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Federal Vision Baptists?

December 3, 2019 13 comments

Prefatory Note: The main purpose of this post is not to tell others how to direct their affairs or to pronounce what actions are tolerable or intolerable. The purpose of this post is to show as clearly as possible what people believe. What one chooses to do with that information is up to them.

We find ourselves in a rather complicated mess. R. Scott Clark says that the Federal Vision has never gone away and that “there seems to be emerging an alliance between conservative Baptists and Federal Visionists,” pointing to the recent ReformCon hosted by Apologia Church as well as the documentary being produced by Founders. James White (an elder at Apologia) responded by calling Clark a Reformed Fundie who is unable to distinguish between things that divide (the essentials) and things that don’t (adiaphora) – the implication being that Apologia Church does not disagree with the Federal Vision men they associate with on the essentials. White has insisted that his points of disagreement with Wilson have been made known through debates they have had. He also argues

Anybody who suggests that myself or Apologia Church are promoting Federal Visionism obviously doesn’t understand what it is… as Dr. Clark summarized it ‘In by baptism, kept in by works,’… We cannot be Federal Visionists because you’re never in by baptism. We don’t believe in infant baptism. We don’t believe that baptism is that mechanism by any stretch of the imagination. So we must just be so stupid that we don’t get it that we’re promoting people that are actually teaching it right under our noses. (1:27:15)

Clark replied

This second objection is not true logically or actually. There is no reason a Baptist could not affirm all of the five points [of the Federal Vision] listed above.

What are we to make of all this?

R. Scott Clark

First, I want to be abundantly clear that I am not an R. Scott Clark “fanboy.” Anyone who follows me online knows that is the last thing I could be described as. Clark banned me from his blog ages ago (7+ yrs?) and of course blocked me on Twitter as well (but at this point who hasn’t he blocked?). I concur with Steven Wedgeworth when he says

It has become increasingly clear that Dr. Clark is an untrustworthy guide when it comes to historical theology… Dr. Clark’s most recent Twitter activity has also raised eyebrows because of the dissonance between his claim to academic authority and the contents of his arguments which are usually not supported by the primary historical sources.

This is true of Clark on a variety of topics (see here for example, as well as here). Robert Strimple even had to write a memo to the WSC faculty chastising Clark for his poor historical theology claims. No one should trust Clark’s analysis of anything.

But does that mean everything he says is wrong?

Federal Vision or Neonomianism?

Clark summarizes the Federal Vision in 5 points:

  1. There is no covenant of works before the fall. The covenant of grace was established before the fall and continues after the fall.
  2. The conditions of the covenant with Adam are the conditions for Christians: faithfulness.
  3. Because there is no distinction between those who are in “the covenant” only externally those who are also in the covenant internally, at baptism every baptized person is endowed with all that we need to persevere and retain what we have been given.
  4. Those who cooperate sufficiently with grace will finally persevere and shall have been elected.
  5. It is possible for those who were truly united to Christ to fall away (apostatize).

Though Wedgeworth argues this does not capture all of what Federal Vision entails, it does represent the main problems – though some FV men like Wilson have sort of walked back and qualified 3-5 (maybe, kind of, not really?). These aspects of the Federal Vision can be put into two categories: neonomianism and the objectivity of the covenant. Federal Vision is a species of neonomianism, distinguished by its view of the objectivity of the covenant of grace. Points 1-2 above mostly deal with neonomianism more broadly while points 3-5 deal with FV’s particular species of neonomianism.

White has focused on the fact that Apologia cannot possibly hold to FV because they completely reject 3 (and the points that follow from it: 4-5). Their view is, in fact, diametrically opposed to FV on this point: the New Covenant is only “internal.” So White is correct that Apologia does not and cannot hold to the Federal Vision.

