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.
Theonomy is a political theory which holds that all civil governments are morally obligated to enforce the Old Covenant judicial laws given to Israel (because they have never been abrogated) and furthermore that all civil governments must refrain from coercion in areas where Scripture has not prescribed their intervention.
Defining Our Terms
Etymologically, theonomy simply means “God’s law.” However, the phrase was coined 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 http://www.1689federalism.com 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.
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, &c “What 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.
Sumpter acknowledged that the Joint Federal Vision Statement (which Wilson still affirms) is incompatible with the reformed law/gospel distinction and must be rejected.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 distinctionbetween 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.”  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.
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.
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]
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:
At best, Wilson is thoroughly confused on the gospel, having been deceived by Shepherd’s false teaching.
At worst, he is a wolf “speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.”
In my previous post, I erred on two points regarding Sumpter and Wilson.
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).
I treated Sumpter and Wilson as consistent theologians like Shepherd (who formerly held the chair of Systematic Theology at WTS).
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.
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:
By 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
By 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
By 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
By 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.
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.
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
Clark’s post kick-started this recent discussion of FV.
Wedgeworth responded to and interacted with it.
I was continuing that conversation.
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
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 subjectiveuse 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.
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)
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
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.]
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.
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.
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:
Eternal life would have been a reward earned (by covenant), not a gift.
The phrase “faith alone” could not have been applied to Adam’s reception of eternal life.
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.
The Adamic Covenant (“the law” Gal 3:12) was not “of faith” – referring to the means of obtaining eternal life.
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.
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:
Wilson disagrees with or doesn’t understand the JFVS.
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.
“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.
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?
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 samething 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 ofWorks. 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.
Prefatory Note: The main purpose of this post is not to tell others how to direct their affairs or to pronounce what actions are tolerable or intolerable. The purpose of this post is to show as clearly as possible what people believe. What one chooses to do with that information is up to them.
We find ourselves in a rather complicated mess. R. Scott Clark says that the Federal Vision has never gone away and that “there seems to be emerging an alliance between conservative Baptists and Federal Visionists,” pointing to the recent ReformCon hosted by Apologia Church as well as the documentary being produced by Founders. James White (an elder at Apologia) responded by calling Clark a Reformed Fundie who is unable to distinguish between things that divide (the essentials) and things that don’t (adiaphora) – the implication being that Apologia Church does not disagree with the Federal Vision men they associate with on the essentials. White has insisted that his points of disagreement with Wilson have been made known through debates they have had. He also argues
Anybody who suggests that myself or Apologia Church are promoting Federal Visionism obviously doesn’t understand what it is… as Dr. Clark summarized it ‘In by baptism, kept in by works,’… We cannot be Federal Visionists because you’re never in by baptism. We don’t believe in infant baptism. We don’t believe that baptism is that mechanism by any stretch of the imagination. So we must just be so stupid that we don’t get it that we’re promoting people that are actually teaching it right under our noses. (1:27:15)
This second objection is not true logically or actually. There is no reason a Baptist could not affirm all of the five points [of the Federal Vision] listed above.
What are we to make of all this?
R. Scott Clark
First, I want to be abundantly clear that I am not an R. Scott Clark “fanboy.” Anyone who follows me online knows that is the last thing I could be described as. Clark banned me from his blog ages ago (7+ yrs?) and of course blocked me on Twitter as well (but at this point who hasn’t he blocked?). I concur with Steven Wedgeworth when he says
It has become increasingly clear that Dr. Clark is an untrustworthy guide when it comes to historical theology… Dr. Clark’s most recent Twitter activity has also raised eyebrows because of the dissonance between his claim to academic authority and the contents of his arguments which are usually not supported by the primary historical sources.
This is true of Clark on a variety of topics (see here for example, as well as here). Robert Strimple even had to write a memo to the WSC faculty chastising Clark for his poor historical theology claims. No one should trust Clark’s analysis of anything.
But does that mean everything he says is wrong?
Federal Vision or Neonomianism?
Clark summarizes the Federal Vision in 5 points:
There is no covenant of works before the fall. The covenant of grace was established before the fall and continues after the fall.
The conditions of the covenant with Adam are the conditions for Christians: faithfulness.
Because there is no distinction between those who are in “the covenant” only externally those who are also in the covenant internally, at baptism every baptized person is endowed with all that we need to persevere and retain what we have been given.
Those who cooperate sufficiently with grace will finally persevere and shall have been elected.
It is possible for those who were truly united to Christ to fall away (apostatize).
Though Wedgeworth argues this does not capture all of what Federal Vision entails, it does represent the main problems – though some FV men like Wilson have sort of walked back and qualified 3-5 (maybe, kind of, not really?). These aspects of the Federal Vision can be put into two categories: neonomianism and the objectivity of the covenant. Federal Vision is a species of neonomianism, distinguished by its view of the objectivity of the covenant of grace. Points 1-2 above mostly deal with neonomianism more broadly while points 3-5 deal with FV’s particular species of neonomianism.
White has focused on the fact that Apologia cannot possibly hold to FV because they completely reject 3 (and the points that follow from it: 4-5). Their view is, in fact, diametrically opposed to FV on this point: the New Covenant is only “internal.” So White is correct that Apologia does not and cannot hold to the Federal Vision.
[S]ome Baptists have taught part or all of the FV theology, e.g., John Armstrong was a Baptist when affirmed Norman Shepherd’s doctrine of justification.3 Don Garlington has long affirmed something like the Federal Vision theology.4 The same is true for Daniel Fuller, who has strongly influenced John Piper.5 The latter is actively teaching a two-stage doctrine of salvation in which the final stage of salvation is “by works.”6
Notice that Clark says some Baptists have taught part or all of the FV theology (the 5 points listed), but then only gives examples of Baptists who have held part of the listed points (as far as I know). So what Clark is really arguing is that Baptists can hold to part of FV – the neonomian part. Wedgeworth notes
He has reduced everything back to the Norman Shepherd controversy, and this shows us what he is really up to. All of Dr. Clark’s points are ways to highlight his classic theological foil, neonomianism. This is why he can extend the FV name to someone like John Piper. Dr. Clark is not really talking about the Federal Vision. He is talking about neonomianism… And importantly, it is entirely possible for a form of neonomianism to be present within a kind of Reformed Baptist system, while it would be impossible for FV to be present in one. So Dr. Clark ought to cut to the chase and lead with the term neonomian.
Perhaps Clark has chosen to frame this all as a matter of the Federal Vision because numerous Presbyterian denominations have officially denounced the teaching. But framing this all as a matter of Federal Vision has hindered a meaningful conversation (especially with those who are not aware of the intricacies and history – such as White’s assistant Rich Pierce, who openly mocked the very idea that those official reports by paedobaptists can offer any meaningful critique of a paedobaptist error like FV).
If Clark is really just talking about neonomianism, then that changes the discussion entirely.
As Clark noted, Norman Shepherd (John Murray’s successor to the chair of systematic theology at WTS) was caught in the mid-70s teaching students that we are justified by faith and works. In a 1975 faculty discussion, Shepherd affirmed that works are an instrument of our justification.
Later, after he was understandably criticized for using this language, he modified his language to justification through our faithfulness [“Obedience is simply faithfulness to the Lord; it is the righteousness of faith.” (The Call of Grace 39)]. He and others became convinced that Romans 2:13, which says, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (ESV) [refers to believers at the final judgment].
Q. 90. What shall be done to the righteous at the day of judgment?
A. At the day of judgment, the righteous, being caught up to Christ in the clouds, shall be set on his right hand, and there openly acknowledged and acquitted, shall join with him in the judging of reprobate angels and men, and shall be received into heaven, where they shall be fully and forever freed from all sin and misery; filled with inconceivable joys, made perfectly holy and happy both in body and soul, in the company of innumerable saints and holy angels, but especially in the immediate vision and fruition of God the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, to all eternity. And this is the perfect and full communion, which the members of the invisible church shall enjoy with Christ in glory, at the resurrection and day of judgment.
Shepherd’s denial of sola fide is rooted in a rejection of what he calls the “works-merit” paradigm.
The biblical paradigm, I would suggest to you, is one that is consistently covenantal without the schizophrenic antithesis between the covenant of works and an antithetical covenant of grace… Proverbs 12:28 “In the way of righteousness there is life. Along that path is immortality” That is salvation by grace in the Old Testament and it is also salvation by grace in the New Testament. The works-merit paradigm has no way of accounting for those words in Proverbs 12:28. In terms of that paradigm this is nothing but salvation by merit or works, but it’s presented to us in the bible as gospel.
What Shepherd refers to as the “works-merit” paradigm is also known as the law/gospel distinction, referring to the two ways of obtaining eternal life. Shepherd accurately summarizes this view:
Covenant theology became a distinctive mark of the Reformed faith, and the 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, that is, by the meritorious performance of good works… In the covenant of grace that now takes the place of the pre-fall covenant of works, they are justified and saved on the ground of Christ’s perfect obedience imputed to them and received by faith alone. Faith is the only condition operative in the covenant of grace, and it is not a meritorious condition but an instrumental condition… R. C. Sproul summarizes this commonly received view with these words: “Man’s relationship to God in creation was based on works. What Adam failed to achieve, Christ, the second Adam, succeeded in achieving. Ultimately the only way one can be justified is by works.”
I would like to offer a different way of looking at the Adamic covenant… The issue in the probation was whether Adam… would live by faith or perish in unbelief… He would live and live forever not by the merit of his works but by faith. He would exhibit the principle stated in Habakkuk 2:4 and reiterated by Paul in Romans 1:17, “The righteous will live by faith.” 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.”  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. The Lord God did not and never does deal with his image bearers in terms of a principle of works and merit but ever and always in terms of a principle of faith and grace. Faith for Adam was what true faith always is, a living and active faith… The method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall: “The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17)… If we ask how sinners are saved under the Mosaic covenant, the answer is clear enough… They are both justified and sanctified by the law, and that is to say they are justified and sanctified by grace through faith… This is not salvation by the merit of good works because the Lord does not deal with us on the basis of works and merit, and never did… God’s children have always lived by grace through faith, both before and after the fall into sin…
From a covenantal perspective, however, law and gospel are not antithetically opposed… In the application of redemption, law and gospel are simply the two sides of the covenant, promise and obligation. All that God promises is a pure gift of sovereign grace, and he leads us into possession of what he has promised by way of a penitent and obedient faith.
Note very, very, very well: If “the method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall” then justification by faith alone takes on an entirely different meaning. If someone follows Shepherd’s paradigm, then their affirmation of justification by faith alone is not enough because they mean something different by that phrase. One must press deeper for more elaboration as to what is and is not meant. This is nothing new in the history of theological dispute. Biblical or established terminology is used in an unbiblical or new manner prompting a precise, systematic elaboration of what that terminology does and does not mean. That is not splitting hairs or witch hunting. That is doing theology.
