mind of each member thereof that would cause them to “continue” therein…

While there were those who knew the Lord and followed his statutes, they were the remnant, not the norm…

All those with whom he makes this covenant experience what the remnant experienced under the old: true internal conversion resulting in a love for God’s law and a true relationship with him. Quite simply, there is no “remnant” in the New Covenant, and all those with whom God makes this covenant experience its fulfillment. This is why it is better, and hence proves the author’s apologetic presentation of the supremacy of Christ over the old ways…

The contrast drawn here between the old “faulted” covenant and the new faultless one is simple: the New Covenant brings salvific knowledge and relationship to all who are in it, “from the least to the greatest of them.”

…Reformed credobaptists have asserted that if this passage teaches that the New Covenant differs from the Old in the matter of the extensiveness of the work of grace in the lives of the members (i.e., the New Covenant is not a mixed covenant of regenerate and unregenerate, elect and non-elect), then the most needed element of the paedobaptist argument regarding the continuity of the covenants and the covenant sign is disrupted at its most vital point. The “continuity” of the Covenant of Grace is seen in the expansion of God’s work of grace, so that the New Covenant in the blood of the Son encompasses all of God’s elect, with the older administration’s ceremonies pointing forward to the perfection that would come in Christ…

We must agree that considered individually, each of the elements of the New Covenant listed in Heb. 8:10-12 can be found, in particular individuals in the Old Covenant…

if some in the Old Covenant experienced these divine works of grace, but most did not, what then is to be concluded? That the newness of the New Covenant is seen in the extensiveness of the expression of God’s grace to all in it…

We are not saying there were none who experienced God’s grace under the Old Covenant, but that the Old Covenant, in and of itself, did not guarantee that those who partook of it were, in fact, heirs of grace. The newness of the New Covenant in the blood of Christ is found in the reality that the better mediator, better hope, better sacrifices, mean that all, from the least to the greatest of them, know the Lord savingly. This is its glory, for it reflects the power of the blood in which it is sealed. Hence, when we read, “God’s law, the transcript of his holiness and his expectations for his people, was already on the hearts of his people, and so is not new in the new covenant,”11 we respond by saying it is not the mere existence of the gracious act of God writing His law on the heart that is new, but it is the extensiveness of that work that is new. While some in the Old Covenant experienced this, all in the New Covenant do so.

While White is correct that all in the New Covenant receive new hearts and the forgiveness of sins (they are saved) while only some members of the Old Covenant did, he is ambiguous as to how exactly those members of the Old Covenant were saved. Were they saved by the Old Covenant? Numerous statements by White seem to deny that.

[The author of Hebrews’] view of the New Covenant as “better” must be seen in light of the perfection of Christ’s work of mediation…

Is this ministry simply of the same kind as the ministry of the old priests, only, in some fashion, “more excellent”? Or is the point of the passage that the Messiah’s ministry, the covenant in his blood, and the promises upon which the covenant stands – all these things are substantially different, better, than that which came before?…

Surely, at this point there can be no argument that the betterness of the sacrifice of Christ is qualitatively superior to that of the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant. His death is not just more effective or in some fashion greater than the sacrifice of a lamb or a bull. That sacrifice differs on a fundamental, foundational level. It is better by nature and definition...

As a result of the permanence of his priestly position, Christ has an ability the old priests did not possess. He is able to save

Christ is the mediator of a better covenant, based upon better sacrifices, with a more excellent ministry, based upon better promises, which include, he will later assert, the very promise of the eternal inheritance for those in the New Covenant (9:15)…

What the Old Covenant had only pictured and hinted at, but failed to produce in them, God fulfills in the better covenant with the better sacrifices and better promises and better mediator…

These repetitive sacrifices lack the power or ability to take away sins…

The text presents an apologetic argument that unlike the Old Covenant, where “they did not continue in My covenant” (v. 9), the New Covenant presents a perfect, full work of God which includes the internal renovation of the heart, salvific knowledge of God, and the forgiveness of sins…

We must further note that the contrast in Heb. 10 is between the repetitive sacrifices of the Old Covenant, which could never take away sins, and the singular sacrifice of the New, which not only can but in reality does do so for those who are in the covenant (Heb. 10:10-18)!

There appears to be some unresolved tension in White’s argument. On the one hand, he argues that the New covenant is qualitatively better than the Old because it does what the Old could not: give a new heart and take away sins. Yet on the other hand he argues that the difference is quantitative because the Old covenant did give a new heart and take away sins, just not for all in the covenant (“it is not the mere existence of the gracious act of God writing His law on the heart that is new, but it is the extensiveness of that work that is new”).

I believe the logic of White’s argumentation throughout the two essays requires him to modify his conclusion. If Christ’s mediation of a better covenant means simply that more members of the covenant are saved, does that mean that some members of the Old covenant were saved apart from his mediation and sacrifice? On the other hand, if Christ’s mediation of a better covenant means “Christ has an ability the old priests did not possess. He is able to save” then perhaps those in the Old Covenant who were in fact saved were saved by Christ’s better New covenant. Perhaps the “Newness of the New Covenant” is that it is able to save! As White himself says

The writer plainly sees in these words a prophetic proclamation of what Christ, the one high priest, would accomplish through his better sacrifice so as to initiate a better covenant based upon better promises leading to a better hope. The singular offering of Christ (Heb. 7:27) and the acceptance of that offering pictured in his entrance into the Holy Place and his being seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens (Heb. 8:1) has made it possible for God to be merciful to the iniquities of those for whom the High Priest now intercedes (Heb. 7:24-35).

