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

Too Long; Didn’t Read synoposis:

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

Intro

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

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

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


The second thread:


Sadly, no, we’re not done.

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

Woke?

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

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

Kline/R. Scott Clark?

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

Summary

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

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

(Law and Gospel in Covenantal Perspective)

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

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

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

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

The Covenant of Life

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

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

Joint Federal Vision Statement

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

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

My Error

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

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

Sumpter’s Response

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

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

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

Here is what Frame said at more length:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilson’s Response

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

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

I quoted Clark’s summary points because

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

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

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

Norm Shepherd, Law & Gospel

Wilson says

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

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

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

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

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

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

White and Wilson’s Response

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

Woke Troll

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

R. Scott Clark’s 5 Points

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

Monocovenantalism

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

Adam’s Faithfulness vs Our Faith

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

Tricksy Shepherd, Tricksy Doug?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a post responding to this report, Wilson said

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

From his exam:

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

And recall from the previous post:

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

CREC Examination Q105

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

Obedience Unto Justification

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

Faith, Dead or Alive?

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

Living Faith

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

Recapitulation Drives Out Grace

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

Final Judgment

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

Objective Covenant and Union with Christ

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

Shrine to Norm Shepherd

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

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

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

Wilson’s Attitude Towards Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming Westminsterian

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

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

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

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

Faith Alone?

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

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

The clearest statement of justification by faith alone in Scripture is Romans 3:26 “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” If you recall from my previous post, Wilson defines “works of the law” as “deeds without faith.” This is what he means by “autonomous works” – works done in one’s own strength without faith.

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

Obedience and Life

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

Like a Gelatinous Pudding

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

Obedience and Works

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

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

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

Obedience and Life

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

“of Works” Scripture References

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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.

Murray on Lev. 18:5 – Why Did John Murray Reject the Covenant of Works?

[Lord willing, I will further revise/expand this post in the future (feedback is appreciated). I’m posting it for now to provide context for the OPC Report on Republication.]

John Murray said he rejected the Covenant of Works for two reasons:

(1) The term is not felicitous, for the reason that the elements of grace entering into the administration are not properly provided for by the term ‘works’.

(2) It is not designated a covenant in Scripture. Hosea 6:7 may be interpreted otherwise and does not provide the basis for such a construction of the Adamic economy. Besides, Scripture always uses the term covenant, when applied to God’s administration to men, in reference to a provision that is redemptive or closely related to redemptive design. Covenant in Scripture denotes the oath-bound confirmation of promise and involves a security which the Adamic economy did not bestow.

The Adamic Administration

Some have argued that John Murray did not reject the covenant of works. They insist that all the elements of the Covenant of Works are present in his view, he just chose not to use that language. This argument has plausibility with regards to Murray’s rejection of the term “covenant.” All one has to do is point out that he defined covenant wrong. He still held to all the elements of a covenant with Adam when covenant is properly defined.

However, most tend to overlook the much more important reason Murray had for rejecting the Covenant of Works. Murray explicitly argued that the reward of eternal life would not have been by works. It would have been a gift of God’s grace, not a reward of debt according to justice. What Murray was rejecting was the concept of ex pacto or covenantal merit, known as “the works principle.” Thus, while one could argue he held to an Adamic Covenant (by rejecting Murray’s definition of covenant), he did not hold to an Adamic Covenant of Works.

Part of his argument is that there is no works principle found anywhere in Scripture – pre or post-fall. “In connection with the promise of life it does not appear justifiable to appeal, as frequently has been done, to the principle enunciated in certain texts (cf. Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12), ‘This do and thou shalt live’.”

In a paper on confessional subscription, J.V. Fesko says

Murray did not accept the Standards’ teaching regarding the Covenant of Works… Murray did not believe that he held to the common Reformed position that was historically advocated by Reformed theologians or by the Westminster Standards. In fact, he saw himself as a self-avowed revisionist on the subject of covenant theology…

What led Murray to reject the Covenant of Works?

Many focus on the rise of dispensationalism and Murray’s response to it as an explanation for his rejection of the Covenant of Works. In other words, he just over-reacted to dispensationalism by flattening out all of Scripture.

However, Murray actually said he was influenced by Karl Barth on this point. Ligon Duncan explains:

Now, here is the inside scoop. As Donald Macleod talked with John Murray when he came back from Scotland, there were a number of things that had made a major impact on Murray with regard to Covenant Theology. For one thing, Murray was impacted by Vos and by a guy named Adolph Desmond. Desmond was a big time German New Testament scholar at the turn of the twentieth century who had argued very strongly that Covenant should not be translated as a contract or a treaty or a mutual relationship, but it ought to be translated as a disposition or a testament, something that was one-sided as opposed to two-sided. And Desmond did this because he had uncovered all this literature from Greek legal documents contemporary to the New Testament and many New Testament scholars followed Desmond for a period of time. His views have since then been overturned, but he was very influential in the first part of the twentieth century. And so Murray was very influenced by this one-sided idea of covenant. And he found the obediential aspect of the historic Covenant of Works to be a little two-sided for his taste. So, you will see him, when he defines covenant in his little tract called The Covenant of Grace, he will define it in a very one-sided, a very monopluric sort of way. And he is following Vos there and he is following Desmond.

But, the other interesting thing is, is that Murray indicated to Macleod that he had actually been impacted a bit by Barth’s argumentation on the nature of the Covenant of Works and so although Murray would have been stridently in opposition to Barth’s doctrine of the Scripture and his doctrine of the Atonement, yet he was swayed to a certain extent by some of Barth’s arguments regarding Covenant of Works. And Macleod had opportunity to interact with him on that and argue against those particular points, but Murray held to his objections and to this day, Westminster Seminary has tended to be a little bit skittish about the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace framework.

Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace (lecture)

Cornelis P. Venema elaborates in a journal article titled Recent Criticisms of the Covenant of Works in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Murray, though a faithful exponent of the system of doctrine contained in the WCF, was perhaps more critical of this aspect of the WCF than he was of any other.  Based upon his own biblical-theological reflection, Murray offered several of what he believed were needed correctives to the traditional formulations of federal theology, including the classical form found in the WCF…

There are several respects in which Murray’s treatment of this Adamic administration differs from traditional covenant theology.  As we have already noted, this difference is partially terminological… But the divergence is far more than terminological…

This promise [of eternal life] would not be granted upon the principle of strict justice or merit — God’s justice does not require that Adam should ever be granted the status of immutability in fellowship with God — but would be expression of God’s undeserved favor…

[In connection with the promise of life it does not appear justifiable to appeal, as frequently has been done, to the principle enunciated in certain texts (cf. Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12), ‘This do and thou shalt live’. The principle asserted in these texts is the principle of equity, that righteousness is always followed by the corresponding award. From the promise of the Adamic administration we must dissociate all notions of meritorious reward. 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 was justification and life as long as he perfectly obeyed, but not confirmation so as to insure indefectibility. Adam could claim the fulfilment of the promise if he stood the probation, but only on the basis of God’s faithfulness, not on the basis of justice.]

Murray also challenged another commonplace of the older federal theology, namely, that the Mosaic economy or covenant included within itself a repetition of the obligation of obedience, first enunciated in the covenant of works.

The view that in the Mosaic covenant there was a repetition of the so-called covenant of works, current among covenant theologians, is a grave misconception and involves an erroneous construction of the Mosaic covenant, as well as fails to assess the uniqueness of the Adamic administration.  The Mosaic covenant was distinctly redemptive in character and was continuous with and extensive of the Abrahamic covenants.[32]

Apparently, because Murray wants to emphasize the gracious and sovereign disposition of the Adamic arrangement, as well as the essential graciousness of the biblical covenant of grace, he does not want to admit the legal requirement of obedience to be as integral to this arrangement or the post-fall covenant of grace, as was typically the case in the history of covenant theology.

Venema goes on to argue that WCF 7.1, which describes God’s voluntary condescension in the creation of the Covenant of Works, satisfactorily answers Murray’s concerns about the gracious nature of the promise of eternal life.

This emphasis upon all of God’s covenants as voluntary condescensions preserves, it seems to me, the WCF from the charge of depriving the original covenant of the element of God’s favor and goodness, as though it were only a matter of strict justice between a Master and his servant.  Moreover, by its apparent distinction between the original natural state in which “reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him [God] as their Creator” and the covenant of works, the WCF preserves the element of unmerited bestowal and grant in this original covenant.  It simply cannot be argued convincingly that the WCF neglects this component of the original covenant relationship between God and the creature before the fall into sin and the institution of the covenant of grace.

Leviticus 18:5

But if WCF 7.1 easily addresses Murray’s concern, why did Murray still have a concern? Did he not understand 7.1? That’s possible – after all, Van Til certainly caused some confusion. But I don’t think that was the case with Murray. As the chair of systematic theology and one acquainted with historical theology, I doubt Murray was oblivious to something that was obvious to Venema.

In fact, I think it was actually Murray’s acquaintance with the confession and his systematic concern that motivated his revision. I think Murray recognized that the Westminster Confession is self-contradictory on this point and he sought to iron it out.