When they say “justification by faith alone” they mean “justification by faithfulness.” Justification apart from works of the law takes on a new meaning in Shepherd’s paradigm. “Works of the law” becomes a reference to something subjective within an individual, not to anything objective in the law. It is argued that the works Paul has in mind are works done with a sinful motive to earn reward. We are justified apart from those works, not because they are imperfect, but because we cannot earn anything from God – hence they are not works done in faith. “Works of the law” are works done without faith. Shepherd says they are
works done in the strength of human flesh in order to obtain the justifying verdict of God… These works of the law were not good works; they were not the obedience of faith wrought by the power of God.
Justification by Faith in Pauline Theology
We must compare Paul with what James says: we are not justified by faith alone apart from works. What James is referring to is “the obedience of faith.” Paul and James are referring to the same justification, but they are referring to different works. Justification is apart from misunderstood, self-wrought works of merit, but not apart from Spirit-wrought works of faith (so they say).
In his PhD dissertation (published 2006), Reformed Baptist scholar Samuel E. Waldron summarizes
[T]here is no place in Shepherd’s theology for anything like the dichotomy between law and gospel that lays at the foundation of justification sola fide for the Reformation. If there is no such thing as meritorious works, if Christ’s work was believing obedience, if the obedience of faith is the righteousness of faith, then we are clearly dealing with a system of doctrine that has no way to express the Reformation’s contrast between law and gospel. Such a system cannot consistently affirm the justification sola fide squarely built on this contrast.
Allegiance to The Westminster Confession is often understood as subscription to its “system of doctrine.” The Westminster Confession accurately represents the Reformation system of doctrine when it grounds its soteriology on a contrast between the law (“the covenant of works”) and the gospel (“the covenant of grace”). Shepherd has no place for such a structure in his theology and cannot, therefore, affirm consistently the “system of doctrine” taught in the Confession he cites so often in his writings…
The classic articulation of justification sola fide is found in the Reformation tradition. To affirm sola fide and not mean by this phrase what it meant for the whole Reformation tradition is simply misleading. The fact is, however, that this is exactly what Garlington, Fuller, and Shepherd actually do. They do not hold the definition of justifying faith held by the Reformation tradition. They do not hold the distinction between justifying faith and evangelical obedience held by the Reformation tradition. They do not hold the dichotomy between law and gospel held by the Reformation tradition. They do not hold sola fide in any of its fundamental characteristics in the tradition. They do not hold justification sola fide in any familiar or meaningful sense. Their affirmation of sola fide, then, only serves to cloud and confuse the true meaning and real purport of their theologies.
–Faith, Obedience, and Justification: Current Evangelical Departures, p. 186, 231
Now why would a Reformed Baptist scholar (currently Academic Dean and Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary) choose to do his PhD work on a topic that is irrelevant to baptists? Clearly he thought it was relevant. His dissertation critiques Norm Shepherd, Daniel Fuller (baptist), and Don Garlington (baptist). Garlington was originally one of Waldron’s teachers at the reformed baptist Trinity Ministerial Academy (Al Martin). Waldron clearly saw a connection between these three men’s rejection of sola fide as well as a relevance to his ministry such that it was worth understanding and refuting Shepherd’s ideas. It was not merely an intra-Presbyterian squabble. Waldron obviously shares Clark’s concern over Shepherdism’s ability to influence baptists. This is not a matter of adiaphora.
Neonomianism at ReformCon?
Of course, that raises the question as to whether or not any of the speakers at ReformCon could be said to 1) hold to Shepherd-shaped neonomianism, and 2) be teaching something at ReformCon related to Shepherd-shaped neonomianism (which is hard to determine since the talks have not been posted online – UPDATE: someone let me know the talks have been trickling in on the Apologia YouTube page. I missed that. I’ll give them a listen as soon as I can).
P. Andrew Sandlin
Sandlin was a speaker at ReformCon. His lectures are also part of the academy offered to supporters/subscribers of Apologia Radio. He is ordained in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity. He is Founder and President of the Center for Cultural Leadership. He is a disciple of Norman Shepherd. He was the editor (together with John Barach) of Obedient Faith: A Festschrift to Norman Shepherd (published by the Center for Cultural Leadership), self-described as “A tribute by students and friends to a courageous theologian’s lifelong stand for a full-orbed, obedient Christianity.” He has a chapter in it titled “Sola Fide: True and False.”
The interpretation I offer swerves at points from certain traditional categories. This fact should not be unduly troubling. We Protestants affirm the Bible, not tradition, as the final authority for what we believe and teach and practice… I believe that the Bible presents at root one gospel, one law, one salvation, one ethic, one hope, one faith, all ensconced in one message. This puts me at odds with both traditional dispensationalism and traditional covenant theology. There is no fundamental gospel-law distinction [italics original]…
In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve that they could eat of all the trees except one-the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2: 16-17). We also know that if they ate of the tree of life, they would have lived forever or gained eternal life (Genesis 3:22). I do not believe this 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 with Charles Hodge when he asserts that the Bible presents two ways of gaining eternal life, one by works and one by faith… There are not two ways of gaining eternal life, one in the prelapsarian era and one in the postlapsarian era… There is only one way of obtaining eternal life, and there has always been only one way… Eternal life, even in the prelapsarian period, was of grace, and not of merit. Faith and obedience were the means of gaining eternal life, but not the ground [italics original]… the ground of eternal life in the prelapsarian era is the grace of God. What is its instrument and means? I believe that they are really no different than in the subsequent eras-faith in the Lord, accompanied by obedience, and, in fact, a faith that is itself an act of obedience…
Now, this conviction relating to the prelapsarian era has specific implications for the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ.22 [Footnote points readers to the Christus Victor model of atonement] If eternal life is not something that Adam merited, and if it is not something that man could even conceivably merit (Galatians 3:21), it is not, therefore, something that Jesus Christ himself merited. There is simply no such thing as a meritorious basis of eternal life, and there is no such thing as a meritorious soteriology. It is simply a fiction… [E]ternal life was not something that Jesus was “rewarded” for being extraordinarily virtuous… The righteousness that becomes ours as we are mystically united to him by faith alone is a love-filled, law-keeping righteousness: a faithful trust and reliance on the Father that necessarily issues in good works…
Christ alone saves, and those who place faith in him will obey the law. This, I believe, is the meaning of Romans 2:13: that not the hearers of the law are justified, but the doers of the law are justified. Paul is not setting up a theoretical basis of justification, but an actual basis of justification…
[W]hen you boil it right down, that there is no fundamental distinction between gospel and law.
Toby Sumpter was a speaker at ReformCon. He is an elder at Doug Wilson’s church. He is a proponent of the Federal Vision (though recently criticizing some FV men). I have not read anything to indicate he disagrees with Wilson.
CrossPolitic did a live recording at ReformCon. It is a podcast offering commentary on current political and cultural issues in America hosted by Sumpter and two other members of Christ Church. I have not read anything to indicate these men disagree with their pastor, Wilson.
Since Wilson has written the most on this issue and he is (rightly) a center of focus because of his tremendous influence on Apologia Church (even though he was not at ReformCon), I will address his beliefs. I hope that I do so accurately. It is not an easy task because Wilson is often given to rhetorical flair that is unhelpful in determining precise theological matters. Furthermore, his book Reformed is Not Enough helped spark the Federal Vision controversy when it was written in 2002, but since that time one has to dig through his blog to find any changes, clarifications, or developments in his thought in response to critics. He has made all of his relevant blog posts available in a volume titled The Auburn Avenue Chronicles. It totals 950 pages and contains no organization other than sequential ordering of posts by date originally posted on his blog. It is hardly congenial to properly understanding his beliefs. I hope I have grasped his position and I am open to correction on anything I have misunderstood.
Federal Vision No Mas?
In 2017, Wilson decided to stop calling himself a Federal Vision proponent. Thankfully, he acknowledges “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.” The article addresses the fact that he wishes to distance himself from some other FV men whose trajectories he disagrees with. However, it is very important to note that “This statement represents a change in what I will call what I believe. It does not represent any substantial shift or sea change in the content of what I believe.”
Wilson follows Shepherd in rejecting the law(CoW)/gospel(CoG) distinction (two ways of obtaining eternal life). It can be confusing because most of Wilson’s comments specifically on the law/gospel distinction are directed against a slightly different law/gospel distinction (i.e. a division between promise and command, etc), though he rejects both ideas. Playing off of the 3 uses of the moral law, Wilson argues (like Shepherd) that the difference between law and gospel is in the human heart, not anything objective.
The Scripture is what it is, and contains both promises and imperatives… For the believer, even the Ten Commandments can be understood as gracious… For the unbeliever, even the message of the cross is foolishness, an intolerable demand. So that, in a nutshell, is what I think is going on with law and gospel… 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.
This was expressed in the Joint Federal Vision Statement (which Wilson helped author, signed, and still affirms).
Law and Gospel
We affirm that those in rebellion against God are condemned both by His law, which they disobey, and His gospel, which they also disobey. When they have been brought to the point of repentance by the Holy Spirit, we affirm that the gracious nature of all God’s words becomes evident to them. At the same time, we affirm that it is appropriate to speak of law and gospel as having a redemptive and historical thrust, with the time of the law being the old covenant era and the time of the gospel being the time when we enter our maturity as God’s people. We further affirm that those who are first coming to faith in Christ frequently experience the law as an adversary and the gospel as deliverance from that adversary, meaning that traditional evangelistic applications of law and gospel are certainly scriptural and appropriate.
We deny that law and gospel should be considered as hermeneutics, or treated as such. We believe that any passage, whether indicative or imperative, can be heard by the faithful as good news, and that any passage, whether containing gospel promises or not, will be heard by the rebellious as intolerable demand. The fundamental division is not in the text, but rather in the human heart.
“Works of the law” are “autonomous works.” They are the result of a sinful perversion of the law. “Works of the law” are a sinful attempt to justify oneself through obedience without faith, unaided by God’s grace. (Thus “we are justified by faith apart from works of the law” means “we are justified by faith apart from an incorrect effort to obey without faith.”)
Covenant of Works
It is important to understand how this relates to the Covenant of Works. Wilson has a page on his blog called the Controversy Library. Section 4 contains resources addressing the question of justification by faith alone. Wilson points readers to his CREC “exam” as the best resource for understanding his position.
I believe the covenant of works mentioned in Chapter VII is badly named. I would prefer something like the covenant of life (WLC 20), or the covenant of creation. I believe that this covenant obligated Adam to whole-hearted obedience to the requirement of God. The one stipulation I would add is that, had Adam stood, he would have been required to thank God for His gracious protection and provision. And had Adam stood, he would have done so by believing the Word of God. In other words, it would all have been by grace through faith… [T]he “covenant of works” was not meritorious and we deny that any covenant can be kept without faith.
The “covenant of works” used here [WCF 19.1] is fine if the terms are defined, but the phrase itself is an unhappy one. It leads people to think it carries its own definition on its face, and hence folks think of some sort of salvation by works. This leads people to assume two different ways of salvation—grace and works.