Note Owen’s observation on the same text.

Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended… If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue thereof, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large… [T]herefore I have showed in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition… The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant.

Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ, p. 187-8, 241

Aquinas’ Retroactive New Covenant

I have previously shown at length how very similar Augustine’s understanding of the New and Old Covenants is to 1689 Federalism. He limits the Old Covenant to temporal, earthly promises and argues that OT saints were saved by the New Covenant.

[T]he happy persons, who even in that early age [the Old Testament] were by the grace of God taught to understand the distinction now set forth, were thereby made the children of promise, and were accounted in the secret purpose of God as heirs of the New Testament; although they continued with perfect fitness to administer the Old Testament to the ancient people of God

Augustine: Proto-1689 Federalist

Aquinas followed Augustine on this point, citing him several times in Summa Theologica I-II, 106-107 (Old “Law” = Old Covenant; New “Law” = New Covenant).

[T]he Old Law, which was given to men who were imperfect, that is, who had not yet received spiritual grace, was called the “law of fear,” inasmuch as it induced men to observe its commandments by threatening them with penalties; and is spoken of as containing temporal promises…

the New Law which derives its pre-eminence from the spiritual grace instilled into our hearts, is called the “Law of love”: and it is described as containing spiritual and eternal promises…

although the Old Law contained precepts of charity, nevertheless it did not confer the Holy Ghost…

the New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Ghost, which is given to those who believe in Christ…

Nevertheless there were some in the state of the Old Testament who, having charity and the grace of the Holy Ghost, looked chiefly to spiritual and eternal promises: and in this respect they belonged to the New Law…

As to those under the Old Testament who through faith were acceptable to God, in this respect they belonged to the New Testament: for they were not justified except through faith in Christ, Who is the Author of the New Testament…

No man ever had the grace of the Holy Ghost except through faith in Christ either explicit or implicit: and by faith in Christ man belongs to the New Testament. Consequently whoever had the law of grace instilled into them belonged to the New Testament…

at all times there have been some persons belonging to the New Testament, as stated above.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically quotes Aquinas on this point (1964).

There were . . . under the regimen of the Old Covenant, people who possessed the charity and grace of the Holy Spirit and longed above all for the spiritual and eternal promises by which they were associated with the New Law… [E]ven though the Old Law prescribed charity, it did not give the Holy Spirit, through whom “God’s charity has been poured into our hearts.

I mention all of this simply to re-iterate the historicity of the concept. It is not an idea invented by baptists in response to paedobaptism. It is drawn from Scripture itself and has been recognized by various traditions for a very long time.

Visible/Invisible Church a Matter of Perspective (Reformation Study Bible & J.I. Packer)

The Reformation Study Bible correctly explains that the difference between the visible and invisible church is simply a matter of perspective: God’s vs. man’s.

The church on earth is one in Christ despite the great number of local congregations and denominations (Eph. 4:3-6). It is holy because it is consecrated to God corporately, as each Christian is individually (Eph. 2:21). It is catholic (meaning “universal”) because it is worldwide. Finally, it is apostolic because it is founded on apostolic teaching (Eph. 2:20). All four qualities may be seen in Eph. 2:19-22.

There is a distinction to be drawn between the church as people see it and as God alone sees it. This difference is the historic distinction between the “visible church” and the “invisible church.” “Invisible” does not mean that no part of it can be seen, but that its exact boundary is not known to us. Only God knows (2 Tim. 2:19) which members of the earthly congregations are inwardly born again, and so belong to the church as an eternal and spiritual fellowship. Jesus taught that in the organized church there would always be people who seemed to be Christians, not excluding leaders, who were nevertheless not renewed in hart and would be exposed and rejected at the judgment (Matt. 7:15-23; 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50; 25:1-46). There are not two church, one visible and another hidden in heaven, but one church only, known perfectly to God and known imperfectly on earth.

Reformation Study Bible, comment on Eph. 3-4

This was taken (almost word for word) from J.I. Packer’s Concise Theology, though Packer adds a helpful comment at the end.

There is a distinction to be drawn between the church as we humans see it and as God alone can see it. This is the historic distinction between the “visible church” and the “invisible church.” Invisible means, not that we can see no sign of its presence, but that we cannot know (as God, the heart-reader, knows, 2 Tim. 2:19) which of those baptized, professing members of the church as an organized institution are inwardly regenerate and thus belong to the church as a spiritual fellowship of sinners loving their Savior. Jesus taught that in the organized church there would always be people who thought they were Christians and passed as Christians, some indeed becoming ministers, but who were not renewed in heart and would therefore be exposed and rejected at the Judgment (Matt. 7:15-27; 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50; 25:1-46). The “visible-invisible” distinction is drawn to take account of this. It is not that there are two churches but that the visible community regularly contains imitation Christians whom God knows not to be real (and who could know this for themselves if they would, 2 Cor. 13:5).

Concise Theology

For more on this point, and the implications for baptism and covenant theology, see



Theonomy rightly believes that political theory must be deduced from Scripture, but it misinterprets Scripture – namely the law given to Israel and covenant theology as a whole.