If you recall Murray’s quote above about the works principle, he mentions Lev 18:5, Gal 3:12, Rom 10:5 as the texts frequently appealed to to articulate the works principle of the Covenant of Works. The WCF cites Gal 3:12 and Rom 10:5 as proof of the covenant of works (in the catechism as well). However, it does not quote Lev 18:5. Why not? Well, because Leviticus 18:5 states the terms of the Mosaic Covenant, which the Westminster Confession says is the Covenant of Grace. Therefore Leviticus 18:5 cannot be a statement of the terms of the Covenant of Works.

In a very helpful WTJ essay titled In Defense of Moses, D. Patrick Ramsey explains why Leviticus 18:5 was not included in the Standards as a proof-text for the Covenant of Works.

Objection 4: In expounding the covenant of works made with Adam the Westminster Confession of Faith uses Rom 10:5 and Gal 3:12 as proof texts. Both of these texts quote Lev 18:5, which refers to the Mosaic Covenant. Therefore, the Divines understood the Mosaic Covenant to be a covenant of works.

The texts that the Westminster Standards used to expound the Covenant of Works are Gen 1:26-27; 2:17; Job 28:28; Eccl 7:29; Rom 2:14-15; 5:12-20; 10:5; Gal 3:10; 3:12 (WCF 7.2; 19.1). None of these texts are from the Mosaic Covenant; however, Rom 10:5 and Gal 3:10, 12 quote verses from the Mosaic Covenant.

The reasons for appealing to these New Testament quotations of Moses vary among the writings of the Puritans. [1] Some believed that they taught that the Covenant of Works was renewed at Mount Sinai though with evangelical purposes and intentions… [2] A similar position stated that these passages taught that the Mosaic Law contained a restatement of the principle of works. It was not re-established or renewed, only republished and repeated in order to drive men to Christ…

[3] A third Puritan position understood the proof texts used by the Westminster Confession of Faith to refer to the Law absolutely or separated from the Gospel. When the Mosaic Law is taken out of its context, then and only then does it become contrary to the Gospel by becoming the matter (describes the righteousness required in the Covenant of Works) and/or form (offers life by works) of the Covenant of Works. Hence, passages like Deut 27:26 and Lev 18:5 did not, in their original intent, renew or repeat the Covenant of Works.

The Pharisees and Judaizers of Paul’s day distorted the Law by separating it from the Gospel and used it for their justification before God. Paul’s quotations of Moses in Romans and Galatians are thus referring to the Jews’ perversion of the Law. In so doing the apostle expounds the principle of works, which is applicable to the Covenant of Works made with Adam.

Of these three possible explanations for the use of Gal 3:10, 12 and Rom 10:5 as proof texts for the Covenant of Works, the third is the most likely. This is so because the Divines did not use Lev 18:5, Deut 27:26, or any passage pertaining to the Mosaic Covenant as proof texts. If they had understood the Mosaic Covenant to be a renewal or republication of the Covenant of Works, they probably would have appealed to the Law of Moses directly, as many Puritans did.

So, according to this view, the moral law itself, separated from the Gospel, contains the works principle. In it’s original context, Leviticus 18:5 is a statement of the moral law in the Covenant of Grace. But in quoting Leviticus 18:5, Paul abstracts the law from it’s context in the Mosaic Covenant of Grace and applies it to his situation with the Judaizers. Guy P. Waters, in his chapter in The Law is Not of Faith titled Romans 10:5 and the Covenant of Works? argues this point.

Paul considers the moral demands of the Mosaic law, in distinction from the gracious covenant in which they were formally promulgated, to set forth the standard of righteousness required by the covenant of works.[1]

[1]  This position for which I will be arguing is essentially that argued by Anthony Burgess, “The Law (as to this purpose) may be considered more largely, as that whole doctrine delivered on Mount Sinai, with the preface and promises adjoyned, and all things that may be reduced to it; or more strictly, as it is an abstracted rule of righteousnesse, holding forth life upon no termes, but perfect obedience. Now take it in the former sense, it was a Covenant of grace; take it in the later sense, as abstracted from Moses his administration of it, and so it was not of grace, but workes,” Vindiciae Legis: Or, A Vindication of the Morall Law and the Covenants, from the Errours of
Papists, Arminians, Socinians, and more especially, Antinomians. In XXX. Lectures, preached at Laurence-Jury, London (2d ed.; London, 1647), 235. Anthony Burgess was a member of the Westminster Assembly and served on the committee that drafted WCF 19 (“Of the Law of God”). 

Waters actually quotes from Murray’s Appendix B “Leviticus 18:5” from his Romans commentary at this point, demonstrating Murray has accurately pinpointed a crucial question.

John Murray observes that “[The problem that arises from this use of Lev. 18:5 is that the latter text does not appear in a context that deals with legal righteousness as opposed to that of faith.] Lev. 18:5 is in a context in which the claims of God upon his redeemed and covenant people are being asserted and urged upon Israel… [It] refers not to the life accruing from doing in a legalistic framework but to the blessing attendant upon obedience in a redemptive and covenant relationship to God.” If the Scripture teaches that the Mosaic administration is an administration of the covenant of grace, as the Westminster divines affirm (7.5), then how could Paul have interpreted Lev 18:5 as he has? How could he have taken a passage which, in context, appears to refer to the sanctificational works of a redeemed person within the covenant community, and apply this text to individuals seeking the righteousness of justification on the basis of their performance?… Has Paul misquoted Leviticus 18:5 at Romans 10:5?

Waters’ proposed solution is that the moral law itself inherently includes the works principle (ex pacto merit) unless the works principle is stripped away by coming to us through the hand of Christ, as it did in the Mosaic Covenant. As I demonstrated in another post, the problem with this view is that it contradicts WCF 7.1, which teaches that the law itself does not offer any reward for obedience to the law and therefore does not include any works principle. The works principle is only added to the law in the Covenant of Works.

Murray was sharper than Waters on this point. I believe he recognized that Waters’ solution (repeating a historic solution) was no solution at all because it was self-contradictory in that it conflated the law and the covenant of works on this point while elsewhere necessarily distinguishing them (see the Waters post).

Murray’s Solution

Commenting on Romans 10:5, Murray says that “’The man that doeth the righteousness of the law shall live thereby”, is, of itself, an adequate and watertight definition of the principle of legalism. (See Appendix B, pp. 249ff., for fuller discussion.)”  In Appendix B: Leviticus 18:5 he argues that this principle is “the principle of equity in God’s government” and there are “three distinct relationships in which [it] has relevance.”

1… Wherever there is righteousness to the full extent of God’s demand there must also be the corresponding justification and life… God’s judgment is always according to truth. Perfect righteousness must elicit God’s favour or complacency and with this favour is the life that is commensurate with it. This would have obtained for Adam in sinless integrity apart from any special constitution that special grace would have contemplated.

Note well: this principle applied to Adam prior to and apart from God’s condescension to reward his obedience – that is, prior to and apart from any Covenant of Works. Recall what Murray said in his Adamic Administration essay. “All that Adam could have claimed on the basis of equity was justification and life as long as he perfectly obeyed, but not confirmation so as to insure indefectibility.” In other words, “life” according to this principle is not “eternal life” but merely “not death.”

2. The principle ‘the man who does shall live’ must be regarded as totally inoperative within the realm of sin… In alluding to Lev. 18:5 at this point he uses the formula ‘the man that doeth… shall live thereby’ as a proper expression in itself of the principle of works-righteousness in contrast with the righteousness of faith. We have no right to contest the apostle’s right to use the terms of Lev. 18:5 for this purpose since they do describe that which holds true when law-righteousness is operative unto justification and life and also express the conception entertained by the person who espouses the same as the way of acceptance with God (cf. also Gal. 3:12).

In other words, the second relationship is in reference to the first, but at a time when man has already fallen. It is a hypothetical statement of what is true if man had not fallen, but that is now “totally inoperative within the realm of sin.” This is how Paul uses it in Romans 10:5. He is adopting “the conception entertained by the person who espouses” righteousness by the law.

3… righteousness and life are never separable. Within the realm of justification by grace through faith there is not only acceptance with God as righteous in the righteousness of Christ but there is also the new life which the believer lives… So Paul can say in the most absolute terms, ‘If ye live after the flesh, ye must die; but if by the Spirit ye put to death the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (8:13). In the realm of grace, therefore, obedience is the way of life. He that does the commandments of God lives in them. The fruit of the Spirit is well-pleasing to God… It is this principle that appears in Lev. 18:5…

Lev. 18:1-5 is parallel to Exod. 20:1-17; Deut 5:6-21… The whole passage is no more “legalistic” than are the ten commandments. Hence the words “which if a man do, he shall live in them” (vs. 5) refers not to the life accruing from doing in a legalistic framework but to the blessing attendant upon obedience in a redemptive and covenant relationship to God.

Note the difference between Murray and Waters. Waters says Paul can quote Leviticus 18:5 on this point because the moral demands of the law itself set forth the works principle found in the Covenant of Works. When the gracious covenant context is added to the law, this works principle is removed. Waters notes that WCF 7.2 references Romans 10:5. Murray rejects the confession on this point arguing there is no works principle and no Covenant of Works.