Periodically, great Homer nods and I believe that is the case here. While there is no necessary problem with the doctrine, the Westminster divines have badly named this covenant. To call this covenant with Adam a covenant “of works” leads people to confuse it either with the Old Testament economy, or with pharisaical distortions of the law. This misunderstanding is evident in the scriptural reference given for this point [in Wilson’s view, the Scriptures cited refer to subjective Pharisaical misinterpretation of the law, not to any objective understanding of the law]. To call it works opposes it, in the scriptural terminology, to grace. But the covenant given to Adam prior to the Fall was in no way opposed to grace. It would be far better to call this pre-Fall covenant a covenant of creation. In this covenant, life was promised to Adam and his descendents as the fruit of perfect and personal obedience. But notice the word fruit—as a covenant of creation, grace is not opposed to it, and permeates the whole. If by “covenant of works” is meant raw merit, then we have to deny the covenant of works. But if this covenant made with Adam was inherently gracious (as many Reformed theologians have held), then the only problem is the terminological one. And, with regard to whether the covenant was gracious, a simple thought experiment will suffice. If Adam had withstood temptation successfully, would he have had any obligation to say “thank You” to God. If not, then it is not a gracious covenant. If so, then it was.
The Reformed theologians Wilson refers to held that the establishment of the Covenant of Works was gracious (voluntary condescension).* Adam/man owed God obedience by nature without expecting any reward in return. However, God condescended to offer Adam a reward that could be earned by his obedience (This distinction is a point that Klineans like R. Scott Clark do not agree with, thus complicating the discussion. See here, here, and here. Wilson himself likewise does not see any distinction between nature and covenant, thus likely contributing to his converse error as well.). However, once that agreement was established, if Adam obeyed, God would owe him the reward as a matter of debt (this is true regardless of how much assistance Adam received from God to meet the obligation). The PCA Report on the Federal Vision notes
In the pivotal text of Romans 4:4, the idea of “what is due” need not invoke the idea that “what is due” has been earned by a work that is commensurate with the reward itself, but merely that there was a covenant which promised that reward if the work was performed. Thus, if Adam had obeyed in the probation, God would have owed him the reward of eternal life, because God had promised it to him on that condition.
This is what Wilson rejects. It is not a terminological disagreement. It is a doctrinal disagreement.
The view we reject is that the covenant with Adam must be considered a covenant of works, based on Adam’s merit or demerit… A man cannot merit anything by grace through faith. But a man can obey by grace through faith.
*(Some reformed theologians have spoken of other nuanced ways in which God dealt graciously with Adam in the Adamic Covenant. However, none of these concepts negate the idea that Adam would have been owed eternal life as a debt upon successful probation.)
Justification by Faith Alone
How, then, does all of this relate to justification by faith alone? Wilson believes that if Adam had obeyed perfectly, he would have been justified by faith.
I believe that a man is justified by faith, through faith, to faith, under faith, and over faith. Furthermore, I believe that there has never been a time in the history of the world when this was not the case.
Recall Shepherd, “the method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall.”
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 faithalone. 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]
The first covenant was called a covenant of works in the Westminster Confession (7.2). I would prefer to call it a covenant of creational grace. The condition of covenant-keeping in this first covenant was to believe God’s grace, command, warnings, and promise… The second covenant is a covenant of redemptive grace. The thing that the two covenants have in common is grace, not works. The condition for keeping this covenant is the same as the first, although the circumstances are different. The condition always is to believe God.
Recall what I said above. If “the method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall” then justification by faith alone takes on an entirely different meaning. What is that different meaning?
If Adam had stood the test, it would have been through the instrumentality of faith-animated obedience, graciously given by God.
Infused righteousness is an instrument of justification.
[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
Compare the Joint FV Statement that Adam’s reward “would have been a gift of grace, received by faith alone” with Wilson’s statement that “If Adam had stood the test, it would have been through the instrumentality of faith-animated obedience.” The affirmation of faith alone does not mean faith apart from obedience.
True faith and works of obedience are never in opposition
We affirm we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone. Faith alone is the hand which is given to us by God so that we may receive the offered grace of God. Justification is God’s forensic declaration that we are counted as righteous, with our sins forgiven, for the sake of Jesus Christ alone.
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.
Not only is “alone” defined differently, but so is “faith.” Note the inclusion of “living trust” and recall Shepherd “Faith for Adam was what true faith always is, a living and active faith.” By living trust, Federal Vision means faithfulness, covenant loyalty, obedience.
[L]ife and obedience are essential characteristics of the instrumentality of 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.]
If “the method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall” (faith alone) then justification by faith alone takes on an entirely different meaning. If someone follows Shepherd’s paradigm, then their affirmation of justification by faith alone is not enough because they mean something different by that phrase.
The Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ
Though Wilson follows Shepherd’s rejection of the law/gospel distinction as well as his understanding of faith as faithfulness (thus changing the meaning of justification by faith alone), he does not follow Shepherd in rejecting the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Shepherd argues that justification consists in the forgiveness of our sins and not the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.
The active obedience of Christ is not the meritorious ground of our salvation because, not because of any inadequacy in it or anything like that, but because there is no such thing in the bible as obtaining salvation by the merit of works. Salvation after the fall or the gift of eternal life before the fall was never granted on the basis of the merit of works but was always a free gift that is received by faith.
We do not need Christ’s active obedience because eternal life is not earned by righteousness! It is a free gift and has always been a free gift. Once we receive the forgiveness of our sins through faith in Christ, God also gives us the free gift of eternal life through that same faith. And because that living faith is faithfulness, the righteous shall live by faith (Rom 1:17) and the doers of the law shall be justified (Rom 2:13) at the last day. Adam’s probation was a test to see if he had that faith – the condition of the free gift of eternal life. He didn’t have that living, obedient faith, so he didn’t get the free gift!
Wilson, however, thinks we still need Christ’s active obedience, frequently quoting Machen’s deathbed statement that we have “no hope without it.”
Note that, in line with everything above, Wilson believes that Christ’s faith was his faithfulness was his obedience.
In an oral exam yesterday for one of our grad students, the phrase “faith of Jesus Christ” came up (Gal 2:16; 3:22), along with the question/debate of whether this refers to Jesus Christ’s faith or to our faith in Him. I have generally taken it as the former, but that is not my point here. The point here has to do with what comes along with that — what has to be part of that package, for those who read it that way.
First, there are multiple other passages that teach plainly that we are justified through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the instrument of sola fide, so that doctrine is not at stake in this discussion. But if we take it, in this instance, as “the faith of Jesus Christ,” another doctrine is at stake. This means that the apostle Paul is bluntly teaching us the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.
This debate concerns whether our justification is secured by the Lord’s suffering on the cross and His resurrection alone (known as the passive obedience of Christ), or whether we also have imputed to us the sinless, faithful life of Christ (His active obedience), throughout the course of His life. Those who would echo the words of Machen on his death bed, when he spoke about the active obedience of Jesus (“no hope without it”), have available to them, on this reading, a knock down text. How so?
This is because there would be no basis in this text for partitioning off the “faith of Jesus” to that time frame when He was on the cross. This is an expansive phrase. This is the new Israel, finally obeying God, finally walking through all the events of their history, and doing so in faith. Christ at His baptism, Christ resisting temptation for 40 days in the wilderness, Christ invading Canaan, and so on. Contrasted with the faithlessness of the old Israel, this is the faith of Jesus Christ. All of that is the “faith of Jesus Christ,” and all of that is our obedience now, our justification now, because it has been reckoned to us. No hope without it.
Note carefully that (in line with the rejection of any law/gospel distinction) Wilson believes Jesus’ faith (“the faith of Jesus”) is equivalent to Jesus’ active obedience to the law.
If it is undeniable that the New Testament shows Christ as the new Israel (and I believe it is), and if this is self-evidently because He is being the true Israel for us, so that we can be true Israelites in Him, it follows that we are participating in His obedient life. The perfect obedience that He rendered to God throughout the course of His life was a life lived before God, and He did it for us. This is nothing other than the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Jesus Christ…
A shorthand form of the doctrine of active obedience is that Christ’s obedience throughout the course of His sinless life has been imputed by the grace of God to me. I believe this is true, but there is a fuller way to explain it, and this fuller way makes the doctrine not only true, but one of Scripture’s primary truths. Christ’s obedience as the true Israel has been imputed to us, to all of us who are the Israel of God, and therefore to me. The reason I can be an Israelite and not be destroyed is Israel is now obedient. And whose obedience was this? How did it happen? The active obedience of Christ began with His miraculous birth, and His exile in Egypt, and His restoration from Egypt. Out of Egypt God called His Son. And when God called His Son, we came too.
Shepherd would say the reason I can be an Israelite and not be destroyed is because my sins have been forgiven by a sinless Israelite who bore my curse (passive obedience). 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. Wilson says “He did it for us.” Did what? Had faith? So I don’t have to have faith? “Well, no. He had perfect, sinless faith.” Well so do I now that my sins are forgiven. So what exactly did Jesus do for me beyond bearing my curse?
If there has only ever been one way of obtaining eternal life (by grace alone through faith alone) then Jesus obtained eternal life the same way that we do: by grace alone through faith alone. There is nothing for Jesus to “do for us.” The only possible way there can be something for Jesus to “do for us” is if there is more than one way of obtaining eternal life. The imputation of the active obedience of Christ necessarily requires the law/gospel distinction that Wilson rejects. He can only affirm the IAOC to the degree that he affirms an objective law/gospel distinction.
In light of all of the above, I cannot agree with Jeff Durbin that “Doug Wilson is one of the greatest blessings to the church in this modern era.” At best, Wilson is thoroughly confused on the gospel, having been deceived by Shepherd’s false teaching. At worst, he is a wolf “speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.”
Neonomianism and Culture
A driving passion of Apologia Church is to equip Christians to apply Scripture to every area of their lives. The theme of ReformCon 2019 was “Reformation and the Public Square.” I share their passion for developing and applying a Christian worldview. I get it. I was a Christian filmmaker (see here, here, and here) before becoming chronically ill and having to step away from that pursuit (I have written elsewhere on a Federal Vision influence in Christian film theory). I share Apologia’s rejection of VanDrunen’s dual ethic (natural law vs Scripture). I’ve been making similar criticism for a decade. I’m passionate about having a biblical understanding of justice and applying Scripture to politics and government. I’ve written extensively on issues related to it. I get it.
My concern, however, is in the details. My concern is that we properly guard the core of a Christian worldview: the Gospel. The ReformCon website says “With the guidance of some of the most influential Reformed thinkers of our day, we will spend two days soaking in pure and unadulterated Calvinistic delight while being equipped to take the good news of the Gospel into the public square.” I do not believe all of the speakers that Apologia Church chose to invite are Reformed and I do not believe they can equip anyone to take the good news of the Gospel into the public square as long as they believe another gospel. I do not think Apologia Church believes and teaches another gospel, but I do believe they are greatly influenced by those who do.
As a case in point of how this teaching is influencing others, consider Joe Boot – another speaker at ReformCon. Rev. Dr. Joseph Boot (M.A., PhD) is a Christian thinker, cultural apologist/philosopher, founder of the Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity (EICC), and founding pastor of Westminster Chapel, Toronto. Boot’s passion is to equip Christians with worldview-thinking to apply Scripture to every area of their lives.