Operating Definition

Theonomy is the presumption that all civil governments are morally obligated to enforce the Old Covenant judicial laws given to Israel (because they have not been abrogated) and furthermore that all civil governments must refrain from coercion in areas where Scripture has not prescribed their intervention (the “regulative principle of the state”).

Defining Our Terms

Etymologically, theonomy simply means “God’s law.” However, the phrase was used by Greg Bahnsen in the 1970s to describe his presuppositional political philosophy in contrast to “autonomy” (man’s reason independent of God’s revelation). This post addresses theonomy as defined and defended by Bahnsen. (If you think theonomy has a broader definition, that is a separate discussion we can have. For the purposes of this post, theonomy is being defined according to Bahnsen’s theonomic thesis). Bahnsen argued that

[T]heonomy teaches that civil rulers are morally obligated to enforce those laws of Christ, found throughout the Scriptures, which are addressed to magistrates (as well as to refrain from coercion in areas where God has not prescribed their intervention)… Political codes today ought to incorporate the moral requirements which were culturally illustrated in the God-given, judicial laws of Old Testament Israel… “He who was punishable by death under the judicial law is punishable by death still.”

What Is “Theonomy”? PE180 New Horizons (April, 1994)

Likewise, Brian Schwertley summarizes

The core teaching of the modern theonomy movement on the law (we will not defend all the side issues) is basic and easy to defend. All the Old Testament laws that are moral in content, that were given as a standard of personal or social ethics, are binding on all men (both Jews and Gentiles) for all time (both the Old and New Covenant administrations).

Therefore, not only the Ten Commandments are obligatory but also the moral case laws that are extensions, explanations and applications of the commandments (e.g., homosexuality, incest, bestiality, fornication, fraud, burglary, assault, attempted murder, manslaughter, etc.). In addition, the civil penalties attached to the moral case laws are declared by God Himself to be just and superior to the best laws of the heathen nations and thus are not mere suggestions but are required as well.

That being said, theonomists do not always agree with each other regarding particular Old Covenant judicial laws. Bahnsen therefore clarified that even when they do not agree, there is still nonetheless a distinct, definable view called “theonomy.”

Theonomic ethics is a definable and distinct school of thought. That school of thought is unified by certain fundamental principles of Biblical reasoning about ethics (“ethical hermeneutics or meta-ethics,” if you will) — rather than by unanimity in the particular application of those principles to concrete issues or cases… There certainly is a commonly held set of distinctive doctrines which are known as the theonomic viewpoint…

Close Resemblances: Is Everyone a Theonomist After All?

[T]here is an objective and precise difference viz., all theonomists affirm (while non-theonomists deny) that we should presume that Old Testament criminal and penal commands for Israel as a nation (not specially revealed earlier) are a standard for all nations of the earth… The theonomic principle is objective and Biblical in character. Its policy for Old Testament interpretation and for application of the laws found there is that the moral standards revealed by God are all beneficial and continue to be binding unless further revelation teaches otherwise (Deut. 42; 10:13; Ps. 119:160; Matt. 5:19; 2 Tim. 3:16-17)… As a result, the theonomist concludes that most of the judicial laws of the Old Testament, having not been modified or canceled by Scripture later, continue to be binding according to the principle which they teach or illustrate.

Chapter 2 “A Recognizable, Distinct Position,” in No Other Standard

Theonomy’s strength is its commitment to presuppositionalism – the belief that political philosophy and civil law must be deduced from Scripture. Its weakness is its actual exegesis of Scripture. While I agree that Scripture must be the source of our political philosophy, I believe that theonomy has misinterpreted Scripture on two foundational points. (Note: Bahnsen was a very gifted logician and I respect him enough to interpret and critique him according to his systematic understanding of theonomy.)

The Law(s) of God

Theonomy rejects the distinction between moral law (a transcript of God’s nature that applies at all times) and positive law (law that is created and abrogated at God’s will for certain times). Instead, it holds to a mononomism that sees all biblical law as an unchanging transcript of God’s nature. Bahnsen argued “Does God have a holiness, a standard of ethics, of perfection that is changing?… Jesus says every jot and tittle and he doesn’t allow us to draw lines and seams and divide God’s law up into what we’ll accept and what we won’t.”

I agree with the historic threefold division of Mosaic law: moral, ceremonial, and civil. Moral law transcends and predates Mosaic law and applies to all image bearers. Ceremonial and civil law are positive laws created for Israel under the Old Covenant and have been abrogated. Theonomy teaches a different two-fold division of Mosaic law.

The most fundamental distinction to be drawn between Old Testament laws is between moral laws and ceremonial laws. (Two subdivisions within each category will be mentioned subsequently.) This is not an arbitrary or ad hoc division, for it manifests an underlying rationale or principle. Moral laws reflect the absolute righteousness and judgment of God, guiding man’s life into the paths of righteousness; such laws define holiness and sin, restrain evil through punishment of infractions, and drive the sinner to Christ for salvation. On the other hand, ceremonial laws–or redemptive provisions–reflect the mercy of God in saving those who have violated His moral standards; such laws define the way of redemption, typify Christ’s saving economy, and maintain the holiness (or “separation”) of the redeemed community.