The problem with Murray’s attempted explanation is that it does not sufficiently explain how Paul can quote Leviticus 18:5 as expressing law righteousness since it, in fact, does not. Paul does not say “according to a mistaken conception entertained by the person who espouses a law righteousness that no longer applies, the person who does the commandments shall live by them.” Rather, Paul says “Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.” If Leviticus 18:5 “refers not to the life accuring from doing in a legalistic framework” then Moses did not “write about the righteousness that is based on the law.” Paul did not merely “allude” to Leviticus 18:5, nor did he merely “use the terms of Lev. 18:5.” Paul quoted Moses’ teaching on law-righteousness.

WCF 19.6

When the OPC was formed, it established a Committee on Texts and Proof Texts, headed by John Murray.

As a preliminary step toward the printing of the doctrinal standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Seventh General Assembly (1940) established a Committee on Texts and Proof Texts (consisting of John Murray [chairman], E. J. Young, and Ned B. Stonehouse, who was replaced in 1941 by John H. Skilton) to study the texts and proof texts of those documents. That Committee submitted to the Eighteenth General Assembly (1951) “the text of the Confession of Faith, together with the proof texts as revised by the Committee.” The text, except for the revisions that had been adopted by the Second General Assembly in 1936, was “derived from the original manuscript written by Cornelius Burges in 1646, edited by S. W. Carruthers [in 1937] and published by the Presbyterian Church of England in 1946.” That text of the Confession, with a few corrections, was adopted by the Twentysecond General Assembly (1955), approved by nearly all the presbyteries, and adopted again by the Twenty-third General Assembly (1956). The proof texts prepared by the Committee were accepted for publication. The Confession was then published with these proof texts (as citations, not full texts) by the Committee on Christian Education and reprinted by Great Commission Publications

The Scripture proof texts were originally prepared by the Westminster divines, revised over the years by a succession of committees, and approved for publication by various general assemblies of the OPC, but are not a part of the constitution itself.

http://www.opc.org/documents/Preface.pdf

The original Westminster Confession did not cite Leviticus 18:5 anywhere. In light of the resolution that Murray arrived at, he added Lev 18:5 as a proof text to WCF 19.6.

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

s. Ex. 19:5–6. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. Deut. 5:33. Ye shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess. Lev. 18:5. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the Lord. Matt. 19:17. And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. Lev. 26:1–13. … If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. And your threshing shall reach unto the vintage, and the vintage shall reach unto the sowing time: and ye shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. And I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid: and I will rid evil beasts out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land. And ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword.… For I will have respect unto you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you.… And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people.… 2 Cor. 6:16. And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Eph. 6:2–3. Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. Ps. 19:11. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward. Ps. 37:11. But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace. Matt. 5:5. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

OPC Westminster Confession
(compare with 1646 WCF)

Judgment According to Works

Note that Matthew 19:17 was added as well. This raises an interesting question as to how Murray saw this principle in relation to “life” and the final judgment for the redeemed Christian. In a lecture titled “Justification” contained in his Collected Writings, Murray says

While it makes void the gospel to introduce works in connection with justification, nevertheless works done in faith, from the motive of love to God, in obedience to the revealed will of God and to the end of his glory are intrinsically good and acceptable to God. As such they will be the criterion of reward in the life to come. This is apparent from such passages as Matthew 10:41; 1 Corinthians 3:8–9, 11–15; 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 2 Timothy 4:7. We must maintain therefore, justification complete and irrevocable by grace through faith and apart from works, and at the same time, future reward according to works. In reference to these two doctrines it is important to observe the following:

(i) This future reward is not justification and contributes nothing to that which constitutes justification. (ii) This future reward is not salvation. Salvation is by grace and it is not as a reward for works that we are saved. (iii) The reward has reference to the degree of glory bestowed in the state of bliss, that is, the station a person is to occupy in glory and does not have reference to the gift of glory itself. (iv) This reward is not administered because good works earn or merit reward, but because God is graciously pleased to reward them. That is to say it is a reward of grace. (In the Romish scheme good works have real merit and constitute the ground of the title to everlasting life.) The good works are rewarded because they are intrinsically good and well-pleasing to God. They are not rewarded because they earn reward but they are rewarded only as labour, work or service that is the fruit of God’s grace, conformed to his will and therefore intrinsically good and well-pleasing to him. They could not even be rewarded of grace if they were principally and intrinsically evil.

He held that there was a future judgment for God’s redeemed people, but only to determine the degree of reward they will receive in glory, not whether they will enter glory. However, as we just saw, Matthew 19:17 was cited in order to explain “what blessings [Christians] may expect upon the performance” of the law. Matthew 19:17 is Jesus’ answer to the rich young man who asked “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” – that is, to enter glory, as Jesus replied “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” Thus there appears to be a bit of tension in Murray’s thought on this point. Note his commentary on Romans 2:5-16 where he rejects the hypothetical view held by older reformed theologians.

The reward of this aspiration is in like manner the eschatology of the believer, “eternal life”… Could God judge any unto the reward of eternal life (cf. vs. 7) if works are the criteria? ‘The apostle thus speaks, not in the way of abstract hypothesis but of concrete assertion… He says not what God would do were He to proceed in accordance with the primal rule and standard of the law, but what, proceeding according to that rule, He will actually do.’… The determining factor in the rewards of retribution or of glory is not the privileged position of the Jew but evil-doing or well-doing respectively.

Samuel Waldron notes

Murray’s lecture on justification contained in the Collected Writings affirms that works only have to do with the degree of reward in glory, while in his Romans commentary he affirms that the judgment by works which has the twin consequences of eternal life and wrath is not hypothetical.  I see no way to evade the fact of some contradiction between the two statements…

I think a good argument could be made that the Romans commentary contains Murray’s more mature and definitive thoughts.  This is so for two reasons.  First, as Iain Murray notes in his introduction to CW 2 (vi-ix) Murray resisted appeals to publish the class lectures from which the article on justification in CW 2 is taken.  It seems clear, then, that his commentary which he wrote for publication should be given some precedence over the lecture in CW 2.  Also the commentary was published in 1959 only 7 years before his retirement from Westminster in 1966.  The lecture likely dates from much earlier in his tenure at Westminster where he taught systematic theology from 1930.

Is There a Future Justification by Works at the Day of Judgment? # 10

So there appears to be development in Murray’s thought as he works out the implications of Leviticus 18:5. Returning to his commentary, note that verse 13 goes on to say “the doers of the law who will be justified,” which leads Murray directly towards a dangerous position. He attempts to put on the brakes

It is quite unnecessary to find in this verse any doctrine of justification by works in conflict with the teaching of this epistle in later chapters. Whether any will be actually justified by works either in this life or at the final judgment is beside the apostle’s interest and design at this juncture. The burden of this verse is that not the hearers or mere possessors of the law will be justified before God but that in terms of the law the criterion is doing, not hearing. The apostle’s appeal to this principle serves that purpose truly and effectively, and there is no need to import questions that are not relevant to the universe of discourse.

This is the first occasion that the word “justify” is used in this epistle. Although it is not used here with reference to the justification which is the grand theme of the epistle, the forensic meaning of the term is evident even in this case. “Shall be justified” is synonymous with “just before God” and the latter refers to standing or status in the sight of God. To justify, therefore, would be the action whereby men would be recognized as just before God or the action whereby men are given the status of being just in God’s sight. For a fuller treatment of the nature of justification and the meaning of the terms the reader is referred to the appendix on this subject (pp. 336 ff).

Murray attempts to backpedal by arguing that “will be justified” is hypothetical, in direct contradiction to his previous statements about the passage. As a result, you will actually get two different interpretations of Murray, some saying he denied the hypothetical interpretation, others saying he agreed with it. (See here and here as examples)

Conclusion

In an attempt to work out the contradictions in the system of theology found in the Westminster Confession, particularly the idea that the Mosaic Covenant of Works was the Covenant of Grace, John Murray rejected the Covenant of Works on the grounds that Scripture does not teach a “works principle” in Leviticus 18:5 or anywhere else. Contrary to Guy Waters and others, Murray recognized that Leviticus 18:5 was the statement of a principle – the principle of equity – not simply the law itself. He therefore recognized that the principle found in Leviticus 18:5 and Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12 must be the same. He recognized that if the principle found in Leviticus 18:5 is part of the terms of the Covenant of Grace, then that principle is not part of the terms of a Covenant of Works. Therefore the principle found in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12 is not a Covenant of Works. Therefore Scripture does not teach a Covenant of Works.

As Murray began to iron out Westminster’s inconsistent appeal to Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12, he also began to iron out the implications of his view for the rest of his theology. We saw progression in his thought in the wrong direction – towards a false gospel of justification by works. He slammed on the breaks, but without a consistent explanation as to why – leaving it to his successors to work out.