[T]he root of the theological error of two kingdoms theology, I think, is the idea that creation and man can be generalized as abstractions so God allegedly creates man in general. But I don’t think this is the case. Genesis 1-3 is part of the gospel and right in Genesis 1-3 you have the first seed promise of the gospel in Genesis 3:15…
Of course we know that Adam in the garden was a symbol of God’s power and judgment with the tree. It’s not that Adam was there to earn his salvation. He was actually made upright. There was nothing lacking in him. But he might forfeit it by disobedience. So we can, I suppose, talk of a Paradise Covenant between Adam and his Creator. God is the Lord. Adam is his creature. Any covenant between a greater and a lesser is already a covenant of grace. I put it to you there is no such thing ever as a covenant of works in Scripture whereby man is justifying himself – anywhere! He lived by God’s grace and favor. The good news of the evangelion is that God is Lord and King. That’s what it means. Now, Adam even believed that. He had to believe that and he walked in the favor of that. So God calls all men from Adam, through Noah, to the present to serve and obey him. He’s the same God. The covenant mandate was to develop and keep God’s creation in obedience to him and I don’t see any evidence in Scripture that that’s changed.
There were never two ways of obtaining eternal life. Only one. Before the Fall, Adam believed the Gospel! Where might Boot have learned such an idea? P. Andrew Sandlin works closely with Boot’s Ezra Institute, teaching at their Runner Academy. Sandlin notes “When I met Dr. Joseph Boot, leader of the Ezra Institute, I found a brother-in-arms. God knit our hearts together.”
It’s important to note that Boot is a baptist. He does not hold to the Federal Vision. But he is absolutely being influenced by Shepherdism’s neonomianism and it is directly impacting his view of how the Gospel relates to culture. Durbin says Boot is a spitting-image of him theologically and that every member of his church needs to read Boot’s “The Mission of God” because it is their manifesto. My intention is not to call for a boycott of Apologia. Far from it. If I lived in Phoenix, I would very likely be a member of Apologia (if they would have me). My desire is to offer some sharpening so that they may be more effective in their ministry and not be hindered by neonomianism influences in their systematic understanding of the Gospel and its relation to culture.
Apologia Church is very well known for their advocacy of theonomy. Wilson said that
this [FV controversy] was nothing more than a simple continuation of the theonomy fracas in the Reformed world a couple decades ago… During the original Shepherd controversy, he had strong support among the theonomists — Greg Bahnsen and Gary North, to mention two. North even devoted an entire book — Westminster’s Confession — defending Shepherd. Other supporters of Shepherd included such notables as Cornelius Van Til… In short, when you look at the scorecard, and take in the names of the players, you see a lot of the same names.
The link between theonomy and the Federal Vision is the rejection of the law/gospel distinction (CoW/CoG distinction). Rushdoony said
The Westminster Confession is one of the great documents of the Christian faith but at one point it has rightly been criticized over the years… This problem in the Westminster Confession is it’s concept of a covenant of works… Now it’s this 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… So Paul is saying in Galatians 3:12 that when we walk in terms of covenant faithfulness we receive God’s blessing.
Greg Bahnsen had died in 1995, well before the “Federal Vision” was its own project, but his own history shows a fairly strong pro-Shepherd but anti-Jordan disposition. Several of his friends and students went on to have some association with FV.
Bahnsen’s son David, while “combing through my late father’s files” found “evidence that Greg Bahnsen repudiated the notion that Norm Shepherd was a heretic, and in fact, embraced the core thesis of his work on justification, faith, and works (the heart of the controversy).” See his post for details.
Norm Shepherd was Bahnsen’s thesis advisor. Bahnsen initially had a strong law/gospel distinction – in fact his interpretation of Matt. 5:20 was far better than R. C. Sproul’s (lecture 309, I think). But as I show in this post, as time went on and Bahsen faced criticism of his thesis, he revised his law/gospel interpretation of key texts like Rom 10:4, coming to favor Shepherd and Daniel Fuller’s rejection of a law/gospel distinction (specifically telling people to read Fuller’s work for a full explanation; North notes the change in Bahnsen’s interpretation). Bahnsen also embraced Shepherd’s monocovenantalism as a crucial foundation to his theonomic thesis.
The perpetuity of God’s commandments follows from the eternality of His covenant of which they comprise an inalienable part… The law, both prior to and after the fall, is gracious… 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, p. 184, 235, 201-2
In the last couple of years, Joel McDurmon (former president of American Vision and Gary North’s son-in-law) has written two works critical of Bahnsen’s theonomy (Bounds of Love and Consuming Fire). Together they form a very good refutation while maintaining the same presuppositional view of justice, but they do so precisely because McDurmon is more cognizant of a law/gospel distinction. I highly encourage baptist theonomists to prayerfully consider his books and consider whether his view or Bahnsen’s is more consistent with a baptist understanding of covenant theology.
Spreading Among Baptists
Regretfully, Founders’ Ministries has lately been cooperating with CrossPolitic producer David Shannon (Chocolate Knox) in the production of a documentary on social justice called By What Standard? (Federal Visionist Marcus Pittman also directed parts of the documentary). Founders also invited Toby Sumpter to speak at and CrossPolitic to broadcast from a Founders’ conference on social justice. It appears to me that perhaps a large motivation for doing so was that these Federal Vision theonomists appear to have a solid, worked-out biblical standard of justice that baptists suddenly realize they are in need of. Personally, I believe their decision to work with these men was foolish. (in addition to the law/gospel problems under discussion, Federal Vision theonomists’ understanding of justice is actually unjust). I appreciate Founders and the stand they are taking against the social justice movement (see my 3-part series on social justice), but I personally think their choice of alliance was near-sighted. It seems to have already caused them significant problems and I believe it will continue to do so. (That said, I look forward to watching the documentary and I pray that it will bring much needed light to the social justice issue).
I received an email from Founders today asking for support (which I gave). The email noted “Over the last four years Founders has given even more attention to three areas of importance for spiritually strong churches: 1) confessionalism; 2) law and gospel; 3) pastoral theology.” They have a conference this week in Florida on the topic of Law & Gospel. The website for the conference says “Founders Ministries has been teaching a confessionally reformed and biblical view of the law and the gospel since 1983, and by God’s grace, will continue to do so. The need in the churches of God is as great now as it has ever been.” Hopefully this post will make it clear just how great that need is and, by God’s grace, they will address the law and gospel error currently closest to them.
CrossPolitic is scheduled to be a part of the next G3 conference as well.
One may object “At the end of the day, what practical difference does it make? If these men have helpful things to say about our current culture, can’t we just overlook these differences about the gospel?” The answer is no. A Christian’s understanding of how the law and the gospel relate is as practical as you can get. In the face of our collapsing culture’s rejection of God’s norms and the rising threat to Christians, it is easy to see ourselves as more righteous as others because we are the ones correctly understanding and applying God’s norms. We are the “doers of the law” (Rom 2:13), according to the men above. Sandlin notes
This is what God is doing in the earth; He is restoring and enhancing creation, what man lost in the Garden of Eden. The consummate kingdom will come in its fullness when the New Jerusalem descends to the resurrected earth in which both God and man will live eternally (Rev. 21:1-4). This is the kingdom populated by the blood-bought, the present deputies of the cultural mandate, whom God intended all along to be His people overspreading the globe and cultivating it for His glory. They will be victorious in this task, and then the Lord returns and the eternal state (on earth) begins.
God didn’t abandon His cultural plan for the earth; He re-issued it to a newly redeemed people. “Because of the atoning consequences of the cross,” writes Scott J. Hafemann, “God is finally fulfilling His mission of revealing His glory through (re)creating a people who will exercise dominion in His name by keeping His commandments. [Whereas humanity failed in the garden and Israel fell in the wilderness, the church, under the sovereignty of Christ, who is ‘the ruler of kings on earth,’ will fill the world with the glory of God as ‘a kingdom, priests to his God and Father’ (Rev. 1:5–6; cf. 1:9; 5:10; 12:10).]” This is our calling as God’s people, washed in the Lord’s blood. We are His dominion people, our Lord’s new humanity. This, to put it bluntly, is the goal of the Gospel.
We will do what Adam failed to do. We will be victorious because we are the doers of the law! This is the goal of the Gospel. This is how the glory of God’s kingdom is revealed: our faithful obedience!
Again, my goal is not to denounce Summer, Jeff, James, or any of the other baptists involved. My aim is for them and their followers to very carefully consider the ramifications of neonomianism on one’s worldview and one’s practical life.
Another White/Wilson Debate?
James White recently said, “Doug Wilson is a Christian with whom I have differences primarily upon issues relating to baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” Hopefully all of the above makes it clear that White and Wilson disagree on more than just baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In his response to Clark, White suggested that he and Wilson hold a debate in 2020 to end this discussion for good. Resolved: The ordinances Christ instituted for his church are for believers alone. While that would make a good debate, it would not address the concerns about Wilson. Instead, the following debate would be a great blessing to the church:
Resolved: Since creation there have been two different ways of obtaining eternal life: through obedience to the law or through faith alone apart from obedience to the law.
[Added Clarification: The main purpose of this post is not to tell others how to direct their affairs or to pronounce what actions are tolerable or intolerable. The purpose of this post is to show as clearly as possible what people believe. What one chooses to do with that information is up to them.]
From Shadow to Substance Samuel Renihan’s dissertation on 17th century particular baptist covenant theology, which begins with an excellent overview of the historical development of the reformational law/gospel distinction as it relates to covenant theology
OPC Report on Republication – Background Traces Murray’s rejection of the CoW to Shepherd’s rejection of law/gospel to Gaffin’s defense of Kinnaird and his exoneration at the OPC GA by the Rom 2:13 addition to the WLC and how that relates to Kline’s covenantal response and the trial of Lee Irons
R. Scott Clark has recently stated that Kline held to a baptist understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant.
In short, Abraham was not Moses. The Abrahamic covenant is not the Mosaic. The Abrahamic was in no sense a covenant of works. It was a covenant of grace.1
1. Here we must not follow my beloved professor and colleague Meredith Kline when he writes, “Though not the ground of the inheritance from heaven, Abraham’s obedience was the ground for Israel’s inheritance of Canaan.” Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 325. Here Kline did the very thing to which he rightly objected: taking a Baptist position. He has turned Abraham into Moses. Abraham was given the seed and land promises in Genesis 12 and 15 and gracious grants from a sovereign King, God the Lord. The Obedience that God required of Abraham in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 was a consequence of the grace received not a prior or antecedent condition in order to receive.
As explained in a previous post, I believe that Galatians 3:17 refers to the fact that the Abrahamic Covenant contained a promise that concerned or was in reference to Christ. The promise to Abraham that “in you all nations shall be blessed” was a promise concerning, about, in reference to Christ. The verse is often translated “the covenant before confirmed by God in Christ” and is thus used to argue that the Abrahamic Covenant was made with Christ as Mediator and is therefore the Covenant of Grace. εἰς Χριστὸν eis Christon is actually a textual variant and thus “in Christ” is not found in modern translations. Thus modern expositors like Kline do not comment on it (as best I can tell). Richard Muller has an interesting discussion of the translation and interpretation of this passage as it relates to the development of the doctrine of the Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis).