Clark says

[S]ome Baptists have taught part or all of the FV theology, e.g., John Armstrong was a Baptist when affirmed Norman Shepherd’s doctrine of justification.3 Don Garlington has long affirmed something like the Federal Vision theology.4 The same is true for Daniel Fuller, who has strongly influenced John Piper.5 The latter is actively teaching a two-stage doctrine of salvation in which the final stage of salvation is “by works.”6

Notice that Clark says some Baptists have taught part or all of the FV theology (the 5 points listed), but then only gives examples of Baptists who have held part of the listed points (as far as I know). So what Clark is really arguing is that Baptists can hold to part of FV – the neonomian part. Wedgeworth notes

He has reduced everything back to the Norman Shepherd controversy, and this shows us what he is really up to. All of Dr. Clark’s points are ways to highlight his classic theological foil, neonomianism. This is why he can extend the FV name to someone like John Piper. Dr. Clark is not really talking about the Federal Vision. He is talking about neonomianism… And importantly, it is entirely possible for a form of neonomianism to be present within a kind of Reformed Baptist system, while it would be impossible for FV to be present in one. So Dr. Clark ought to cut to the chase and lead with the term neonomian.

Perhaps Clark has chosen to frame this all as a matter of the Federal Vision because numerous Presbyterian denominations have officially denounced the teaching. But framing this all as a matter of Federal Vision has hindered a meaningful conversation (especially with those who are not aware of the intricacies and history – such as White’s assistant Rich Pierce, who openly mocked the very idea that those official reports by paedobaptists can offer any meaningful critique of a paedobaptist error like FV).

If Clark is really just talking about neonomianism, then that changes the discussion entirely.

Neonomianism

As Clark noted, Norman Shepherd (John Murray’s successor to the chair of systematic theology at WTS) was caught in the mid-70s teaching students that we are justified by faith and works. In a 1975 faculty discussion, Shepherd affirmed that works are an instrument of our justification.

Later, after he was understandably criticized for using this language, he modified his language to justification through our faithfulness [“Obedience is simply faithfulness to the Lord; it is the righteousness of faith.” (The Call of Grace 39)]. He and others became convinced that Romans 2:13, which says, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (ESV) [refers to believers at the final judgment].

Shepherd continued to teach for 7 more years at WTS before he was removed, after which he joined the CRC to avoid a trial in the OPC. However, his beliefs continued to have great influence. In 2001 the OPC added Rom 2:13 as a proof text for WLC90, which states

Q. 90. What shall be done to the righteous at the day of judgment?

A. At the day of judgment, the righteous, being caught up to Christ in the clouds, shall be set on his right hand, and there openly acknowledged and acquitted, shall join with him in the judging of reprobate angels and men, and shall be received into heaven, where they shall be fully and forever freed from all sin and misery; filled with inconceivable joys, made perfectly holy and happy both in body and soul, in the company of innumerable saints and holy angels, but especially in the immediate vision and fruition of God the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, to all eternity. And this is the perfect and full communion, which the members of the invisible church shall enjoy with Christ in glory, at the resurrection and day of judgment.

Shepherd’s denial of sola fide is rooted in a rejection of what he calls the “works-merit” paradigm.

The biblical paradigm, I would suggest to you, is one that is consistently covenantal without the schizophrenic antithesis between the covenant of works and an antithetical covenant of grace… Proverbs 12:28 “In the way of righteousness there is life. Along that path is immortality” That is salvation by grace in the Old Testament and it is also salvation by grace in the New Testament. The works-merit paradigm has no way of accounting for those words in Proverbs 12:28. In terms of that paradigm this is nothing but salvation by merit or works, but it’s presented to us in the bible as gospel.

(What’s All the Fuss, Lecture 2)

What Shepherd refers to as the “works-merit” paradigm is also known as the law/gospel distinction, referring to the two ways of obtaining eternal life. Shepherd accurately summarizes this view:

Covenant theology became a distinctive mark of the Reformed faith, and the distinction between law and gospel corresponds broadly to the distinction between covenant of works and covenant of grace… That is to say, Adam would earn or achieve whatever eschatological blessing and privilege was held out to him on the ground of perfect law keeping. In this covenant, justification is by works, that is, by the meritorious performance of good works… In the covenant of grace that now takes the place of the pre-fall covenant of works, they are justified and saved on the ground of Christ’s perfect obedience imputed to them and received by faith alone. Faith is the only condition operative in the covenant of grace, and it is not a meritorious condition but an instrumental condition… R. C. Sproul summarizes this commonly received view with these words: “Man’s relationship to God in creation was based on works. What Adam failed to achieve, Christ, the second Adam, succeeded in achieving. Ultimately the only way one can be justified is by works.”