Leithart’s Monocovenantalism

False teacher Peter Leithart offers a helpful summary of why proponents of the Federal Vision believe in monocovenantalism (the belief that the pre-fall Adamic Covenant was essentially the same as the post-fall Covenant of Grace).

Grace and law from God’s side, and a demand for faith and obedience from man, characterize every covenant in Scripture.  No covenant is exclusively legal or exclusively gracious.  No one is ever called to a dis-obedient faith or a faithless obedience.

Read the rest to understand this influential error. See also Doug Wilson’s CREC “Examination” Questions 5, 8, 39-46. Compare with John Murray’s rejection of a works principle anywhere in Scripture.

Is John Piper Confessional?

John Piper recently answered a question about the use of confessions by a church. I’m thankful for several parts of his answer, and I have some comments to offer on the other parts.

First, Piper affirms and defends the validity, necessity, and value of confessions of faith:

Christianity that is unified around a written confession of faith, at its best, is the best Christianity… Confessional summaries of biblical truth really do help us in our faith, because I think faith thrives on deep, true doctrine that is brought out of the Scriptures, properly summarized, applied to peoples’ lives, and in our souls, in our families, in our churches, even in society. That kind of clear, doctrinal truth is healthy for life and for obedience to Jesus.

Amen.

In light of this, Bethlehem Baptist Church created The Bethlehem Baptist Church Elder Affirmation of Faith (I believe in 2003) and they modified their by-laws to state “Elders are also required to be in agreement with the Bethlehem Baptist Church Elder Affirmation of Faith” The confession states

We believe that the cause of unity in the church is best served, not by finding the lowest common denominator of doctrine, around which all can gather, but by elevating the value of truth, stating the doctrinal parameters of church or school or mission or ministry, seeking the unity that comes from the truth, and then demonstrating to the world how Christians can love each other across boundaries rather than by removing boundaries. (15:2)

Again, Amen! (Note that their Congregational Affirmation of Faith for members is different from the Elder Affirmation of Faith).

The rest of Piper’s answer focuses on why they wrote a new confession rather than holding to the 1689 London Baptist Confession. Many have criticized Piper on this point, but the criticism mainly focuses on his reasons for disagreeing with the 1689. Before addressing those disagreements, we should applaud Piper. Why? Because he properly recognizes the purpose of a confession. He notes that “the elders will all be officially united under the teaching of the BBC Elder Affirmation of Faith and held accountable to maintain it through life and doctrine.” The basis of unity in their church is that the elders all confess the same doctrine. The foundational assumption here is that when people affirm a confession, they affirm a confession. That is, they don’t affirm some essence or substance or system or vitals of the faith underlying the confession. They confess the confession. That’s the whole point! They specifically wrote a confession that they could all agree on all the points, and then they use that as the basis for unity. Very straightforward.

Methods of Subscription

However, such a straightforward approach to a confession is not practiced by Presbyterians and others. In a recent helpful piece On the Need for and Practice of Confessing the Faith, Samuel Renihan notes “It is a sad day when what we confess and how we confess must be dealt with independently.” What was described above is known as “full subscription.” It is the method of subscription held to by ARBCA because it is the most logical (see James Renihan’s lecture). Everyone agrees with the document that was written to express common agreement. This was how the London Baptist Confessions were used. However, it was not how the Westminster Confession was used.

This difference goes back to the fundamental difference in ecclesiology. Presbyterians believed that the visible church was one universal institution organized geographically. The church was national and there was only one. And this national church needed a confession of faith. However, this confession of faith was not intended to be a confession of what individual ministers believed, necessarily. Instead, it was the governing standard for the national church. It was requested by Parliament so that it could be the legal basis for defrocking a minister. Specifically, it governed what could and could not be preached in the local parishes of the one national church – that is, what could be preached anywhere in the country by anyone.

If a minister wished to preach the gospel, he could only do so as a licensed minister in the national church and he was required to adhere to this confession. However, he was not personally required to agree with the confession. He was only forbidden from contradicting the confession in his preaching. This distinction between public and private reflected their view of liberty of conscience as it related to punishment by the civil magistrate. A citizen had liberty to believe what he wished in his own mind, but no citizen was allowed to publicly blaspheme God or display an idol. He was not allowed to make his beliefs public.

Eventually, because of problems with unbelieving ministers filling pulpits, the Church of Scotland began to require individual ministers to confess or subscribe to the system of doctrine underlying the confession. They did not have to confess agreement with every point, but with the essence of the faith. The confession in full still stood as the legal standard for public preaching.

Building on this, Presbyterian churches in America today (note the plural) do not require “full subscription.” Instead, they each have varying levels of requiring ministers to confess something less than the confession (i.e. J.V. Fesko’s THE LEGACY OF OLD SCHOOL CONFESSION SUBSCRIPTION IN THE OPC, & the PCA’s adoption of Good Faith Subscription and here). But because American Presbyterians reformed the British Presbyterian doctrine of liberty of conscience to be more logically consistent and more in agreement with the baptist doctrine of liberty of conscience and its necessary implication of voluntarism, they no longer require full adherence to the confession in public preaching. After all, since there is no such thing as a national church and ministers have divinely granted liberty of conscience to voluntarily be a part of whichever denomination or tradition of Christianity they believe best reflects Scripture, what basis do they have for prohibiting a minister from preaching his conscience? In other words, there was no longer any logical basis for a distinction between private beliefs and public beliefs. So the use of the confession in “full” was discarded and all that remained was the use of the underlying “system” in the confession.

A Confession within a Confession

Of course, determining what exactly constitutes this underlying system and what would constitute an actual violation of the confession has been a matter of debate since then. For example, in response to a recent post by Mark Jones on this question, D. Patrick Ramsey notes:

How do we determine whether Hypothetical Universalism (or any other controversial view) is acceptable or not? Consider the following questions:

Do we accept HU because even though it is contrary to the Confession it is an allowable exception or scruple because it doesn’t strike at the vitals of the Confession as evident by its place within the Reformed Tradition?

If so, we are compelled to ask: What are the vitals of the Confession and why don’t we make that our Confession? How do we determine what are the vitals of the Confession? How popular must a view be in the Reformed Tradition for it to be acceptable? NOTE: I realize that we all operate upon the basis of there being the vitals of the Confession unless we don’t allow for any exceptions. But still, it does seem so elusive and subjective…

The real confession seems to be the confession within the confession.

Ramsey makes an important point: if the vitals of the Confession are the true boundaries of the Confession, why don’t they just make that their Confession without all the extra stuff they don’t all agree on? Isn’t that the point of a confession? Of course doing so would be a difficult process and it would mean departing from the historic confession, but the only other alternative is to make the meaning of the Confession “elusive and subjective” which defeats the entire point of the confession, as Piper rightly explains:

Without a written summary of biblical truth we tend to be vague about what we believe. Some people think that avoiding confessions of faith provides greater Christian unity, because writing things down requires precision and clarity and explicitness and all of those precipitate disagreements and arguments.

But the alternative is to obscure those disagreements under a cloud of vagueness, and the effect of that so-called unity is that it constantly depends on keeping clarity of truth at a distance. You can’t see it with precision up close and it lets you down in the end when crucial applications and decisions have to be made on the basis of truth, and it has now been kept obscure all this time and we don’t have it there to apply in crucial cases.

The purpose of a written confession is precision. If the precision of the written document is being discarded for an elusive, subjective, and vague “essence” then the entire purpose of the confession is being discarded. Samuel Renihan asks “Why hold to a confession of faith if you’re not confessing it to be true? Either remake the document or compose your own. And then confess that document. “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no” (Matthew 5:37, James 5:12).”

This is precisely what Piper and his church have done. They disagree with the 2nd London Baptist Confession so they do not confess it. They wrote down what they believe and confessed that instead. That is to be applauded. We need more of that. We need both the precision of written statements of faith as well as the willingness to affirm what is actually written. Commenting on the PCA’s 2003 adoption of “Good Faith” subscription, Ryan McGraw argues

A Confession of Faith, therefore, is a written summary of doctrines that are held in common by a definite body of believers for the purpose of together confessing with their mouths what they believe in their hearts… [T]his practice [good faith subscription] has effectively abrogated the role of the Westminster Standards from being the public profession of faith of the PCA. As a result, the PCA has become a church without a Confession of Faith…

The nature of Creeds and Confessions is to be subscribed to without equivocation or reservation… if the members of the group in question do not subscribe to the Confession of Faith en toto, then the Confession has lost both its nature and its proper function…

The case would be different if the PCA subscribed to a curtailed version of the Westminster Standards, or to some other Confession of Faith that her ministers could agree upon. Instead we have an undefined Creed, which in practice amounts to no Creed… [N]o Confession of Faith is infallible and unalterable. Instead of allowing undefined “exceptions” to the doctrinal Standards of the Church, the Church ought to change the Confession to reflect agreed upon terms of unity.

In this regard, Piper and his co-elders are more confessional than most Presbyterians who “confess” the Westminster Confession.