Galatians 3:16-17 is another case of the creation of significant doctrinal associations by a revision and retranslation of the text. In the Vulgate the text read, “hoc autem dico, testamentum confirmatum a Deo, quae post quadringentos et triginta annos facta est lex, non irritam facit, ad evacuandam promissionem”—“now this I say, the testament con-firmed by God, the law which was made four hundred and thirty years afterward does not annul, render the promise void.” Following Erasmus, virtually all of the Reformers re-translated the Greek and added the phrase “erga Christum” or “respectu Christum” after the second clause of the verse, yielding, in Calvin’s version, “hoc autem dico, pactum ante comprobatum a Deo erga Christum, lex quae post annos quadringentos et triginta coepit, non facit irritum, ut abroget promissionem.”
The crucial phrase, “in Christ,” is a text that was not in the Vulgate and that was introduced by Protestants of the sixteenth century because it was found in what they viewed to be the best Greek codices, where, εἰς Χριστὸν [eis Christon] appears following the phrase ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ. In addition, the Greek diatheke, is now rendered not as testamentum but as pactum. Quite simply, the critical and philological re-casting of the text yielded a doctrinal connection that had not previously been present. The orthodox theologians regularly cite Galatians 3:17 as a basis for arguing the pactum salutis, given that the diatheke mentioned in the text is first said to have been given “to Abraham and his seed,” the “seed” being identified as in the singular and indicating Christ, and then is said to have been “confirmed before of God in Christ”—implying the priority, by inference, the eternity, of the confirmation in Christ.159
If we look, moreover, at the trajectory of Reformed exegesis, it is arguable that there was an increased emphasis placed on this text in the era of early orthodoxy. Thus, by way of example, Calvin’s exegesis was rather brief, noting that the “seed,” as a singular, indicates Christ and that, therefore, “Christ” is “the foundation of the agreement” between God and Abraham. Calvin also notes that Paul teaches “that a covenant had been made in Christ, or to Christ,” adding the phrase “erga Christum” to his text, following Erasmus. Calvin, however, points this covenantal act not back into eternity, as Cocceius and Witsius would do, but toward the historical gathering of all nations into the promise through Christ.160 It should be noted that, in this case, there is no startling shift in translation in the movement from the Reformation to early orthodoxy. Calvin already renders diatheke as pactum—a point of continuity both with Beza’s rendering and with later federal readings of the text.161 Similarly, in the so-called Geneva New Testament, namely the English translation begun in Geneva in 1560 and based in large part on Beza’s philology, the relevant portion of verse 17 reads, “And this I say, that the couenant that was confirmed afore of God in respect of Christ, the Law which was foure hundred and thirtie years after, can not disanull.”162
This reading reflects the sixteenth-century revisions of the New Testament from Erasmus onward, and specifically the Bezan collation of the Greek text that became the Textus Receptus: Beza, like Erasmus and Calvin, includes the phrase “in respect of Christ,” which has since been deleted from the text of various modern Bibles. Beza’s short annotation on the text indicates that it offers a comparative argument, “if an authentic human covenant (pactum) remains firm, so much more so a covenant (pactum) of God.” Given this solidity of divine covenants, it is clear that the Law was not given to abrogate the promise made to Abraham, for that covenant was made “with regard to Christ” and its execution depended on Christ.163
In his longer annotation on the verse, Beza indicates that he does not favor Erasmus’ (and, by implication, Calvin’s) rendering, erga Christum. Erga, “towards” or “in relation to” is, in Beza’s view a vague rendering. The Apostles’ point, Beza argues, is that the pactum graciously made by God with Abraham, had been uniquely founded in Christ, so that both Jews and Gentiles might be one in Christ as the seed of Abraham.164 Beza therefore preferred the closer connection implied by respectu Christi, with respect to Christ, or by respicientem in Christum, looking back upon or having a regard for Christ. The Tremellius-Junius Bible goes perhaps even further, rendering the text as “quòd pactionem quae antè confirmata fuit à Deo in Christo,” unfortunately without annotation.165
Perkins’ extended comment approaches the text with many of the same issues that Calvin and Beza had in mind. He notes, first, that the promise is given to Abraham and his seed, and that the “seed,” clearly, is Christ. He then elaborates, drawing into his discussion several other related texts, that the name “Christ,” like the singular “seed,” indicates “first and principally the Mediatour,” but also, like “seed,” identifies Christ as the seed not of the flesh but of the promise, the one who is the mediator is the head of the church. There is, therefore, for Perkins, perhaps reflecting Beza’s reading of the text, an extended corporate sense of “seed”: “the seed is first Christ Iesus, and then all that believe in Christ,” namely, those given to be children of Abraham “by the promise & Election of God.”166 Perkins then adds, in a formula that resonates with his Exposition of the Creed and Golden Chaine, that the “communion” here indicated between Christ and the elect is grounded in the fact that “Christ as Mediatour, is first of all elected, and wee in him: Christ is first iustified, that is acquit of our sinnes, and wee iustified in him: he is heire of the world, and we heires in him.”167 When he comes to verse 17, Perkins reiterates that the covenant was confirmed “to Abraham, as beeing Father of all the faithfull, and then to his seed, that is first to the Mediatour Christ, and consequently to euery beleeuer, whether Iewe, or Gentile.” This priority of Christ derives from the fact that “he is the scope and foundation of all the promises of God.”168 This mediatorship, moreover, is grounded in an eternal appointment: “The Sonne of God takes not to himselfe the office of a Mediatour, but he is called and sent forth of his Father: whereby two things are signified; one, that the office of a Mediatour was appointed of the Father; the other, that the Sonne was designed to this office in the eternall counsel of the blessed Trinitie.”169 The election or designation of the Son as mediator, a theme not referenced in Calvin’s or Beza’s comments on this text, is a major theme in Perkins’ thought. Its basic rationale is to press the issue of an appointment and anointing of Christ back into eternity inasmuch as it pertains to the divine as well as to the human nature of Christ—on the ground that he is mediator according to both natures. He cites Galatians 3:16, echoing his commentary, in his Exposition of the Creed as key to the transition between the doctrine of the church and the doctrine of predestination.170
Rollock’s commentary on Galatians follows the then fairly standard translation of the text, rendering diatheke as pactum. His commentary also emphasizes the identity of Christ as the seed of Abraham but, contrary to Perkins, does not allow the extended corporate sense of the seed as secondarily referring to Christ’s members: “this appears from the following verse, in which Christ’s name is properly presented, where it is said that the covenant (pactio) had been previously confirmed by God with respect to Christ.”171 Rollock then comments on the implication of Paul’s statement that the covenant is made with respect to Christ:
the promise is therefore both made by Christ and made in Christ as he is mediator, for unless he had interceded as mediator between God and man from the beginning, truly, that covenant of grace would never have been concluded with humanity. For … in him the promises of God are firm and invariable, undoubtedly, since he himself is the foundation upon which the promises are, as it were, set forth, on which they stand firmly in eternity, and receive his fulfillment.172
We do not have the term pactum salutis here—but we do have the covenant promise made with respect to Christ as mediator and its eternal foundation, grounded on his intercession a principio. As in the case of Perkins, the text has drawn on the theme of Christ’s mediation and has pressed the issue of covenant mediation into eternity, given the Reformed insistence that Christ is mediator according to both natures. Piscator, we note, does not press the exegetical argument for an eternal pactum at this point.173
This covenant exegesis in relation to Christ also appears strongly in the Dutch Annotations on Galatians 3:17, without the explicit eternal referent, albeit with the cross-referencing to the Epistle to the Hebrews where the concept of eternal testament does appear:
And this I say [That is, this I meane by the foregoing examples of humane covenants or testaments] the covenant [that is, then that much more the covenant of God remains firm without alteration] that was before now confirmed by God [namely, with an oath, Gen. 12:2 and 15:8 and 17:4 and 22:17; Heb. 6:14, 15 &c. And with other outward signs and seals] on Christ, [namely, forasmuch as it was to be confirmed by the death of Christ as Testator, Heb. 9:15….]174
In Diodati’s Annotations, however, the comment has not only focused on the phrase added from the Greek codices but also offers an adumbration of the eternal pactum: “In Christ] That is, of which covenant Christ already appointed and promised for a Mediatour, was the onely foundation, known and apprehended by the fathers.”175 In Dickson’s exegesis, moreover, pactum has become the preferred term for diatheke in Galatians 3:15-17—and Dickson adds both that this pactum between God and Abraham is understood to be “with respect to Christ” inasmuch as it has been confirmed “by a testamentary sacrifice” (per sacrificium testamentario), but also that its promise represents a pactum not subject to the mutation of the Law because it is the Dei absoluta promissio.176 Galatians 3:17 is a primary proof for Witsius [of the pactum salutis].177
The point I want to draw out here is that the translation of 3:17 as “with regard to Christ” rather than “in Christ” was clearly held by many reformed. They interpreted that as somehow meaning that Christ was the mediator of the Abrahamic Covenant, whereas I do not. But my preferred translation (also recommended by numerous commentaries quoted in the previous post) was a common reformed translation. I think John Brown puts it well
The only phrase which is obscure in this verse is the clause rendered “in Christ.” Some would render it to Christ; others till Christ, i.e. till Christ came, which is undoubtedly its meaning at chapter v. 24. I apprehend the true rendering of the particle is concerning or in reference to — a meaning which the term by no means uncommonly bears in the New Testament. I shall give a few examples, — Eph. v. 32 ; Acts ii. 25 ; Heb. vii. 14 ; Luke xii. 21 ; Bom. iv. 20 ; xvi. 19 ; 2 Cor. ii. 9. The covenant in reference to Christ is just the arrangement or settlement as to justification by faith to be extended to the Gentiles through the Messiah, which was made known in the Divine declaration to Abraham. This Divine arrangement was “confirmed of God,” ratified by God in the ordinance of circumcision which was given to Abraham as a person justified in uncircumcision, and made known as a fixed appointment in the Divine declaration so often referred to. It was “confirmed before.” That is, it was a finished, ratified deed, long previously to the law. John Brown
Thus God made a covenant with Abraham, promising that in his seed the blessing should be bestowed on the heathen; and this blessing the Law cannot turn aside… It was promised Abraham that by his seed the heathen should be blessed; and his seed according to the flesh is Christ.
When baptists talk about regenerate church membership, Presbyterians often mock the idea, noting that we must have “regeneration goggles” or we must know infallibly who the elect are. Part of this is a result of sometimes imprecise articulation of our position by baptists. For example, baptists do not always make it clear that possession of faith is not what we require in order to baptize someone. What is required for the proper administration of baptism is profession of faith. But a profession is required precisely because baptism is a sign of church membership, a sign of union with Christ. Profession indicates possession. Therefore no one ought to be baptized whom we do not judge in charity to be united to Christ. Acceptance of someone’s profession of saving faith entails judgment of their possession of saving faith.
Regarding a credible profession of saving faith, Baptists and Presbyterians are in agreement. Both agree that it is the fallible means that God has given us to judge who are regenerate on this earth. Presbyterians distinguish between non-communicant members (those baptized as infants who have not yet professed faith) and communicant members (those who have made a profession of faith and may therefore partake of the Lord’s Supper). Below are examples from various Presbyterian books of order and directories of public worship demonstrating their view of communicant members.