(Law and Gospel in Covenantal Perspective)

However, he rejects this view as unbiblical.

I would like to offer a different way of looking at the Adamic covenant… The issue in the probation was whether Adam… would live by faith or perish in unbelief… He would live and live forever not by the merit of his works but by faith. He would exhibit the principle stated in Habakkuk 2:4 and reiterated by Paul in Romans 1:17, “The righteous will live by faith.” Whatever blessing was in store for him was not a reward to be earned by performance but a gift to be received by faith… Paul writes in Romans 4:4, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” [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. The Lord God did not and never does deal with his image bearers in terms of a principle of works and merit but ever and always in terms of a principle of faith and grace. Faith for Adam was what true faith always is, a living and active faithThe method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall: “The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17)… If we ask how sinners are saved under the Mosaic covenant, the answer is clear enough… They are both justified and sanctified by the law, and that is to say they are justified and sanctified by grace through faith… This is not salvation by the merit of good works because the Lord does not deal with us on the basis of works and merit, and never did… God’s children have always lived by grace through faith, both before and after the fall into sin…

From a covenantal perspective, however, law and gospel are not antithetically opposed… In the application of redemption, law and gospel are simply the two sides of the covenant, promise and obligation. All that God promises is a pure gift of sovereign grace, and he leads us into possession of what he has promised by way of a penitent and obedient faith.

(Law and Gospel in Covenantal Perspective)

Note very, very, very well: If “the method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall” then justification by faith alone takes on an entirely different meaning. If someone follows Shepherd’s paradigm, then their affirmation of justification by faith alone is not enough because they mean something different by that phrase. One must press deeper for more elaboration as to what is and is not meant. This is nothing new in the history of theological dispute. Biblical or established terminology is used in an unbiblical or new manner prompting a precise, systematic elaboration of what that terminology does and does not mean. That is not splitting hairs or witch hunting. That is doing theology.

When they say “justification by faith alone” they mean “justification by faithfulness.” Justification apart from works of the law takes on a new meaning in Shepherd’s paradigm. “Works of the law” becomes a reference to something subjective within an individual, not to anything objective in the law. It is argued that the works Paul has in mind are works done with a sinful motive to earn reward. We are justified apart from those works, not because they are imperfect, but because we cannot earn anything from God – hence they are not works done in faith. “Works of the law” are works done without faith. Shepherd says they are

works done in the strength of human flesh in order to obtain the justifying verdict of God… These works of the law were not good works; they were not the obedience of faith wrought by the power of God.

Justification by Faith in Pauline Theology

We must compare Paul with what James says: we are not justified by faith alone apart from works. What James is referring to is “the obedience of faith.” Paul and James are referring to the same justification, but they are referring to different works. Justification is apart from misunderstood, self-wrought works of merit, but not apart from Spirit-wrought works of faith (so they say).

In his PhD dissertation (published 2006), Reformed Baptist scholar Samuel E. Waldron summarizes

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

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

The classic articulation of justification sola fide is found in the Reformation tradition. To affirm sola fide and not mean by this phrase what it meant for the whole Reformation tradition is simply misleading. The fact is, however, that this is exactly what Garlington, Fuller, and Shepherd actually do. They do not hold the definition of justifying faith held by the Reformation tradition. They do not hold the distinction between justifying faith and evangelical obedience held by the Reformation tradition. They do not hold the dichotomy between law and gospel held by the Reformation tradition. They do not hold sola fide in any of its fundamental characteristics in the tradition. They do not hold justification sola fide in any familiar or meaningful sense. Their affirmation of sola fide, then, only serves to cloud and confuse the true meaning and real purport of their theologies.