The reason that baptists and Presbyterians approach confessions differently is because Presbyterianism is still foundationally influenced by the medieval view of the church. The Dissenting Brethren of the Assembly (Congregationalists) said “we do professedly judge the Calvinian Reformed Churches of the first reformation from out of Popery, to stand in need of a further reformation themselves. And it may without prejudice to them, or the imputation of Schism in us from them, be thought, that they coming new out of Popery (as well as England) and the founders of that reformation not having Apostolic infallibility, might not be fully perfect the first day.” In short, Piper and the other elders in his church had the liberty to draft a confession that specifically reflected their actual beliefs. Their ordination and their very ministry was not tied to a confession they did not agree with. The hierarchy of Presbyterianism functionally inhibits a minister’s liberty, leading many of them to affirm a confession they don’t affirm rather than writing one they do.

Disagreements with the 2nd London Baptist Confession

Yes, Piper has disagreements with the 1689, and obviously I don’t agree with his reasons. But we can have a very meaningful conversation about those points of disagreement specifically because the differences are clearly written and articulated. Both sides agree that words have meaning. That provides the sufficient foundation for iron to sharpen iron. As Piper said “writing things down requires precision and clarity and explicitness and all of those precipitate disagreements and arguments.”

Here are his reasons:

1) The language is somewhat foreign. Its vocabulary is like reading the King James Version. And I think it is probably a mistake to try to enshrine that today as the one if you expect families to use it without any updated form.

If that’s the issue, Founders made the 1689 available in more modern language in 1975 and in 2011 Stan Reeves published a carefully prepared version with modern language.

2) While I am able to affirm that Genesis 1 refers to literal 24-hour days, I had a hard time thinking that I should make that a matter of confessional faithfulness to Christianity, and so I stumbled over that section.

Piper’s reasoning here is more commendable than those who try to argue the confession does not require one to hold to literal 24-hour days of creation.

3) The understanding of the Sabbath is, perhaps, more rigorous and narrow than my understanding of the implications of Jesus’s teaching about the Sabbath.

Despite his disagreement with the confession’s stance, there is still much to agree with in Piper over against NCT. For example, my post Resources for Studying the Sabbath opens with an affirmative quote from Piper. You can read my post there for more arguments on the topic, but again, if Piper doesn’t agree with the doctrine, then he is right not to confess it.

4) There are certain historic categories of theology, like the covenant of works and others, that have proved useful, but you might wonder: Shall I make that the structure of the theology I am going to present?

This is a huge point. Again, Piper is to be commended for recognizing that he is in disagreement with the 1689 on this point. Some, like Gregory Nichols, agree with Piper but still claim to hold to the 1689. In fact, several Presbyterians who confess the Westminster Confession are in agreement with Piper on the nature of God’s covenant with Adam (that it was gracious and non-meritorious and thus not of works) yet they still confess Westminster (see here and here, which provides context for here). That creates more problems than just disagreeing with the doctrine. Thankfully Piper’s desire for clarity and precision and his clear understanding of the words of the Confession mean we can argue and discuss whether the doctrine is biblical rather simply getting stuck arguing about the Confession and never getting to the part about the bible (as is happening in Presbyterian circles at the moment).

Second, Piper is to be commended for understanding that the covenant of works is not an accessory of the Confession but is instead part of it’s very structure. As Dr. Sam Waldron notes in his dissertation:

Allegiance to The Westminster Confession is often understood as subscription to its “system of doctrine.” The Westminster Confession accurately represents the Reformation system of doctrine when it grounds its soteriology on a contrast between the law (“the covenant of works”) and the gospel (“the covenant of grace”). Shepherd has no place for such a structure in his theology and cannot, therefore, affirm consistently the “system of doctrine” taught in the Confession he cites so often in his writings.

–Faith, Obedience, and Justification: Current Evangelical Departures, p. 186

Piper is to be commended over against men like Shepherd who still try to confess Westminster, but notice the context of Waldron’s comments. Notice how serious of an issue this is. Piper’s disagreement on this point means he does not hold to the Reformed Baptist system of theology. The structure of theology provided by the doctrine of the covenant of works is the ground of the Reformation’s soteriology, rooted in a contrast between law (works) and gospel (faith). Apart from the covenant of works, there is no objective difference between law and gospel, which is precisely Piper’s view.

This is why Piper agrees with Doug Wilson on the gospel, calling him “brilliant” and his critics “dumb.” Perhaps Piper thinks Wilson is “brilliant” because in his ordination examination (which Piper specifically references), Wilson specifically quotes Piper to articulate his view of the covenant of works (the “examination” was a farce put on by the denomination he started).

45.Please comment on the following quote by John Piper:

“… I am hesitant to call Jesus’ obedience in life and death the fulfilment of a “covenant of works.” This term generally implies that “works” stand over against “grace,” and are not the fulfilment of faith in grace. Thus works implies a relationship with God that is more like an employer receiving earned waged than like a Son trusting a Father’s generosity. I see God’s grace as the basis of his relationship with Adam and Eve before the fall. I see this Christ, the Second Adam, fulfilling this covenant of grace (not works) perfectly by trusting his Father’s provision at every moment and obeying all his commandments by faith. His relationship to the Father was one of constant trust. His obedience was the effect of this trust. “Grace” toward Jesus was not exactly the same as grace toward fallen sinners. He never sinned (Heb. 4:15). Yet, in his human life he was dependent upon God similar to the way we are. Not only that, he took our sin on himself (Is.53:6). Thus God exerted a kind of “grace” in overcoming his curse on sin in order to exalt Christ (Future Grace, 413).

Wilson: I agree with this fully.

What is worth noting is Wilson’s answer to question 3:

3. Have you vowed to uphold and defend the system of doctrine contained in the WCF? Have you taken any exceptions to the WCF?

… Chapter 7: Of God’s Covenant with Man— Para . 2: (cf. Chp. 19, para. 1, 6). We would clarify that the “covenant of works” was not meritorious and we deny that any covenant can be kept without faith. Good works, even in this covenant were a result of faith, as illustrated by the Sabbath rest which was Adam’s first full day in the presence of God.

So while Piper recognizes that his rejection of the covenant of works entails a rejection of the structure of the 1689 Confession, Wilson feels he can take an exception to the covenant of works and still hold to the Westminster Confession.

5. Do you have any exceptions, qualifications, or scruples to that confession in the areas of this examination? Please explain.

No, I do not have any exceptions in any area dealing with the federal vision controversy. However, one qualification I would like to note is that 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. Since Adam was not fallen, the nature of the grace would have been different than it is when dealing with mankind in sin. But it would have been gracious nonetheless.

…40.Was the covenant of works a gracious covenant? How is it to be distinguished from the covenant of grace?What is your view of the “covenant of works”?

Yes, the covenant of works was gracious in that Adam was surrounded by the goodness of a giving God. And if Adam had stood, even that standing would have been a gift from God, which he would have received by faith. But while all gifts are gifts, not all gifts are the same. The gift of preservation to an unfallen Adam is quite different than the gift of forgiveness to a rebellious and iniquitous race. The fact of giving is the same. The content of the gifts is different. I may give my wife a string of pearls one Christmas, and a coffee table the next. My desire and disposition to give is the same. But pearls are not a coffee table.

Unconfessional Doctrine and Church Courts

The method of subscription practiced by Presbyterian churches is clearly one of the factors (there are many) involved in their inability to keep Federal Vision pastors out of their churches (see Ryan McGraw’s comments on this point). Federal Vision theology clearly departs from the Westminster Confession, but departure from the Westminster Confession is not sufficient grounds to remove a minister from his office. On this very question of the covenant of works and the works principle, John Murray argued that the confessional position needed to be revised and recast in light of a better understanding of Scripture. He argued that there was no works principle in Scripture and he specifically rejected the Confession’s citation of Gal 3:12 and Rom 10:5 as proof of one.

In regards to this, J.V. Fesko argues that Murray’s rejection of the Confession on this point was acceptable because it was consistent with American Presbyterianism’s view of subscription.

Like their Old School predecessors before them, they [1st GA of the OPC] recognized that men could hold exceptions to the Standards, propagate them, and still be considered as officers in good standing…

“the commitment of oneself to every proposition [of the Westminster Standards] as the condition of exercising office in the Church is hardly consistent with the liberty of judgment on certain points of doctrine which has been characteristic of the Reformed Churches.” (Murray)

This statement, then, places Murray in agreement with his Old School predecessors as well as with the overall trajectory of the OPC on subscription. Murray does not merely allow semantic exceptions, but exceptions over entire propositions within the Standards…

Murray did not accept the Standards’ teaching regarding the Covenant of Works… Murray did not believe that he held to the common Reformed position that was historically advocated by Reformed theologians or by the Westminster Standards. In fact, he saw himself as a self-avowed revisionist on the subject of covenant theology…

Recall that the principle of Old School subscription states that a subscriber may take exception to propositions in the Standards. The subscriber may take exceptions to propositions so long as those exceptions do not undermine the overall system. With this in mind, we can see that though Murray reconstructs the Confession’s doctrine of the covenant, his reconstruction still retains the integrity of the overall system…

This is how, then, Murray can still subscribe to the Standards—his conclusions, though through a reconstructed and revised route, do not affect the overall system. It is important to note that this is yet another example of how an advocate of Old School ideology practices his confession subscription.