(By This Standard, 97)

The important point is that due to a mistaken exegesis of Matthew 5, theonomy has no category for positive law that may be abrogated. Not only moral (which includes judicial) law, but even “restorative” law continues (though the way we observe it changes).

It’s the thesis of my book [Theonomy in Christian Ethics] and I think it’s the way the bible would have us break down the commandments of the Old Testament – I’m suggesting that we have moral and ceremonial law, moral and restorative law and that all laws of God are binding today… I do not believe the restorative law has been abrogated.”

Has God Changed His Mind? (Lecture 2 of 6)

Covenant Theology

The reformed law/gospel distinction refers to two different ways of obtaining eternal life: through obedience to the law and through faith in Jesus Christ. It is rooted in the distinction between the Adamic Covenant of Works and the Messianic Covenant of Grace. While Bahnsen held a law/gospel antithesis with regards to salvation through faith in Christ (even having a better interpretation of Matt 5:20 than many reformed theologians), he was influenced by his thesis advisor Norman Shepherd with regards to covenant theology.

Shepherd left WTS under controversy for teaching that we are justified through faith and works. He rejected the Adamic Covenant of Works and emphasized the unity of the Covenant of God. RJ Rushdoony likewise said

[T]his idea of a covenant of works that is the problem in the confession and of course this doctrine has led to Dispensationalism and a great many other problems. It is a deadly error to believe that any covenant that God makes with man can be anything other than a covenant of grace. Precisely because He is God the only kind of covenant He can enter into with man involves free grace on His part. It is at the same time a covenant of law but every covenant is a law relationship… [T]he covenant of God with man is at one and the same time a covenant of grace and a covenant of law. [B]asic to the making of a covenant with God was the invoking of curses and blessings, Deuteronomy 27 and 28 give us that very, very clearly.

106. Systematic Theology – Covenant: 01 The Covenant and 02 Is There A Covenant Of Works

Following these men, Bahnsen said

The New Testament and Covenant continue the same demand for obedience… Continued blessing for Adam in paradise, Israel in the promised land, and the Christian in the kingdom has been seen to be dependent upon persevering obedience to God’s will as expressed in His law. There is complete covenantal unity with reference to the law of God as the standard of moral obligation throughout the diverse ages of human history.

Theonomy in Christian Ethics (201-2)

I reject this monocovenantalism. I affirm the Adamic Covenant of Works as distinct from the Messianic Covenant of Grace. Furthermore, I recognize a typological element to the blessings and curses of the Mosaic Covenant. Those blessings typified the blessings Christ earned for us through his perfect obedience to the moral law while the curses typified the judgment that we all deserve (and those outside of Christ will receive) for breaking God’s moral law. Theonomy’s commitment to monocovenantalism and mononomism, and its subsequent understanding of Mosaic blessing and curse, prevents it from affirming this understanding.

Stoning as Typological (Cherem) Curse

After responding to every known criticism offered against his thesis, Bahnsen held out the theoretical possibility of one remaining criticism that would be a valid objection.

[I]t must be argued by somebody who feels the penal sanctions were not given to anybody but Israel that there is a very strong distinction within the law itself between stipulation and sanction. That God stipulates this kind of behavior and then he lays down a punishment if you don’t follow that stipulation, and that the fact that a law binds Israel as well as the Gentiles with respect to stipulations does not therefore mean that the law with respect to sanctions binds Israel and the Gentiles. You see, the premise then is that there is a difference between stipulation and sanction. Now, is there exegetical evidence for this distinction?… Well, we haven’t been given evidence of that distinction.

It is precisely this distinction that I affirm and give evidence for (see links below – notably this one). The stipulations in question are part of God’s unchanging moral law for all image bearers. Violation of this unchanging moral law warrants eternal death at the final judgment. However, at the fall God delayed this final judgment, beginning a post-fall world restructured in subservience to the work of Christ. The death penalty instituted under the typological Old Covenant for violation of the moral law was not itself part of the moral law. It was a typological, positive law addition to the moral law given by way of covenant. The shedding of blood by man for violation of the moral law was specifically a typological curse.

“Yet the law is not of faith, but ‘the man who does them shall live by them.'” (Gal. 3:12)

Commenting on Gal. 3:12 (Lev. 18:5) Augustine said “Now those who were living by these works undoubtedly feared that if they did not do them, they would suffer stoning or crucifixion or something of this kind.”

“‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Deut 27:26, cited in Gal 3:10).

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deut 21:22-23, cited in Gal 3:13)

It is specifically this principle of curse for violation of the law that Christ died on the cross for (Gal 3:13). Christians are not under the decalogue as a means to earn their life or lose it. Christ has earned our life and saved us from the curse. Theonomists who believe Christians should enforce Mosaic curses for violation of the moral law are putting Christians under a typological covenant of works that we are free from (Gal 5:1; Acts 15:10).

In A Consuming Fire: The Holy of Holies in Biblical Law, Joel McDurmon notes “some laws were just based upon the eye-for-an-eye rule; others were just based upon God’s immediate judgment under cherem.” He notes “These laws were typological.”

The general equity of those typological Old Covenant curses is not execution by modern government, but the moral law that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-11) and the positive law that unrepentant sinners must therefore be purged from the visible church through excommunication (1 Cor 5:13 quoting Deut 22:21).


While theonomy presents an appealingly simple answer to the question of political philosophy and civil law, our presupposition must be Scripture properly interpreted.