The Communicant Membership of the Church
1. Any person capable of forming moral judgments and of making decisions for himself may be received into communicant membership in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, upon credible profession of faith, baptism, and acceptance of the Covenant of Church Membership. Communicant members have an obligation to present their children for baptism and to do all in their power to rear their children so that they will seek communicant membership in the church
4. Candidates for communicant membership shall be examined by the session in constituted court. The examination shall seek to bring out the degree of the candidate’s knowledge of Divine truth, his personal sense of sin and need of salvation and his knowledge of and willing acceptance of the Covenant of Church Membership including the distinctive principles of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. The degree of knowledge necessary for admission depends, to a considerable extent, upon the capacity of the candidate and the opportunities which he has had for acquiring such knowledge. Children should be encouraged to memorize the Shorter Catechism and urged to read and study the Testimony and Confession of Faith as they come to years of fuller understanding. No one should be admitted who is ignorant of the plan of salvation, or who gives no credible evidence of having been born again, or who assumes an attitude antagonistic to the principles set forth in the standards of the Church.
Note also that any person who wishes to be baptized and is capable of forming moral judgments and of making decisions for himself must give this credible evidence of having been born again (profess saving faith).
The Administration of the Sacraments
4. Under the oversight of the Session, Baptism is to be administered to those who make a credible profession of faith in Christ, and to their children. The Baptism of adults must follow their public profession of faith and assent to the Covenant of Communicant Membership. When a covenant child is born, the session should encourage the parents to arrange for the child’s Baptism as soon as it is convenient. The elders should use this occasion to speak with the parents about their own Christian walk, and to encourage them to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
The RPCNA is not claiming to know infallibly who the regenerate are, but they are limiting baptism (in the case of those “of age”) to those whom they have reason to believe are regenerate. What baptists do is no different.
Public Reception of Church Members
A. General Provisions
1. Only those may be admitted to full communion in the church who have been baptized and have made public profession of faith in Jesus Christ.
2. In order to aid those who contemplate making public profession or reaffirmation of faith in Christ to understand the implication of this significant act and to perform it meaningfully, the pastor or someone approved by the session shall conduct classes in Christian doctrine and life, both for the covenant youth and for any others who may manifest an interest in the way of salvation.
3. Before permitting anyone to make profession of his faith in the presence of the congregation, the session shall announce his name to the congregation on a prior Lord’s Day in order that the members of the church may have opportunity to acquaint the session with such facts concerning him as may appear to be irreconcilable with a credible profession. In order for the session to assure itself so far as possible that the candidate makes a credible profession, it shall examine him to ascertain that he possesses the doctrinal knowledge requisite for saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, relies on the merits of Christ alone, and is determined by the grace of God to lead a Christian life.
8. Noncommunicant members of the congregation may be received into communicant membership only by confession of faith.
9. The following provisions are designed to assist ministers and sessions to receive members in accordance with the Book of Discipline, Chapter II, Section B.2, which provisions should always be followed.
B. Reception into Full Communion of Noncommunicant Members by Profession of Faith
1. When a noncommunicant member is received into full communion, that reception is effective at the time of his public profession of faith. On the occasion of that person’s public reception, it is highly advisable that the minister remind the people that he is already a member of the church, albeit a noncommunicant member, and has been receiving the blessings of Christ as a member of the church, and that those blessings have resulted in this day wherein, having given evidence of conscious saving faith in Christ, he is now about to confess that faithand become a communicant member of the congregation. The minister may then address him in these or like words:
Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, we thank our God for the grace that was given you, in that you have accepted God’s covenant promise that was signified and sealed unto you in your infancy by holy baptism. We ask you now to profess your faith publicly.
If the session deems it appropriate, it may also ask him to bear brief testimony to his faith in his own words.
Again, like the RPCNA, this same standard is applied to baptism in the case of adults.
2. The Baptism of Adults
An adult who seeks to be baptized shall make a public profession of his faith before the congregation prior to the baptism. He shall previously have received instruction in the Christian faith in accordance with the confessional standards of this Church, including instruction as to the meaning of baptism, and have also made before the session of the church a credible profession of faith in Christ according to the provisions of Chapter IV, Section A.3, of this Directory.
[B]y the clear teaching of the Scriptures, regeneration in the case of adults is assumed to precede baptism. No man was ever baptized in the Apostolic Church until he professed faith and repentance. When the Eunuch asked, “What doth hinder me to be baptized? Philip said, If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest.” On this principle the Church has always acted. Men have always (except in the most corrupt days of the Romish Church) been required to profess faith in Christ and repentance toward God, before they were admitted to baptism. But faith and repentance are the fruits of regeneration. A man had, therefore, to profess to be regenerated before he could be baptized[.]
What then is the visible Church, and what the ground of membership in it? We accept the answer which our Confession gives to these questions. But what does this fairly imply? Surely, that the true Church of God is made up of those whom he hath purchased with his own blood; and that those who apparently, or to the eye of a judicious charity, are of this number, are visibly, or for all purposes of human judgment and action, of this Church – i.e. are the Church visible. Now in what way do they thus become visibly, or for all purposes of human recognition and treatment, of the number of Christ’s redeemed people, the household of faith? In two ways: 1. In the case of all capable of it, by a credible “profession of the true religion.” Without professing it in some form, they cannot appear to possess it… [M]embership in the visible Church is founded on a presumptive membership in the invisible, until its subjects, by acts incompatible therewith, prove the contrary, and thus, to the eye of man, forfeit their standing among God’s visible people.
To answer the original question, no Presbyterians do not have regeneration goggles. Neither do Baptists. We both treat adults according to their profession, not according to infallible knowledge of their hearts. The only difference is how we apply the question of profession and baptism to infants.
The New Geneva podcast recently had a two part series titled “A Case for Infant Baptism.” The podcast included 2 hosts and 2 guests, all of which are involved in Twitter discussions on the topic.
I am very thankful that they discussed the topic. I hope that they will consider the below response. (I tried to keep it short, but #7 required a longer reply. I will update this post as necessary following Part 2. Note that Samuel Renihan has briefly responded as well).
1. God is the one who acts in baptism
6:15. Baptists say that baptism is only for those who profess faith, therefore infants should not be baptized. Angela responded that baptism is not about us doing something. God is the one who acts in baptism.
11:50 The Layman’s Cup Podcast said God used to deal with families and nations, but now he deals with individuals. That’s an Enlightenment paradigm. Before the modern era there was never any conception of an individual as an autonomous unit that existed apart from his ancestors.
First, note that none of these hosts affirm the original Westminster Confession precisely because they reject Westminster’s understanding of how God deals with nations. Is that because they have adopted an Enlightenment paradigm? Or is it because Westminster misinterpreted Scripture? Keep in mind that nation and family are one in Abraham.
The Church exists as an external society now as it did then; what once belonged to the commonwealth of Israel, now belongs to the visible Church… Such is the favourite argument of Romanists; and such… we are sorry to say is the argument of some Protestants, and even of some Presbyterians…
Under the old dispensation, the whole nation of the Hebrews was called holy, as separated from the idolatrous nations around them, and consecrated to God. The Israelites were also called the children of God, as the recipients of his peculiar favours. These expressions had reference rather to external relations and privileges than to internal character. In the New Testament, however, they are applied only to the true people of God. None are there called saints but the sanctified in Christ Jesus…
[H]oliness and salvation are promised to every member of the Church. This is obvious; 1. Because these are blessings of which individuals alone are susceptible. It is not a community or society, as such, that is redeemed, regenerated, sanctified, and saved. Persons, and not communities, are the subjects of these blessings[.]
Third, note that Ben appeals to the natural relationship between a person and their ancestors. This is precisely the type of argument that baptists reject. The New Covenant of Grace is not natural, therefore appeal to the relationship that children bear to their parents in nature is irrelevant.
15:35 “To say that the Covenant of Grace is something altogether different than what was in the Old Testament – it makes some assumptions about the Old Testament. It kind of compresses a lot of— the two key figures of the Old Testament, which is Abraham and Moses. “When you say that was the Old Testament this is the New Testament, you’re taking Abraham and Moses and smooshing them together and you’re just saying ‘Well everything that happened on the left side of the Bible before Matthew 1:1, well that was just Old Covenant, right? And Jeremiah says there is a New Covenant coming.’”
“I will be a God to you and to your children applied to Moses, because… the Covenant of Grace was administered through the Mosaic Covenant, but it was not the Covenant of Grace itself. And so, when we say ‘I will be God to your children,’ that’s still in play, because everything Mosaic has passed away in Christ.”
Scott Schultz seems to have taken R. Scott Clark’s teaching hook, line, and sinker. People new to reformed theology who look to RSC to learn covenant theology are unaware that RSC’s view on this matter is contrary to Calvin, Westminster, and the historic majority reformed view, which “smooshed” Abraham and Moses (and the Davidic and New) together. Calvin said of the Old and the New “both covenants are truly one” (Institutes 2.10.2) and that the Mosaic was a continuation of the Abrahamic, not a different covenant (Commentary on Jer 31:31). John Ball (a primary influence on Westminster) said “Most divines hold the old and new Covenants to be one in substance and kind, to differ only in degrees… [they] hold the old Testament, even the Law, as it was given upon Mount Sinai, to be the Covenant of Grace.” (102) Note also WCF 7.5-6 identifies the Covenant of Grace as a testament and calls it the “Old Testament [Covenant]” prior to Christ, citing both 2 Cor 3:6-8 and Gal 3:7-9.
The idea that the Mosaic Covenant administered the Covenant of Grace but was not itself the Covenant of Grace is contrary to that tradition. Historically that idea was known as the “subservient covenant” view and was proposed in contrast to the above. Modern proponents of this idea, following Kline, have taken the subservient view and tried to “smoosh” it together with Westminster’s view. The OPC Report on Republication notes “[T]he idea that the Mosaic covenant is in substance or kind a ‘works’ covenant, but at the same time an aspect of the administration of the covenant of grace, seems to create a hybrid position that combines elements of positions that viewed themselves as alternatives to one another.” In other words, RSC is confused on this matter. I would encourage Scott to dig deeper and read older works on covenant theology (such as John Ball). As far as I am aware, Ben does not agree with Scott here.
Regardless, what really matters is what Scripture says. On this point I have no problem affirming that the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants are, technically, two different covenants. But the important point is how they are related and how the abrogation of one affects the other. I will simply quote RSC “That temporary national covenant, which expired with the death of Christ, was the outworking of the land promises and the promise of a national people made to Abraham… [W]e can connect that aspect of the promise to Abraham to the national covenant in Moses.” Note that Scripture says Gen 17:7 was part of this same promise to Abraham and was fulfilled in the Mosaic Covenant when God dwelt in the midst of Israel as their God (Ex. 2:24-25; 6:6-7; 19:4-6; 25:8; 29:45; Lev 26:11-12; Ezek 16:8; Deut 4:32-40; 26:16-19; 29:10-13; Ps. 147:19-20; Amos 3:1-2). For elaboration,
31:20 Ben suggested that baptists deny that God works providentially through means, “like there is a hyper Calvinism where means and ends have to be disconnected so that election is totally divorced from God’s means, but no, God is using both in sync together: covenant and election.” Angela: “God works through means, through the family.”