What Piper said about churches without any confession applies to churches with a confession they don’t fully confess (what Ramsey referred to as an elusive and subjective real confession within the written confession).

the alternative is to obscure those disagreements under a cloud of vagueness, and the effect of that so-called unity is that it constantly depends on keeping clarity of truth at a distance. You can’t see it with precision up close and it lets you down in the end when crucial applications and decisions have to be made on the basis of truth, and it has now been kept obscure all this time and we don’t have it there to apply in crucial cases.

While I appreciate Piper’s willingness to state clearly what he believes and does not believe, I think his disagreement with the confession on this point is unbiblical (For more on Piper’s view of the covenant of works, see here and here and here). While simply having a detailed confession of faith is a very good thing for a church, making that confession a historic confession has the benefit of leaning on many, many more men than just yourselves. While Piper and his co-elders strove to not be idiosyncratic, they could not possibly have deliberated over their confession to the same degree that historic confessions like the 1689 London Baptist Confession were simply by virtue of how many people were involved, if nothing else. Furthermore, it can be well argued that those men were much better theologians and thus more qualified to write a confession. Regardless, the takeaway is that Piper’s greatest point of departure from the 1689, and his strongest reason for not holding it, is simultaneously the most problematic aspect of his ministry.

5) This is going to sound so piddly — and yet you can’t be piddly in a confession — little things like saying that bread and wine are prescribed in the Lord’s Supper. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that wine was used in the Lord’s Supper. That comes as a shock to a lot of people. It doesn’t say that is what was used.

This is not a subject I’ve studied, but I have heard very good things about this sermon http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=322111921180 But once again, we should appreciate how seriously Piper takes the practice of confession. He could dismiss the issue as trivial and say he still holds to the 1689 Confession, but he doesn’t because he believes words matter.

Piper vs Owen on Romans 2:6-7, 13

A short demonstration on the importance of covenant theology:
John Piper denies a works principle anywhere in Scripture, including the Covenant of Works.

Has God ever commanded anyone to obey with a view to earning or meriting life? Would God command a person to do a thing that he uniformly condemns as arrogant?

In Romans 11:35-36, Paul describes why earning from God is arrogant and impossible. He says, ‘Who has first given to [God] that it might be paid back to him? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” The thought that anyone could give anything to God with a view to being paid back with merit or wages is presumptuous and impossible, because all things (including obedience) are from God in the first place. You can’t earn from God by giving him what is already his…

It is true that God commanded Adam to obey him, and it is also true that failure to obey would result in death (Genesis 2:16-17): “In the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (verse 17). But the question is this: What kind of obedience is required for the inheritance of life – the obedience of earning or the obedience of trusting? The Bible presents two very different kinds of effort to keep God’s commandments. One way is legalistic; it depends on our own strength and aims to earn life. The other way we might call evangelical; it depends on God’s enabling power and aims to obtain life by faith in his promises, which is shown in the freedom of obedience…

Adam had to walk in obedience to his Creator in order to inherit life, but the obedience required of him was the obedience that comes from faith. God did not command legalism, arrogance, and suicide… There was no hint that Adam was to earn or deserve. The atmosphere was one of testing faith in unmerited favor, not testing willingness to earn or merit. The command of God was for the obedience that comes from faith…

What then of the ‘second Adam,’ Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the obedience that Adam forsook (1 Cor 15:45; Rom 5:14-20)?… He fulfilled the Law perfectly in the way that the Law was meant to be fulfilled from the beginning, not by works, but by faith (Rom 9:32)…

We are called to walk the way Jesus walked and the way Adam was commanded to walk. Adam failed because he did not trust the grace of God to pursue him with goodness and mercy all his days (Psalm 23:6).

A Godward Life, p. 177

Piper is correct that man can never earn anything from God. But that is why our confession recognizes that God voluntarily condescended to Adam and offered him a reward for his labor that he did not deserve (LBCF 7.1). In so doing, he made Adam a wage earner. Piper rejects this. And because he rejects this, he does not believe there is any objective contrast between the law and faith.

When Paul says “the law is not of faith” (Gal 3:12; Rom 10:5; Lev 18:5) Piper says that refers to a subjective “legalistic” attitude towards law-keeping, and not to any objective difference between the law and faith. As a result, he says:

Let me declare myself clearly here: I believe in the necessity of a transformed life of obedience to Jesus by the power of the Spirit through faith as a public evidence and confirmation of faith at the Last Day for all who will finally be saved. In other words, I believe it is actually true, not just hypothetically true, that God “will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom.2:6–7).

The Future of Justification, p. 110

So Christians are called “to walk the way Adam was commanded to walk” in order that God may give us eternal life.

However, if we recognize the biblical truth taught in LBCF/WCF 7.1, we will see that God gave Adam the law *as a covenant of works* to thereby earn eternal life. This is the “works principle” articulated in Lev 18:5. This principle is quoted by Paul as a contrast to the faith principle, not because it referred to a subjective legalistic attitude in the Judaizers, but because it referred to an objectively different means of obtaining a reward: works vs faith.

Owen explains that Rom 2:6-7, 13 is a further statement of this works principle:

The words there [Rom 2:7] are used in a law sense, and are declarative of the righteousness of God in rewarding the keepers of the law of nature, or the moral law, according to the law of the covenant of works. This is evident from the whole design of the apostle in that place, which is to convince all men, Jews and Gentiles, of sin against the law, and of the impossibility of the obtaining the glory of God thereby.
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/owen/vindicevang.i.xl.html

We are not hereon justified by the law, or the works of it… The meaning of it in the Scripture is, that only “the doers of the law shall be justified,” Romans 2:13; and that “he that does the things of it shall live by them,” chapter 10:5, — namely, in his own person, by the way of personal duty, which alone the law requires. But if we, who have not fulfilled the law in the way of inherent, personal obedience, are justified by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ unto us, then are we justified by Christ, and not by the law.

-The Doctrine of Justification

There is also a twofold justification before God mentioned in the Scripture. First, “By the works of the law,” Romans 2:13; 10:5; Matthew 19:16-19. Here unto is required an absolute conformity unto the whole law of God, in our natures, all the faculties of our souls, all the principles of our moral operations, with perfect actual obedience unto all its commands, in all instances of duty, both for matter and manner: for he is cursed who continues not in all things that are written in the law, to do them; and he that break any one commandment is guilty of the breach of the whole law. Hence the apostle concludes that none can be justified by the law, because all have sinned. Second, There is a justification by grace, through faith in the blood of Christ; whereof we treat. And these ways of justification are contrary, proceeding on terms directly contradictory, and cannot be made consistent with or subservient one to the other.

-The Doctrine of Justification

Timeline Snapshot of Justification Debate

Reading the comments online over the role of our works following John Piper’s words in his foreword for Thomas Schreiner can be a little confusing. The reality is, the comments you read are the tip of an iceberg. Under the water there is a vast labyrinth of debate over biblical, systematic, and historical theology. My goal, in this post, is to give you a snapshot of that labyrinth, as succinctly as I can. The end will include a recommended bibliography.

(Dates are approximate)

The list could go on for pages and pages, but hopefully this helps give a snapshot of what’s going on below the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t included here any of the response to this view, particularly that of Kline and his followers. Kline was the most vocal critique. However, Kline made some fundamental errors and intentionally rejected parts of the confession regarding the Covenant of Works. Thus his followers, though correct of justification by faith alone, are off the mark on other areas that make their response somewhat ineffective. A lot of what you’ll see online is argumentation between these two schools of thought, focused in WTS and WSC. I don’t fully side with either, though WSC does get sola fide correct.

In a subsequent post I will be reviewing Gaffin’s book and referring to this timeline. The key issue in this debate is the Covenant of Works/covenantal merit. The law/gospel antithesis is the Covenant of Works/Covenant of Grace distinction. When that is rejected, one must re-interpret what justification apart from works means. These men do so by arguing that the works Paul has in mind are works done with a sinful motive to earn reward. We are justified apart from those works, not because they are imperfect, but because we cannot earn anything from God. However, as James says, we are not justified by faith alone apart from works. What James is referring to is “the obedience of faith.” Paul and James are referring to the same justification, but they are referring to different works. Justification is apart from self-wrought works of merit, but not apart from Spirit-wrought works of faith (so they say).

It all starts with the rejection of the Covenant of Works.

[T]here is no place in Shepherd’s theology for anything like the dichotomy between law and gospel that lays at the foundation of justification sola fide for the Reformation. If there is no such thing as meritorious works, if Christ’s work was believing obedience, if the obedience of faith is the righteousness of faith, then we are clearly dealing with a system of doctrine that has no way to express the Reformation’s contrast between law and gospel. Such a system cannot consistently affirm the justification sola fide squarely built on this contrast.

Allegiance to The Westminster Confession is often understood as subscription to its “system of doctrine.” The Westminster Confession accurately represents the Reformation system of doctrine when it grounds its soteriology on a contrast between the law (“the covenant of works”) and the gospel (“the covenant of grace”). Shepherd has no place for such a structure in his theology and cannot, therefore, affirm consistently the “system of doctrine” taught in the Confession he cites so often in his writings.