Further Reading

by me:

by others:

Tabletalk’s Retroactive New Covenant

H/T @flyoverliberta1

The June issue of Ligonier Ministries’ Tabletalk magazine features a daily study through Hebrews, starting with ch. 8 on June 1. I don’t know who wrote the study, but they make some very good points, quoting Owen several times.

June 2 – The Necessity of Christ’s Heavenly Priesthood

8:4 is saying that because Christ is a member of the superior priesthood, His work cannot be done on earth. To engage in priestly ministry on earth is the province of the inferior Levitical priesthood, which is exercised according to the Mosaic law, the law that cannot perfect anyone.

June 3 – Better Promises for a Better Covenant

John Owen says these better promises are the new covenant promises of Jeremiah 31:33–34 that God will write His law on the hearts of His people and remember their sin no more, that is, finally and fully forgive them. These promises were not fulfilled by the old covenant mediated by Moses. After all, the repeated sacrifices of the Mosaic law mean that the old covenant could not provide full and final forgiveness. They, and the old covenant of which they were a part, could only remind people of sin, not remove it (Heb. 10:1–18). Furthermore, the law demonstrates that the old covenant cannot be the means by which God writes His commandments on the hearts of His people. Deuteronomy 31:14–29 foresees that Israel as a nation would be so corrupt as to break the old covenant. The people would need a new heart, a heart that would come only after the nation of Israel broke the old covenant and suffered the curse of exile (30:1–10).

Nevertheless, the reality of the new covenant promises belonged to the old covenant saints. After all, David, an old covenant believer, enjoyed the complete and final forgiveness of sins in his justification (Rom. 4:5–8). No one is saved except through Christ and His new covenant, which is the ultimate expression of the one covenant of grace between God and His people (John 14:6). The old covenant saints belonged also to the one covenant of grace, though they lived prior to the inauguration of the new covenant. They, no less than us, were redeemed by Jesus alone, though their understanding of this was less full than is ours as new covenant believers.

June 4 – The Promised New Covenant

The new covenant is necessary, Hebrews 8:8 tells us, because God found fault with the people. Our Creator never intended the old covenant to bring the blessings we have under the new covenant, though the old covenant saints possessed the benefits of the new covenant, albeit to a lesser degree than we do…

In and through the new covenant, we get what the subcovenants of the covenant of grace hoped for. The new covenant, Hebrews 8:10 reveals, is the means by which God’s promise to be God to Abraham is accomplished (see Gen. 17:7). 

While disagreeing with the author’s interpretation of Gen 17:7 (see here), he correctly notes that Abraham was saved by the new covenant. Abraham, and all other Old Testament saints, received the promises/blessings of the new covenant in advance of its formal establishment.

Further Reading

Brief Comments/Clarifications on the T4G Covenant Theology Panel

Yesterday, Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever, and Al Mohler discussed Covenant Theology as part of a T4G conference panel. The panel was meant as a starting point for viewers to dip their toes into the deep waters of covenant theology. I was very glad to see the topic brought up. I just have a couple of brief comments.

Was 1689 Federalism represented?

Al Mohler helpfully noted “The very first Baptists were explicitly committed to a covenant theology—so much so, that they used the word repeatedly in the most important Baptist confession.” Dever and Mohler rightly commended both the Covenant of Redemption and the Adamic Covenant of Works, as affirmed by those baptists – as well as the recognition that salvation during the Old Testament was the same as salvation during the New Testament. However, was the particular view of covenant theology held by the majority of those men represented in the panel discussion? Here are some distinctives of that view:

  • The New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace
  • The Old Covenant was a typological covenant of works for temporal life and blessing in the land of Canaan (note: it was not The Covenant of Works)
  • Israel according to the flesh (Abraham’s carnal offspring, the nation) was a type of Israel according to the Spirit (Abraham’s spiritual offspring, the church)

I don’t think this view was represented (if it was, I missed it).

“Everlasting Covenant” in Gen 17 = CoR?

Dever said that we need

to have a sufficient recognition of discontinuities and yet of this underlying continuity such that God could speak to to Abraham in Genesis 17 of an everlasting covenant… this the pre-temporal inter-Trinitarian Covenant of Redemption and it’s what God is clearly talking about to Abraham in Genesis 17.

I would love to hear Dever elaborate more on this point. I will simply note that 1689 Federalism does not understand the “everlasting covenant” of Genesis 17 to refer to the Covenant of Redemption or the Covenant of Grace. It refers to the Covenant of Circumcision, made with Abraham and his offspring according to the flesh that they would multiply and inherit the land of Canaan and that the Messiah would be born from them. “Everlasting” must be understood in context. For example, the Levitcal priesthood is described as everlasting (Ex 29:28) as well as “annulled” (Heb 7:12, 18), and “obsolete” (Heb 8:13).

For more on how 1689 Federalism understands Genesis 17:7, see the these selections from various representatives of the view.

Was the Mosaic Covenant part of the Covenant of Grace or the Covenant of Works?