Our Confession, just like theirs, affirms that God uses means (5.3, etc). The idea that we don’t believe that is very strange.
With regards to families, we affirm that parents can absolutely be the means that God uses to save their children. We simply deny that therefore our children are part of the Covenant of Grace by birth – just as we affirm that we may be the means God uses to save our co-worker, but we do not therefore hold that all of our co-workers are part of the Covenant of Grace.
With regards to the Covenant of Grace as means, Ben seems to just be assuming his own view and thus confusing himself about ours. We understand the Covenant of Grace to be union with Christ. Ben is viewing it primarily in terms of its ordinances and outward manifestation. Simply because we believe that only those who are united to Christ are part of the Covenant of Grace (established by the effectual call) does not mean we deny that means are involved (the general call). We simply deny that all to whom the general call goes out are members of the Covenant of Grace (see Rutherford defend that idea).
5. The Covenant of Grace was always through Christ
10:00 “It’s not just Abraham at the beginning, but it’s always been Christ at the beginning… Abraham is Christ’s seed before Christ is Abraham’s seed.”
We agree. Abraham was chosen “in Christ” before the foundations of the earth. That doesn’t mean the Abrahamic Covenant was the Covenant of Grace. Ben seems to be trying to make an argument from Galatians 3:17, but note John Brown (Scottish Presbyterian)
I apprehend the true rendering of the particle is concerning or in reference to — a meaning which the term by no means uncommonly bears in the New Testament. I shall give a few examples, — Eph. v. 32 ; Acts ii. 25 ; Heb. vii. 14 ; Luke xii. 21 ; Bom. iv. 20 ; xvi. 19 ; 2 Cor. ii. 9. The covenant in reference to Christ is just the arrangement or settlement as to justification by faith to be extended to the Gentiles through the Messiah, which was made known in the Divine declaration to Abraham. This Divine arrangement was “confirmed of God,” ratified by God in the ordinance of circumcision which was given to Abraham as a person justified in uncircumcision, and made known as a fixed appointment in the Divine declaration so often referred to. It was “confirmed before.” That is, it was a finished, ratified deed, long previously to the law.
~19:00 “If you say the Abrahamic is not the CoG, then you have Christ coming after the law, but superseding it and it seems to create a problem about Paul’s argument about the law and promise.”
I think Ben’s underlying logic is faulty. The author of Hebrews specifically argues that the establishment of the New Covenant (which came after the Old Covenant) makes the Old Covenant obsolete. Ben thinks such an idea (the New Covenant coming after the law but superseding it) is a problem because of Paul’s argument in Galatians, but he has simply misunderstood Paul’s argument.
Paul’s argument in Galatians 3 is not that whatever comes first supersedes what follows. Neither is his argument that the Covenant of Grace was already established 430 years prior to the law. His argument is that 430 years before the giving of the law, God promised Abraham that he would be the father of the Messiah, who would come to bless all nations by granting them eternal life. If eternal life was possible through the law of Sinai, then Christ died for no purpose (Gal 2:21). But God covenantally promised that the Messiah would come to grant eternal life, and the covenant was not annulled, therefore the Mosaic Covenant was not given for eternal life. Continuing from John Brown above
God had, in the case of Abraham, showed that justification is by believing; He had, in the revelation made to Abraham, declared materially that justification by faith was to come upon the Gentiles.
In other words, Abraham’s justification was a pre-eminent example of the ordo salutis, but the Abrahamic Covenant concerned the historia salutis. It promised that Christ would come in the flesh.
Note how John Ball explains that the Covenant of Grace was not established until Christ’s incarnation.
The Covenant of Grace is either promised or promulgated and established. Promised to the Fathers, first to Adam, and afterwards to the Patriarchs, and lastly to the people of Israel, and before their coming into the land of Canaan, and after their returne from the Babylonish captivity. Promulgated, after the fulnesse of time came.
21:20 “I just always wonder, if we’re going to say that Old Testament believers – Adam, Abraham – if they were saved by Christ, then they were partaking of the substance of the Covenant of Grace. They were actually partaking of it. And then when I read in Pascal Denault’s book ’The Distinctives of Baptist Covenant Theology’ that the Covenant of Grace did not really begin until the New Covenant and only the New Covenant is the Covenant of Grace, that does not make sense to me.” Ben: “I haven’t studied in detail 1689 Federalism. I’ve read bits and pieces of it here and there but it hasn’t been something that I’ve studied in great depth. Someone on Twitter will likely correct what I’m about to say.” “Ben, you’re going to get spammed with 1689 ‘Here, read this.’” “What they would say is that the New Covenant works backwards to save the Old Testament believers just like we believe that the death of Christ is for all of people, even in the Old Testament, they would say the same thing – it works backwards – but, the question I have, and I’m sure there’s some answer out there for this, is how is it administered to them? Because it seems as though it’s not. Like, there’s no… administration of the Covenant of Grace to Old Testament believers. They just receive it— I don’t know how they receive the blessings of the Covenant of Grace.” Angela “I’ve read a fair amount of 1689 Federalism literature… And there is language in there that it’s about promises, a list of things, that, to my ears and my reading ‘Ok, this is outward administration language.’ So, for me, what I find lacking, is a case that tells me why those things are not outward administrations of the covenant. To me, there’s significant overlap of what they say is conveying the grace – what we would call means of grace – there’s significant overlap there. But just, that is not outward administration, because reasons. So that is what I find difficult to understand.”
I appreciate Ben’s response to Tony correctly explaining that this issue is no different from the atonement. I also appreciate Angela’s answer to Ben, acknowledging that there is significant overlap in our understanding of the means of grace. Furthermore, I appreciate the acknowledgement that they do not fully understand our position. I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify.
I am not convinced that people who raise this objection have thoroughly thought it through. What we deny is that the ordinances of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are ordinances of the Covenant of Grace. Circumcision, the Passover, the sacrificial system, etc were not ordinances of the Covenant of Grace. Their objection is: then how could OT saints be saved? Implicit in this objection is the assumption that ordinances save (that saving/regenerating/justifying grace is conveyed through ordinances). I am not aware of any reformed theologian who says that baptism or the Lord’s Supper are necessary in order to be saved. If they are not, then neither was circumcision, the Passover, or the sacrificial system necessary in order to be saved in the OT. If that is the case, then what is the objection to our position?
If it is believed that ordinances are necessary to salvation, then our disagreement lies there, rather than in anything about the OT. Isaac Backus said “The work of sanctification in believers is carried on by the ordinances of baptism and the holy supper, but they are not spoken of in Scripture as the means of begetting faith in any person; for faith cometh by hearing the word of God. Rom x. 17.” Berkhof said sacraments “are not absolutely necessary unto salvation… the sacraments do not originate faith but presuppose it and are administered where faith is assumed, Acts 2:41; 16:14, 15, 30, 33; 1 Cor 11:23-32… [M]any were actually saved without the use of sacraments. Think of believers before the time of Abraham[.]” (ST 618-19) Reymond says “I would add that Paul expressly states that Abraham himself was justified by faith some years before he was circumcised (Rom. 4:9–10).” (ST) Calvin said
[C]hildren who happen to depart this life before an opportunity of immersing them in water, are not excluded from the kingdom of heaven. Now, it has been seen, that unless we admit this position, great injury is done to the covenant of God, as if in itself it were weak, whereas its effect depends not either on baptism, or on any accessaries. The sacrament is afterwards added as a kind of seal, not to give efficacy to the promise, as if in itself invalid, but merely to confirm it to us… When we cannot receive them [sacraments] from the Church, the grace of God is not so inseparably annexed to them that we cannot obtain it by faith, according to his word. (Institutes 4.16.15)
a fourth… characteristic of the Reformed doctrine on the sacraments… is that the grace or spiritual benefits received by believers in the use of the sacraments, may be attained without their use… [They] are not necessary means of salvation. Men may be saved without them. The benefits which they signify and which they are the means of signifying, sealing, and applying to believers, are not so tied to their use that those benefits cannot be secured without them. Sins may be forgiven, and the soul regenerated and saved, though neither sacrament has ever been received.” (ST III.XX.V)
Protestants have been accustomed to maintain the great principle, that the only thing on which the possession by men individually of the fundamental spiritual blessings of justification and sanctification is, by God’s arrangements, made necessarily and invariably dependent, is union to Jesus Christ, and that the only thing on which union to Christ may be said to be dependent, is faith in Him; so that it holds true, absolutely and universally, that wherever there is faith in Christ, or union to Him by faith, there pardon and holiness – all necessary spiritual blessings – are communicated by God and received by men, even though they have never actually partaken in any sacrament, or in any outward ordinance whatever.
Reformed theology holds that the Word (revelation) is the primary means of grace. It is through the Word that salvation comes. Reymond says “the Word does indeed take priority over the sacraments in that the Word is (1) essential to salvation while the sacraments are not, (2) engenders and strengthens faith while the sacraments only strengthen it[.]” The gospel is proclaimed and the Holy Spirit illumines the heart of the elect to believe what is proclaimed. That is how salvation is “administered” today and in the OT. Calvin said
[T]he word of God has such an inherent efficacy, that it quickens the souls of all whom he is pleased to favour with the communication of it… I refer to that special mode of communication by which the minds of the pious are both enlightened in the knowledge of God, and, in a manner, linked to him. Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, and the other patriarchs, having been united to God by this illumination of the word, I say, there cannot be the least doubt that entrance was given them into the immortal kingdom of God. (2.10.7)
We fully agree. Paul says that the gospel was preached to Abraham in the revelation that he would be the father of the Messiah (Gal 3:8). He believed that revelation of the gospel and was thus justified. In fact, look what Calvin says in his commentary on Heb 8:10.
For this is the covenant that I will make, etc. There are two main parts in this covenant; the first regards the gratuitous remission of sins; and the other, the inward renovation of the heart; there is a third which depends on the second, and that is the illumination of the mind as to the knowledge of God… But it may be asked, whether there was under the Law a sure and certain promise of salvation, whether the fathers had the gift of the Spirit, whether they enjoyed God’s paternal favor through the remission of sins?… [T]he Apostle, by referring the prophecy of Jeremiah to the coming of Christ, seems to rob them of these blessings… [W]hatever spiritual gifts the fathers obtained, they were accidental as it were to their age; for it was necessary for them to direct their eyes to Christ in order to become possessed of them. Hence it was not without reason that the Apostle, in comparing the Gospel with the Law, took away from the latter what is peculiar to the former. There is yet no reason why God should not have extended the grace of the new covenant to the fathers. This is the true solution of the question.
1. The first revelation of the covenant. The first revelation of the covenant is found in the protevangel, Gen. 3:15. Some deny that this has any reference to the covenant; and it certainly does not refer to any formal establishment of a covenant… [but it] certainly contains a revelation of the essence of the covenant…
Up to the time of Abraham there was no formal establishment of the covenant of grace. While Gen. 3:15 already contains the elements of this covenant, it does not record a formal transaction by which the covenant was established. It does not even speak explicitly of a covenant. The establishment of the covenant with Abraham marked the beginning of an institutional Church.