Faith, Obedience, and Justification: Current Evangelical Departures, p. 186

Recommended Reading:

  1. The Current Justification Controversy O. Palmer Robertson
  2. A Companion to the Current Justification Controversy John W. Robbins
  3. Faith, Obedience, and Justification Samuel E. Waldron
  4. The Doctrine of Justification John Owen
  5. Can the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Be Saved? John R. Robbins
  6. Can the Presbyterian Church in America Be Saved? Sean Gerety
  7. The Changing of the Guard Mark W. Karlberg
  8. Christianity & Neo-Liberalism Paul Elliot
  9. The Emperor Has No Clothes Stephen Cunha
  10. Not Reformed At All John W. Robbins & Sean Gerety

Guy Waters on Leviticus 18:5

I recently had the pleasure of joining Pascal Denault to interview Guy Waters for the Confessing Baptist Podcast. We discussed his chapter in The Law is Not of Faith titled “Romans 10:5 and the Covenant of Works” which can also be found online here.

Waters’ goal is to demonstrate that in this crucial text, Paul is contrasting the Adamic Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. Waters concludes “Defining ‘law’ at Romans 10:5 as the decrees and commandments of the moral law operating within the covenant of works explains otherwise knotty questions in the passage… It is when one sees that Paul is engaging the moral law’s precepts as they function within the covenant of works that he can understand that Paul affirms the whole Scripture to bear univocal witness to Jesus Christ and his “righteousness” for sinners.” His burden is to demonstrate the grievous error of those who deny the existence of a Covenant of Works: “Some within the Reformed churches are gravitating toward monocovenantalism (often not without grave consequences for their doctrine of justification). To those interested in engaging that position biblically, the bicovenantalism of Romans 10:4-8 surely ought to play a central role in that engagement. At stake is nothing less than the ‘word of faith which we preach’ (10:8).”

Paul’s concern for the law, as Romans 10:5 indicates, is the commandments and precepts of the moral law.What does this mean for a definition of the word telos? While it is a thoroughly Pauline teaching that Christ is the goal of the law, or the one to whom the law points (whether considered as a covenantal administration or as commandments and precepts), that is not what Paul is claiming here. He is claiming that Christ is the “termination” of the law to the believer. Paul, however, is not affirming that the believer is thereby altogether free from the commandments and precepts of the law. Paul is no antinomian. The law as precept continues to bind believers. He is, however, claiming that the believer is free from the law’s commandments as they bring life to the one who perfectly performs them and condemnation to the one who fails to meet this standard. He is, in other words, freed from the law as it functions within the covenant of works.

But arriving at this biblical conclusion faces a serious challenge: Paul quotes from the Mosaic Covenant to establish both principles (faith and works). This raises three problems:

1) How can Paul apply the Mosaic Covenant to Gentiles?

2) Is the Mosaic Covenant therefore the Covenant of Works?

3) How can Paul legitimately appeal to the same covenant for both principles (faith and works)?

Waters answers the first question by demonstrating that there is overlap between the Mosaic law and the moral law that binds Gentiles as well.

While Paul concerns himself with the commandments found within the Mosaic law, he does not concern himself with commandments that are found only within the Mosaic law. This is evident from a few considerations. First, Paul’s argument in 10:4-13 is universal in scope. Paul affirms at 10:4 that Christ is the “end of the law to everyone who believes.” The righteousness of justification is not restricted to Jews only… Second, if the solution is universal, it stands to reason that what has occasioned that solution (the “problem”) is universal as well… The problem that Paul identifies, then, is one to which Moses gives expression, but is not one that Paul limits or restricts to the Jews, the recipients of the Torah…Paul, however, has affirmed that it is to the “law” that the problem of Jews and Gentiles has reference… Romans 1:18-3:20… Romans 2:12-15… What can be said of this “law” which is thus available to all men and women? This “law” can certainly be distinguished from the Mosaic law in its totality, since Gentiles are expressly said not to have the Mosaic law. Nevertheless, because Paul uses the term “law” to describe this standard available to the Gentiles, neither may one separate it from the Mosaic law…

How could Paul have derived a testimony regarding the moral law, revealed to Jews and Gentiles, from Leviticus 18:5? The answer is found in the overlap that exists between the moral law and the Mosaic law. Because of this overlap Paul can quote the Mosaic writings, deducing therefrom a principle that applies universally to Jews and Gentiles alike.

In answering the first question, Waters answers the second (“since Gentiles are expressly said not to have the Mosaic law”). In Romans 10:5, Paul is specifically making a point about the law as the universal Adamic Covenant of Works even though he is using an element of the Jewish Mosaic Covenant. He is not identifying the Mosaic Covenant with the Adamic Covenant of Works – they are two different covenants. But this raises a new question:

4) What is the relationship between the Adamic Covenant of Works and the Mosaic Covenant such that Paul can appeal to one to make a point about the other?

Answering this question requires Waters to answer question 3) first. Waters’ answer, as someone who holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith, is that Paul can appeal to the Mosaic Covenant to establish the principle of faith because the Mosaic Covenant is the Covenant of Grace. Old Testament saints were saved through the Mosaic administration of the Covenant of Grace, which is the same in substance as the New Covenant (salvation by grace alone through faith alone). They differ only in their outward appearance.

John Murray observes that “[The problem that arises from this use of Lev. 18:5 is that the latter text does not appear in a context that deals with legal righteousness as opposed to that of faith.] Lev. 18:5 is in a context in which the claims of God upon his redeemed and covenant people are being asserted and urged upon Israel… [It] refers not to the life accruing from doing in a legalistic framework but to the blessing attendant upon obedience in a redemptive and covenant relationship to God.” If the Scripture teaches that the Mosaic administration is an administration of the covenant of grace, as the Westminster divines affirm (7.5), then how could Paul have interpreted Lev 18:5 as he has? How could he have taken a passage which, in context, appears to refer to the sanctificational works of a redeemed person within the covenant community, and apply this text to individuals seeking the righteousness of justification on the basis of their performance?… Has Paul misquoted Leviticus 18:5 at Romans 10:5?

Waters’ solution to this difficult question is that the moral law itself contains the works principle, and since both the Covenant of Works and the (Mosaic) Covenant of Grace contain the moral law, Paul can quote it from Moses to establish his point about Adam. In other words, in his quotation of Leviticus 18:5, Paul is “abstracting” the moral law from it’s context in the Covenant of Grace and thereby showing what the moral law by itself says.

Paul considers the moral demands of the law, in distinction from the gracious covenant in which they were formally promulgated, to set forth the standard of righteousness required by the covenant of works.* This is not to say that Paul believed that God placed Israel under a covenant of works at Mount Sinai. Nor is it to say that the apostle regarded the Mosaic covenant itself to have degenerated, by virtue of Israel’s unbelief and rebellion, into a covenant of works. Nor is it to say that Paul understood that God gave the Decalogue specifically or the Mosaic legal code generally as a covenant of works separate from a gracious Mosaic covenantal administration.

That Paul is here engaging the Mosaic Law as it articulates the standard of righteousness set forth by the covenant of works is a venerable interpretation. It is also one enshrined by the proof-texts of the Westminster Standards. The Assembly cited Rom 10:5 as proof for the following confessional declarations: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity…” (WCF 7.2); “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it” (WCF 19.1). Tellingly, the Assembly does not cite Rom 10:5 as proof for the covenant of works simpliciter. Rom 10:5 is proof, rather, for the moral law which lies at the heart of the covenant of works. The identification in view, then, is not between the Mosaic Covenant and the Covenant of Works as covenantal administrations. The identification is twofold. First, the moral law set forth in the covenant of works is substantially identical with the moral law set forth in the Mosaic Covenant. Second, the connection between “obedience” and “life” expressed by the moral law in the covenant of works is an abiding one. The moral law set forth in the Mosaic Covenant continues to express that connection.

If this historical proposal is tenable, then it goes a long distance towards resolving a number of exegetical and theological difficulties that have attended recent study of the apostle Paul. The question before us, then, is this – is this proposal exegetically tenable? In other words, is this what the apostle Paul is arguing at Rom 10:5?

*This position set forth in this chapter is essentially that argued by Anthony Burgess: “The law (as to this purpose) may be considered more largely, as that whole doctrine delivered on Mount Sinai, with the preface and promises adjoined, and all things that may be reduced to it; or more strictly, as it is an abstracted rule of righteousnesse, holding forth life upon no termes, but perfect obedience. Now take it in the former sense, it was a Covenant of grace; take it in the latter sense, as abstracted from Moses and his administration of it, and so it was not of grace, but workes”

So, is this proposal exegetically tenable? No, I do not believe it is. It contradicts a foundational aspect of the system of theology presented in the Westminster Confession. The Confession teaches a distinction between the moral law and the moral law as a covenant of works. 7.1 teaches that man has a natural obligation to obey God’s commands (the law). However, he cannot expect anything in return for that obedience. He is merely doing what is expected as a servant/slave (read the proof texts). This is expected of all image bearers (WCF 19.5). But God condescended to offer man a reward for that same obedience. This condescended reward, which was added to the moral law, was expressed by way of covenant. Adam was changed from a servant/slave to a wage earner (Rom 4:4) who could now earn a reward by his obedience. That reward was “life” – that is, eternal life without the possibility of sinning; an eternal sabbath rest. That is the covenant of works. That is the “works principle”: earning a reward by one’s works. WCF 19.1 says “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works…” (For more on this, see here and here.)