Faith, Obedience, and Justification: Current Evangelical Departures, p. 186, 231

Now why would a Reformed Baptist scholar (currently Academic Dean and Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary) choose to do his PhD work on a topic that is irrelevant to baptists? Clearly he thought it was relevant. His dissertation critiques Norm Shepherd, Daniel Fuller (baptist), and Don Garlington (baptist). Garlington was originally one of Waldron’s teachers at the reformed baptist Trinity Ministerial Academy (Al Martin). Waldron clearly saw a connection between these three men’s rejection of sola fide as well as a relevance to his ministry such that it was worth understanding and refuting Shepherd’s ideas. It was not merely an intra-Presbyterian squabble. Waldron obviously shares Clark’s concern over Shepherdism’s ability to influence baptists. This is not a matter of adiaphora.

Neonomianism at ReformCon?

Of course, that raises the question as to whether or not any of the speakers at ReformCon could be said to 1) hold to Shepherd-shaped neonomianism, and 2) be teaching something at ReformCon related to Shepherd-shaped neonomianism (which is hard to determine since the talks have not been posted online – UPDATE: someone let me know the talks have been trickling in on the Apologia YouTube page. I missed that. I’ll give them a listen as soon as I can).

P. Andrew Sandlin

Sandlin was a speaker at ReformCon. His lectures are also part of the academy offered to supporters/subscribers of Apologia Radio. He is ordained in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity. He is Founder and President of the Center for Cultural Leadership. He is a disciple of Norman Shepherd. He was the editor (together with John Barach) of Obedient Faith: A Festschrift to Norman Shepherd (published by the Center for Cultural Leadership), self-described as “A tribute by students and friends to a courageous theologian’s lifelong stand for a full-orbed, obedient Christianity.” He has a chapter in it titled “Sola Fide: True and False.”

He was also editor of Backbone of the Bible: Covenant in Contemporary Perspective. It includes 2 chapters by Shepherd himself (“Justification by Faith in Pauline Theology” and “Justification by Works in Reformed Theology”) and 1 chapter by Sandlin titled “Covenant in Redemptive History: ‘Law and Gospel’ or ‘Trust and Obey’?” In this essay, Sandlin says

The interpretation I offer swerves at points from certain traditional categories. This fact should not be unduly troubling. We Protestants affirm the Bible, not tradition, as the final authority for what we believe and teach and practice… I believe that the Bible presents at root one gospel, one law, one salvation, one ethic, one hope, one faith, all ensconced in one message. This puts me at odds with both traditional dispensationalism and traditional covenant theology. There is no fundamental gospel-law distinction [italics original]…

In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve that they could eat of all the trees except one-the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2: 16-17). We also know that if they ate of the tree of life, they would have lived forever or gained eternal life (Genesis 3:22). I do not believe this has anything to do with what is traditionally termed a prelapsarian (or pre-Fall) “covenant of works”: that eternal life was something man was rewarded as merit for his obedience. Before the Fall, this view alleges, man was to merit eternal life and afterward Christ must merit it for us. I disagree with Charles Hodge when he asserts that the Bible presents two ways of gaining eternal life, one by works and one by faith… There are not two ways of gaining eternal life, one in the prelapsarian era and one in the postlapsarian era… There is only one way of obtaining eternal life, and there has always been only one way… Eternal life, even in the prelapsarian period, was of grace, and not of merit. Faith and obedience were the means of gaining eternal life, but not the ground [italics original]… the ground of eternal life in the prelapsarian era is the grace of God. What is its instrument and means? I believe that they are really no different than in the subsequent eras-faith in the Lord, accompanied by obedience, and, in fact, a faith that is itself an act of obedience…

Now, this conviction relating to the prelapsarian era has specific implications for the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ.22 [Footnote points readers to the Christus Victor model of atonement] If eternal life is not something that Adam merited, and if it is not something that man could even conceivably merit (Galatians 3:21), it is not, therefore, something that Jesus Christ himself merited. There is simply no such thing as a meritorious basis of eternal life, and there is no such thing as a meritorious soteriology. It is simply a fiction… [E]ternal life was not something that Jesus was “rewarded” for being extraordinarily virtuous… The righteousness that becomes ours as we are mystically united to him by faith alone is a love-filled, law-keeping righteousness: a faithful trust and reliance on the Father that necessarily issues in good works…

Christ alone saves, and those who place faith in him will obey the law. This, I believe, is the meaning of Romans 2:13: that not the hearers of the law are justified, but the doers of the law are justified. Paul is not setting up a theoretical basis of justification, but an actual basis of justification…

[W]hen you boil it right down, that there is no fundamental distinction between gospel and law.