We agree with the basic idea. The Covenant of Grace was revealed prior to its formal establishment and this revelation was sufficient to save the elect. We simply push its establishment forward to the New Covenant, rather than the Abrahamic Covenant.
Our view of OT ordinances (circumcision, Passover, sacrifices, etc) is that they revealed the gospel darkly and by way of analogy (typology). The important point here is that they served a function in and of themselves independent of any typological revelation of the gospel. Circumcision devoted the recipient to priestly service to Yahweh according to the terms of Mosaic law. Passover was a remembrance of Israel’s physical redemption from slavery in Egypt. The sacrifices kept God dwelling in the midst of Israel and were necessary to cleanse Israelites from ceremonial uncleanness (see Owen on this “carnal” function in his commentary on Heb 9). All of these things helped to paint a picture of the coming Messiah and his kingdom, but they nonetheless also served a function limited to temporal blessing and curse in earthly Canaan. They had dual functions/purposes. They were not simply signs of the Covenant of Grace, as baptism and the Lord’s Supper are. Insofar as they revealed/proclaimed the gospel darkly in shadows, they were a means of salvation to the elect in the OT. In this way they “administered” the CoG. But they were not signs and ordinances of the Covenant of Grace. They were signs and ordinances of the Old Covenant.
Though differing on particulars with paedobaptists, our understanding fits squarely within the reformed system of soteriology, both in the New and the Old Testaments. I am happy to elaborate to anyone who has further questions. Please comment below.
8. Paul says circumcision was a sign of the Covenant of Grace
18:20 1689 Fed says the Abrahamic Covenant was not the CoG, but Paul says circumcision was a seal of Abraham’s faith
Paul says circumcision was a sign and seal of the righteousness which was to come in Christ. God promised Abraham that his offspring would bless all nations. He sealed (guaranteed) that covenant promise to Abraham by circumcision. It was thus a sign and seal of Christ’s righteousness in the historia salutis (history of salvation – see the Appendix to the 2LBC for more on this, and Sam Renihan’s comments). Abraham possessed this righteousness through faith, in advance of its accomplishment, as 1689 Federalism teaches.
14:20 baptism represents spiritual regeneration; “It’s somewhat similar – in the Old Testament there was outward circumcision, but God still called the Israelites to circumcise their hearts.”
Yes, God called Israelites to circumcise their hearts. Where does God call Christians to baptize their hearts? Baptism is a sign of union with Christ. The NT does not command Christians to unite themselves to Christ; it addresses them as those who are united to Christ.
Circumcision was not a sign of union with Christ. Neither was it a sign of regeneration or faith. Circumcision was a rite that devoted the recipient to serve Yahweh according to the terms of Mosaic Law. The rite of circumcision did not guarantee that any particular circumcised Israelite would actually serve Yahweh from the heart as Mosaic law required (Deut 6:4). It just meant that they were obligated to (Deut 10:12-16). I recommend reading Bryan Estelle’s chapter in the book The Law is Not of Faith for a very good treatment of how Lev 18:5 relates to the promise of the New Covenant in Deut 30:6.
“1689 Baptists say that Jer 31 says everyone in the New Covenant will have faith, and therefore that excludes infants because infants cannot express repentance and faith. But I’m just wondering, when we turn to Isaiah 54:13 and that’s also talking about the New Covenant and in Jeremiah, Isaiah is footnoted as belonging to that passage, connected with that passage, and it says in Isaiah 54:13 ‘All your children shall be taught by the Lord. And great shall be the peace of your children.’ So I don’t see how we can use Jeremiah 31 to exclude children.” “’All your children will be taught by the Lord.’ Well of course they will, they’re in a covenant house! Mom and Dad take us to church every week, so of course all our children will be taught by the Lord. They will have the benefit of growing up under the things of God.” Angela “Right, that’s pointing to our view that there’s an outward administration of the covenant and an inward, there’s a visible church and an invisible church and being a member of the visible church without possessing the substance of the covenant does carry with it real benefit.”
I think this is another instance of polemics driving theology and the interpretation of Scripture. Scott and Angela interpret Is 54:13 as a reference to parents taking their children to Sunday School – as a reference to “visible church” benefits. But that is not how Jesus interpreted Is 54:13. He said it was talking about the invisible church – that it was a reference to the effectual calling of the elect. Yes, Jer 31 is a cross-reference for Is 54:13, but so is Jn 6:45 and 1 Jn 2:20-27. Calvin notes “As to the word all, it must be limited to the elect… he fastens on the general phrase, all; because he argues from it, that all who are taught by God are effectually drawn, so as to come… Hence it follows, that there is not one of all the elect of God who shall not be a partaker of faith in Christ.” And Hodge
The Church, considered as the communion of saints, is one in faith. The Spirit of God leads his people into all truth. He takes of the things of Christ and shows them unto them. They are all taught of God [Is 54:13; Jer 31:31; Jn 6:45]. The anointing which they have received abideth with them, and teacheth them all things, and is truth. 1 John ii. 27. Under this teaching of the Spirit, which is promised to all believers, and which is with and by the word, they are all led to the knowledge and belief of all necessary truth.
Neither does this prophecy refer to Christ’s second coming. Jesus applied it to his first coming. Recall Calvin above (“[T]he Apostle, by referring the prophecy of Jeremiah to the coming of Christ”).
Please take the time to watch this video showing how the Glory Cloud Podcast understands the “children” in OT prophecy vs how R. Scott Clark does
A baptist on Twitter (Nate Downey) asked the hosts “Who is the infant’s federal head, Adam or Christ? And second, can you explain how someone can be in a covenant but not have that person as a covenant head?” Scott responded by saying “It takes the baptist assumption that you only administrate baptism to someone we know who their federal head is. That’s just a way of restricting baptism to a profession of faith, which really, if you think about it, baptists have the same problem because you don’t know if you’ve ever actually seen a real baptism. How do you know that Mr. Smith who just got baptized in a cow tank, how do you know–” “Or Simon the Magician, who was his covenant head? Was it Adam or Christ when he was baptized?” “Yeah, was it Adam or Christ? When he was baptized, if you had asked them… they would say at the time of their baptism, well Christ is. So where we have to start is: We don’t know who the elect are. No Presbyterian or reformed person claims to know who the elect are. And so we administrate the sign not only to our children but to people who would come to us and say ‘I want to join this…’ And so we would administrate the sign to them too. And so at the time we would say ‘Well, yeah, your federal head is Christ.’ because if you submit to baptism, that is a sign of faith… When a person is baptized and they submit to that, that’s a show of obedience and faith and so you can only give an answer based on what you see. The same with our children. We administer to our children because they have been given to us. We’re believers and so we’re raising them that way. We’re going to teach them to pray, read the bible, catechize them. And so we baptize and there’s a hope that this will come to fruition in their life. And then maybe you have a difference of opinion on this, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with presuming that our children are real believers until they present otherwise. I have no reason to think that my 3 are not believers… And so this whole question just starts on a false face. As to the second part, how can someone be in the covenant and not have Christ as their covenant head – well, look through redemptive history. How many Israelites were there that were circumcised but they fell in the wilderness… The question’s designed as a gotcha. There’s a trap you’ve designed that I have to step in before I answer the question and no, we can’t do that. We have to start in the proper spot, and then we can answer that question.”
First, it is not our position that you only administer baptism to someone you know is federally in Christ. As pointed out several times (see here and here), we are in complete agreement with the paedobaptist who requires a credible profession of faith in order to judge in charity whether or not someone is a believer before baptizing them. Knowing for certain whether or not someone is a true believer is not our condition for baptism. Making a credible profession of faith is the requirement for us to judge in charity that they are Christians, and therefore should be baptized.
The disagreement between us is how this relates to the children of professors. We do not believe that being born to those who profess saving faith is grounds for judging in charity that an infant is a believer/united to Christ/regenerate/saved. Scott does believe that (Ben very much disagrees). I would encourage our paedobaptist brothers and sisters to get a better grasp of what it is that we believe. (see links at end of this section)
Ben “I think the phrase you just used is perfect: In the covenant but not of the covenant… It comes down to the internal/external distinction. You have to have that if you’re reformed. Bavinck says ‘The covenant of grace is one and the external and internal sides of it, though on earth they never fully coincide, may not be split apart and set side by side. Certainly there are bad branches on the vine and there’s chaff among the wheat and in a large house there are vessels of gold as well as earthenware, but we do not have the right and the power to separate the two. In the day of the harvest, God himself will do this. As long as, in the judgment of love, they walk in the way of the covenant, they are to be regarded and treated as allies. Though not of the covenant, they are in the covenant, and will someday be judged accordingly.’… It really does come down to this internal/external distinction.”
Does it really come down to the internal/external distinction? Yes and no. Yes, the baptism of infants requires a particular understanding of the internal/external church distinction. However, baptists do not reject the internal/external church distinction. We simply understand it differently than some paedobaptists (the Westminster kind). We agree with a Brakel, Charles Hodge, John Murray, Thomas Boston, Jean Claude, James Currie and others that the distinction is a matter of perspective: our fallible perspective vs. God’s infallible perspective – rather than an internal/external covenant membership distinction. False professors are judged fallibly to be members of the church/members of the Covenant of Grace when in reality they are not.
[Note that Scott misunderstood Nate’s question and thus his reply was off-topic. Nate was not addressing how we judge an individual. He was asking who the federal head of an unregenerate infant is. Ben properly understood the question.]
“I think the warning passages we see show it’s possible to be in the visible covenant community and still not be one of the elect. That’s why there are warning passages.” “Right, either what the writer of the Hebrews says about apostasy is a real thing or its not. A baptist would quote 2nd or 3rd John that they went out from us but they weren’t of us. ‘See, they weren’t Christians.’ Ok, then apostasy isn’t real… Of course you can be in the covenant, but not of the covenant.”
The sundry passages of Scripture concerning Hypocrites, who cloak themselves with such an outward profession, abundantly prove them not to be of Christ’s Church. 1 Joh. 2. 9… 1 Joh. 3. 10… 1 Joh. 4. 8… Jud. v. 12… Mat. 7. 23. Jesus Christ himself says, In the last day he will profess unto them, he never knew them. What colour then have we for making such members of the Church, which is Christ’s Body? But that place of St. John removes all the difficulty, 1 Joh. 2. 19. They went out from us, but they were not of us: for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us, but that they might be made manifest, that they were not all of us. What a plain difference is here made between being among us, and being of us; being among us, is proper for Hypocrites, that are mixed with the Faithful, and joyn in the same profession: Being with us, is sincerely and truly to be of the Church; for which something more than an outward profession is requisite.
As explain above in #10, the issue is a matter of perspective. We once judged that people who professed faith actually had faith, but upon their apostasy we now judge that they did not actually have faith. Their apostasy is from a profession of faith. We would modify Scott’s “Of course you can be in the covenant, but not of the covenant” to “Of course you can be regarded as in the covenant, but in fact not actually be in the covenant.”
We believe that Scott’s claim that apostasy is meaningless unless apostates were members of the Covenant of Grace is without basis. In The Nature and Causes of Apostasy from the Gospel, John Owen says concerning apostasy passages there “is no express mention of any covenant grace or mercy in them or towards them.”