Dever asked “Was the Mosaic covenant a part of the Covenant of Grace or the Covenant of Works?” I don’t know what Dever’s own opinion is, but this binary way of thinking about the biblical covenants is representative of Westminster’s view (every covenant must be one or the other), but it was rejected by the particular baptists who insisted that there are more than two covenants in the Bible. The Mosaic Covenant was neither the Covenant of Works or the Covenant of Grace. It was distinct from both and must be understood on its own terms as a unique typological covenant. On this point they were standing in the stream of the reformed “subservient covenant” view of men like James Cameron, Samuel Bolton, and John Owen. The baptists carried this same logic over to the Abrahamic Covenant as well, noting that it was neither the Covenant of Works nor the Covenant of Grace.

Israel and the Church

On the question of how covenant relates to church, Duncan offered 3 primary views:

  • Classic Dispensationalism: the Church is not in the OT; the church in no way supplants or replaces Israel; two parallel purposes of God
  • Classic Baptist Covenant Theology: (Spurgeon) church is in the OT as a part of one body, one people that God has been bringing into being since Gen 3:15. But Spurgeon would say the nature of the people of God in the New Covenant is different than the form that it existed in from the time of Abraham
  • Classic Presbyterianism: church in the OT and NT; promise to believers and their children continues today

What Duncan describes as the “Classic Baptist” view is actually more like the modern view developed in the 20th century by baptists who were heavily influenced by John Murray. The Abrahamic Covenant was the Covenant of Grace and it included his children, but the administration of the Covenant Grace changes under the New Covenant so-as to no longer include children.

The older view (known as “1689 Federalism” for convenience) did a better job of articulating that although believers in the Old Testament were united to Christ and thus part of the body of Christ, the nation of Israel (Abraham’s carnal offspring) was not itself the church in the Old Testament. It was a distinct entity and it was, in fact, a type of the church. Thus 1689 Federalism agrees with Classic Presbyterianism over against Dispensationalism that there is only one eternal people and purpose of God, not two parallel eternal peoples. However, it agrees with Dispensationalism that the nation of Israel was not the church.


I’m very thankful for these men and for their gracious, edifying conversation with one another on this complex topic. I encourage those who were intrigued by the panel to study 1689 Federalism. I believe it substantially moves the conversation forward beyond merely arguing over “more continuity” or “more discontinuity.” What these men recognized was “new” about the New Covenant was that it saved! No other covenant saved men. The better promise of the New Covenant was the law written on the heart (regeneration) and the forgiveness of sins (justification). Abraham was not saved by the Abrahamic Covenant. He was saved by the New Covenant.

If you would like to learn more, please see the videos, lectures, and recommended reading list at You can also find numerous posts, organized by topic, on my Welcome page.

*Note: the label “1689 Federalism” is not intended to mean that it is the only view permitted by the 2nd London Baptist Confession. The confession was written broadly enough to embrace a multitude of views. However, 1689 Federalism was the actual covenant theology held to the majority of baptists of that day and it helps explain the changes that they did make to the confession on this point.

A. W. Pink the “Rationalist”

[This post originally appeared at]

The following quote from A.W. Pink is representative of Christianity down through the ages. Sadly, many today (even reformed) reject this view as “rationalism.”

The exposition made of any verse in Holy Writ must be in entire agreement with the Analogy of Faith, or that system of truth which God has made known unto His people. That, of course, calls for a comprehensive knowledge of the contents of the Bible—sure proof that no novice qualified to preach to or attempt to teach others. Such comprehensive knowledge can be obtained only by a systematic and constant reading of the Word itself—and only then is any man fitted to weigh the writings of others! Since all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, there are no contradictions therein; thus it obviously follows that any explanation given of a passage which clashes with the plain teaching of other verses is manifestly erroneous. In order for any interpretation to be valid, it must be in perfect keeping with the scheme of Divine Truth. One part of the Truth is mutually related to and dependent upon others, and therefore there is full accord between them. As Bengel said of the books of Scripture, “They indicate together one beautiful, harmonious and gloriously connected system of Truth.”

Interpretation of the Scriptures (HT: Reformedontheweb)

The same belief is found in Owen as well:

We have seen that there are some difficult passages in the Bible, occurring frequently but irregularly throughout the Scriptures, and so there are some apparent contradictions scattered therein which are to be diligently searched into and reconciled—something which can only be achieved by legitimate interpretation.

(Biblical Theology, p. 814).

Commenting on this, Jeffrey T. Riddle notes:

Indeed, the path of pre-critical interpreters was to seek rationally satisfying harmonization in the face of “apparent contradictions.”  For Owen solutions can only come through diligent and faithful interpretation.

This is the approach of the ARBCA Theological Committee paper on Divine Impassibility:

1. We affirm the unity and analogy of Scripture, which states that unclear, difficult, or ambiguous passages are to be interpreted with clear and unambiguous passages that touch upon the same teaching or event (2LCF 1.9). We deny that the purported meaning of any text may be pressed in isolation or contradiction to other passages of Scripture.

2. We affirm the unity of Scripture and the analogy of faith, which states, “the true and full sense of any Scripture” (2LCF 1.9) must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the system of doctrine “necessarily contained” (2LCF 1.6) in the whole of Scripture. We deny that the purported meaning of any text may be pressed in isolation or contradiction to systematic theological considerations and that which is necessarily contained in the whole of Scripture.