But because the works principle is something added to the moral law by covenant, the same moral law can be applied in a different way in a different covenant (the covenant of grace). Thus the Westminster Confession teaches that “This law, after [Adam’s] fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai…” (19.2). Though the Covenant of Works was broken, the moral law itself continued to lay forth the requirement for all image bearers (19.5). It “continued to be a perfect rule (guide) of righteousness” and that is how it was delivered on Mount Sinai – not as a covenant of works, but as a perfect rule of righteousness. As a result, “Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly…” (19.6) which is not “contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do[es] sweetly comply with it” (19.7).

To summarize, the law says “Do this.” The covenant of works (works principle) says “Do this, and live!

As we just saw, the Westminster Confession views the Mosaic Covenant as the Covenant of Grace and says the moral law functioned in the Mosaic Covenant as a perfect rule of righteousness, and not as a covenant of works. Waters’ argument is that Paul is quoting the moral law in the Mosaic Covenant and then abstracting it from it’s Mosaic context and applying it to the Adamic Covenant of Works to make a point about justification. But is Leviticus 18:5 simply the moral law (command)? No, it’s not.

You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 18:5 ESV)

From a simple grammatical standpoint, the first part of the verse is a command while the second part is a proposition commenting on that command.

Do this: You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules

and liveif a person does them, he shall live by them

From a theological standpoint, Lev. 18:5 is a statement of the law given as a covenant of works. It is not simply the moral law itself. Furthermore, Paul is only quoting the latter half of the verse – the works principle – not a command. Thus, according to Westminster’s system of theology concerning the law (which is shared by the LBCF and I believe is biblical), Paul must not be abstracting the moral law from its covenantal context but must be specifically appealing to its covenantal context. And because Leviticus 18:5 is not simply a command that can be applied in a covenant of works or a covenant of grace (“You shall not steal”), but is a statement of the works principle (“If you do not steal you will live” cf. Gal 3:12), the only conclusion we can come to is that the Mosaic Covenant is a covenant of works. And thus Westminster’s system of theology is self-contradictory.

And thus Paul is not misquoting Leviticus 18:5. He is correctly contrasting a covenant of works (righteousness based on the law) with the covenant of grace (righteousness based on faith). Which brings us to our final unanswered question 2) Is the Mosaic Covenant therefore the Covenant of Works? No, it is not. It is a covenant of works but it is not the Covenant of Works. The two covenants differ in their contracting parties and in their reward. The Adamic Covenant of Works was made with Adam as the federal head of all mankind. The Mosaic covenant of works was made with Abraham’s physical offspring. The Adamic Covenant of Works offered eternal life upon the doing of the law (perfectly). The Mosaic covenant of works offered temporal life and blessing in the land of Canaan upon the doing of the law (outwardly). For more on this distinction, see here and here.

Finally, if Paul correctly appeals to Moses to establish the works principle, how can he also appeal to Moses to establish the faith principle? Well, quite simply, in the words of Scottish Presbyterian John Erskine (1765) “We must not imagine that everything in Moses’ writings relates to the Sinai covenant.” Paul’s appeal to the faith principle comes from Deuteronomy 30:12-14. Another chapter in The Law is Not of Faith by Bryan Estelle titled “Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 30:1-14 in Biblical Theological Development” argues precisely what we have said thus far:

In a word, the life promised upon condition of performing the statues and judgments in its immediate context in Leviticus here [referring to Lev. 18:5] is “the covenantal blessing of abundant (and long) life in the land of Israel.” (Sprinkle)… There is a real connection that exists between the obedience/disobedience of Israel and tenure in the land… the biblical evidence is incontrovertible…

The Bible asserts and scholars have recognized that pollution and defilement of the land could build up and reach intolerable states, triggering the sanctions and leading to banishment. Not only exile is in view, but also ultimate extirpation symbolized in the destruction of the Herodian temple in AD 70 and the potential rejection of the chosen people.

Estelle then contrasts this with the solution to such a dire situation:

Leviticus 18:5’s influence on Ezekiel is of paramount importance. The purpose of these echoic allusions in Ezekiel is to show that what Israel has failed to do, God will do… Leviticus 18 allusions are seen throughout the entire book of Ezekiel and not merely restricted (as often) to chapter 20 of Ezekiel where three citations of Lev 18:5 have frequently been noted…

[In Ezekiel there is a] reversal of fortunes based on divine initiative… In short, there is a “composition connection between the unfulfilled ‘statutes and ordinances’ in chapters 18 and 20 with their fulfillment in 36.27 and 37.24; likewise, there is a connection with the ‘life’ unattained by Israel in chapters 18, 20, and 33 and Israel’s ‘life’ in 37.1-14″ (Sprinkle) Whereas Israel’s failure to fulfill the stipulations is highlighted repeatedly in Ezekiel 1-24, there is a dramatic reversal of this failure through divine initiative and fulfillment in Ezekiel 36-37… In short, divine causation replaces the conditions incumbent upon the people. What they are unable to perform in and of themselves, Yahweh will accomplish through his own divinely appointed agency.

Like Waters, Estelle recognizes that there is overlap between the Jewish Mosaic law and the universal moral law, and thus while Leviticus 18:5 in its immediate context refers to life in the land of Canaan, it alludes to the eternal life offered in the Adamic Covenant of Works, and thus the problem all mankind faces. Bringing all of this together, Estelle writes about Deuteronomy 30:1-14 (the section Paul quotes):

[T]his amazing passage anticipates ahead of time the plight of which the Israelite nation will find itself, destitute and unable to fulfill the stipulations of the covenant on its own. It also describes the new measure of obedience – accomplished by divine initiative – in which they will satisfy the conditions hanging over them. Finally, when Paul creatively brings these two significant passages (i.e., Lev 18:5 and Deut. 30) into closer proximity to one another (Rom 10:1-12), the mystery of the divine plan for fulfillment emerges from the shadows and into the light…

In Deut 10:16, the people are commanded to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts and not stiffen their necks any longer. Verse 6 of Deut 30, however, is no mere allusion to that passage! On the contrary, new covenant language and imagery permeate this Deuteronomy passage because it is clear that divine initiative will supersede human impotence… Verse 8 declares that when God himself circumcises hearts, “you [fronted in the Hebrew] will repent and you will obey the voice of the LORD and you will do all his commandments.” This will happen with the coming of the Spirit in the gospel age…

Just as Leviticus 18:5 is taken up in later biblical allusions and echoes, so also is this Deuteronomy passage. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, the language of the new covenant that was cloaked in the circumcision of heart metaphor is unveiled in this classic passage. I argued above that Deuteronomy 30:1-14 is a predictive prophecy of the new covenant, and, therefore, all that was implicit there becomes explicit in Jeremiah 31. In verse 31, Jeremiah says this will happen “in the coming days” and in verse 33 he says “after these days”; both refer to the new covenant, messianic days.

This new covenant, however, is going to be unlike the old covenant with respect to breaking. The old covenant was a breakable covenant, it was made obsolete… The reader is obliged to say that a works principle in the old covenant was operative in some sense because the text clearly states that it was a fracturable covenant, “not like the one they broke.” Here indeed was a covenant that was susceptible to fracture and breakable! They broke it at Sinai (Ex. 32), and they did it time and again until that old covenant had served its purposes. For the one who holds a high view of God directing history, there must be something going on here…

…the point is that the whole old covenant order will be annihilatedit will be wiped out, and it will go down in judgment as a modus operandi.  The new covenant is not like that: it is not subject to breaking because it is built upon God’s initiative to complete it and Christ’s satisfaction in his penalty-paying substitution and his probation keeping. His merit is the surety of the new covenant promises, and therefore it cannot fail. The old Sinaitic covenant by way of contrast is built upon a very fallible hope, and therefore is destined to fail since Israel individually and corporately could not fulfill its stipulations.

Thus Paul can quote Deuteronomy 30:12-14 to establish the faith principle of the Covenant of Grace in opposition to the works principle in the Mosaic and Adamic covenants of works because Deuteronomy 30 is a prophecy of the New Covenant, and the New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace, by which all saints from all time, OT and NT, have been saved.

“The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant.”
-Owen
I greatly appreciate Waters’ work in this essay and his other writings. He rightly understands the necessity of properly understanding the Covenant of Works if we are to properly understand the gospel, and he defends that as best he can. But he is crippled by a self-contradictory covenant theology. A more consistent covenant theology, 1689 Federalism, provides a more robust and biblical defense of “the word of faith which we preach.”