Compare with Robert Reymond’s section on “Paradox as a Hermeneutical Category”

Let no one conclude from this rejection of paradox (as Marston has defined it) as a legitimate hermeneutical category that I am urging a Cartesian rationalism that presupposes the autonomy of human reason and freedom from divine revelation, a rationalism which asserts that it must begin with itself in the build-up of knowledge. But make no mistake: I am calling for a Christian rationalism that forthrightly affirms that the divine revelation which it gladly owns and makes the bedrock of all its intellectual efforts is internally self-consistent, that is, noncontradictory. Christians believe that their God is rational, that is, that he is logical. This means that he thinks and speaks in a way that indicates that the laws of logic—the law of identity (A is A), the law of noncontradiction (A is not non-A), and the law of excluded middle (A is either A or non-A)—are laws of thought original with and intrinsic to himself. This means that his knowledge is self-consistent. And because he is a God of truth he will not, indeed, he cannot lie (see Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Accordingly, just because God is rational, self-consistent, and always and necessarily truthful, we should assume that his inscripturated propositional revelation to us—the Holy Scripture—is of necessity also rational, self-consistent, and true. That this view of Holy Scripture is a common Christian conviction is borne out, I would suggest, in the consentient willingness by Christians everywhere to affirm that there are no contradictions in Scripture. The church worldwide has properly seen that the rational character of the one living and true God would of necessity have to be reflected in any propositional self-revelation which he determined to give to human beings, and accordingly has confessed the entire truthfulness (inerrancy) and noncontradictory character of the Word of God. Not to set the goal of quarrying from Scripture a harmonious theology devoid of paradoxes is to sound the death knell not only to systematic theology but also to all theology that would commend itself to men as the truth of the one living and rational God.

Reymond, Robert L. (1998-08-09). A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith: 2nd Edition – Revised and Updated (Kindle Locations 2338-2353). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

Finally, consider John Piper:

But as a matter of fact the only time Paul ever tells people to keep their mouth shut is when they are boasting. If our hearts and our minds pant like a hart after the water-brook of God’s deep mind, it may not be pride, it may be worship. There is not one sentence that I know of in the New Testament which tells us the limits of what we can know of God and his ways… one can only pity the poor souls who, for fear of finding out too much, never approach the sacred mountains but stand off and chirp ironically about how one should preserve and appreciate mystery.

A Response to J.I. Packer on the So-Called Antinomy Between the Sovereignty of God and Human Responsibility

Does Christ Speak Authoritatively Through Preaching?

[This post originally appeared at]

Perhaps you have heard a reformed pastor claim that when he stands behind the pulpit and preaches, you must listen because Christ is speaking through him. I have. I find it a bit of an odd claim because they imply there is something unique about their office and their function within the corporate gathering that grants them this authority. For example, in a brief article discussing the difference between preaching and teaching, Barry York says

Speaking for Christ versus speaking of him. Perhaps the most daunting aspect of preaching is that the minister is speaking on behalf of the Lord. Paul makes that clear when he says this of preaching:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15)

James Boice has pointed out that the word “of” in the statement “And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” is not there in the original. Rather, it should read “And how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard?” As men are sent out to preach, Christ through his Spirit is speaking through them. As Paul said elsewhere, “We also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thes. 2:13). Teaching can tell wonderful things about Christ, and every Sunday school class should do so. Yet only duly ordained ministers in preaching can make the authoritative claim that they represent the Lord.

This certainly does not follow from either Romans 10 or 1 Thes. 2. There is nothing about the office of elder that grants them an exclusive claim to be speaking for Christ.

And yet, it is true that Christ speaks authoritatively through preaching. Benjamin Keach said

That which by a just a necessary consequence is deduced from Scripture, is as much the mind of Christ, as what is contained in the express words of Scripture.

The Rector Rectified, 33

Note Owen on Hebrews 1:5.

That it is lawful to draw consequences from Scripture assertions; and such consequences, rightly deduced, are infallibly true and “de fide.” Thus from the name given unto Christ, the apostle deduceth by just consequence his exaltation and pre-eminence above angels. Nothing will rightly follow from truth but what is so also, and that of the same nature with the truth from whence it is derived. So that whatever by just consequence is drawn from the Word of God, is itself also the Word of God, and truth infallible. And to deprive the church of this liberty in the interpretation of the Word, is to deprive it of the chiefest benefit intended by it. This is that on which the whole ordinance of preaching is founded; which makes that which is derived out of the Word to have the power, authority, and efficacy of the Word accompanying it. Thus, though it be the proper work and effect of the Word of God to quicken, regenerate, sanctify and purify the elect, — and the Word primarily and directly is only that which is written in the Scriptures, — yet we find all these effects produced in and by the preaching of the Word, when perhaps not one sentence of the Scripture is verbatim repeated. And the reason hereof is, because whatsoever is directly deduced and delivered according to the mind and appointment of God from the Word is the Word of God, and hath the power, authority, and efficacy of the Word accompanying it.

It is not the office that determines the authority of preaching, but whether or not the preacher makes correct deductions from Scripture. And this same authority is true anytime anyone makes a statement that is correctly deduced from Scripture, whether they are ordained or not, whether it is in the corporate gathering or not. Thus, contrary to York, teaching can speak for Christ just as much as preaching can. Note Augustine “Yes it is I who admonish, I who order, I who command, it is the bishop who teaches. But it is Christ who commands through me.” “The preacher explains the text; if he says what is true, it is Christ speaking.”

The New Covenant of Grace was a Present Reality for OT Saints

R. Scott Clark recently wrote another post trying to explain where reformed paedobaptist covenant theology differs from 1689 Federalism. I’m glad that it offers an opportunity to continue discussing the topic. Regretfully, however, Dr. Clark continues to misunderstand our position. He misunderstands what we mean when we say that the New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace. He mistakenly thinks we mean that the Covenant of Grace was not a present reality for OT saints.

Clark claims that 1689 Federalism believes “God the Son is not actually present” in the salvation of saints prior to His incarnation. He says that we deny the Covenant of Grace “was actually present” prior to His incarnation. He says “in the PB view, the covenant of grace is entirely future,” which is in contrast to the reformed view that “It was not merely a future (New Covenant) reality but it was a present reality.” Clark says “The Son did not take up his place de novo at the top of the mountain in the new covenant. He has always been the Mediator,” implying that we deny that Christ was Mediator to the elect prior to his incarnation. He claims that our position is that New Covenant grace was not actually conveyed to the elect prior to Christ’s incarnation. He says “The Old Testament saints were not merely anticipating Christ. They were members of Christ through faith,” implying that we deny this. He says we deny that “Old Testament saints were united to Christ by the Spirit.” In his conclusion, Clark says “When the Particular Baptists speak of the benefit of Christ being communicated, it seems as if they mean that a future reality was revealed to the Old Testament saints, which they anticipated but which was not actually present for them.”

All of that is incorrect. Clark has misunderstood our position.

We affirm that that the benefits of Christ were a present reality for OT saints, which they received through a present union with Christ, which is the Covenant of Grace (a present reality for OT saints, not something entirely future) making them present members of Christ.

Our disagreement with Clark is not whether the Covenant of Grace was present and active during the Old Testament period. Our disagreement with Clark is the way in which the Covenant of Grace was present and active during the Old Testament period.

Why are we being misunderstood? I suspect in part because he has misunderstood what we mean by “retroactive.” But more fundamentally, I suspect it is because of an unstated premise that Clark holds.

  • P1 If the Covenant of Grace was present during the Old Testament period, then the Old Covenant was the Covenant of Grace.
  • P2 The Covenant of Grace was present during the Old Testament period.
  • C Therefore the Old Covenant was the Covenant of Grace.

Because we deny the conclusion, Clark thinks we deny P2. That is not the case. We deny P1. P1 is the point of disagreement and where we should focus our discussion, not P2.

When we say “The New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace” Clark hears “The Covenant of Grace was not present during the Old Testament.” But that is not what we said. When we say “The New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace,” we also say “The New Covenant was present during the Old Testament.”

There are various other points that Clark makes in his post that might be points of disagreement and are worth discussing. But we cannot have that discussion until this fundamental misunderstanding is resolved. When we say that the New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace, we do not deny that New Covenant grace was a present reality for OT saints. You might think that is totally crazy. Nevertheless, it is what we believe.


Since Clark quoted Coxe to make his case, here are some quotes from Coxe affirming what I just said.

There is no explicit mention of a covenant of grace before
Abraham’s time and yet the thing is certain and clearly revealed in
Scripture, namely, that all who were saved before his time were
interested in such a covenant and saved only by its grace. (48)

[A]ll the blessings of this covenant redound on believers by means of their union and communion with the Lord Jesus Christ, who is both the Head and Root of the new covenant, and the Fountain from which all its blessings are derived to us. Since these blessings were entirely purchased by him, so are they entirely applied to all that are in him and to none other… [N]one are at any time justified before God except those whom Christ has loved and washed from their sins in his own blood (Revelation 1:5). None are washed by him but those that are in him as the second Adam. It is by union to him as the root of the new covenant that the free gift comes on them to the justification of life (Rom 5:14ff). And none can have union to him but by the indwelling of his Holy Spirit. Wherever the Spirit of God applies the blood of Christ for the remission of sins he does it also for the purging of the conscience from dead works to serve the living God. As certainly as any derive a new covenant right from Christ for pardon, they also receive a vital influence from him for the renovation of their natures and conforming their souls to his own image. (81-82)

The grace and blessings of the new covenant were given and ensured to Abraham for himself. (75)

During the time of the law… [t]he children of God after the Spirit (though as underage children they were subject to the pedagogy of the law, yet) as to their spiritual and eternal state, walked before God and found acceptance with him on terms of the covenant of grace… this spiritual relationship to God [was] according to the terms of the new covenant which the truly godly then had[.] (133)

Note also 2LBCF 7.3 “it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality…” Among its references on this particular statement are Hebrews 11:6, 13 “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him… by faith Noah… by faith Abraham… All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” Rom 4:1, 2, &cWhat then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.'” and John 8:56 “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” Thus when we identify the Covenant of Grace with the New Covenant alone, we do not exclude those who lived before the establishment of the New Covenant – notably Abraham – from “the grace of this covenant.” Nor do we believe that they waited to receive this grace until the death of Christ. In sum, this New Covenant of Grace was extant and effectual under the Old Testament, so as the church was saved by virtue thereof.

See also the FAQ page at Did the Covenant of Grace Exist During the Old Testament? as well as Samuel Renihan’s two replies to Clark Typology and Communication in 2LCF 8.6 and Typology: Signs and the Things Signified.

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.