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

Toby Sumpter / CrossPolitic / Doug Wilson

Toby Sumpter was a speaker at ReformCon. He is an elder at Doug Wilson’s church. He is a proponent of the Federal Vision (though recently criticizing some FV men). I have not read anything to indicate he disagrees with Wilson.

CrossPolitic did a live recording at ReformCon. It is a podcast offering commentary on current political and cultural issues in America hosted by Sumpter and two other members of Christ Church. I have not read anything to indicate these men disagree with their pastor, Wilson.

Since Wilson has written the most on this issue and he is (rightly) a center of focus because of his tremendous influence on Apologia Church (even though he was not at ReformCon), I will address his beliefs. I hope that I do so accurately. It is not an easy task because Wilson is often given to rhetorical flair that is unhelpful in determining precise theological matters. Furthermore, his book Reformed is Not Enough helped spark the Federal Vision controversy when it was written in 2002, but since that time one has to dig through his blog to find any changes, clarifications, or developments in his thought in response to critics. He has made all of his relevant blog posts available in a volume titled The Auburn Avenue Chronicles. It totals 950 pages and contains no organization other than sequential ordering of posts by date originally posted on his blog. It is hardly congenial to properly understanding his beliefs. I hope I have grasped his position and I am open to correction on anything I have misunderstood.

Federal Vision No Mas?

In 2017, Wilson decided to stop calling himself a Federal Vision proponent. Thankfully, he acknowledges “there were also a number of critics of the federal vision who were truly insightful and saw the implications and trajectories of certain ideas better than I did at the time.” The article addresses the fact that he wishes to distance himself from some other FV men whose trajectories he disagrees with. However, it is very important to note that “This statement represents a change in what I will call what I believe. It does not represent any substantial shift or sea change in the content of what I believe.”

Law/Gospel Distinction

Wilson follows Shepherd in rejecting the law(CoW)/gospel(CoG) distinction (two ways of obtaining eternal life). It can be confusing because most of Wilson’s comments specifically on the law/gospel distinction are directed against a slightly different law/gospel distinction (i.e. a division between promise and command, etc), though he rejects both ideas. Playing off of the 3 uses of the moral law, Wilson argues (like Shepherd) that the difference between law and gospel is in the human heart, not anything objective.

The Scripture is what it is, and contains both promises and imperatives… For the believer, even the Ten Commandments can be understood as gracious… For the unbeliever, even the message of the cross is foolishness, an intolerable demand. So that, in a nutshell, is what I think is going on with law and gospel… There is a vast difference between a law/gospel hermeneutic, which I reject heartily and with enthusiasm, and a law/gospel application or use, which is pastoral, prudent and wise.

The Law/Gospel Study Bible, Coming Soon

This was expressed in the Joint Federal Vision Statement (which Wilson helped author, signed, and still affirms).

Law and Gospel

We affirm that those in rebellion against God are condemned both by His law, which they disobey, and His gospel, which they also disobey. When they have been brought to the point of repentance by the Holy Spirit, we affirm that the gracious nature of all God’s words becomes evident to them. At the same time, we affirm that it is appropriate to speak of law and gospel as having a redemptive and historical thrust, with the time of the law being the old covenant era and the time of the gospel being the time when we enter our maturity as God’s people. We further affirm that those who are first coming to faith in Christ frequently experience the law as an adversary and the gospel as deliverance from that adversary, meaning that traditional evangelistic applications of law and gospel are certainly scriptural and appropriate.

We deny that law and gospel should be considered as hermeneutics, or treated as such. We believe that any passage, whether indicative or imperative, can be heard by the faithful as good news, and that any passage, whether containing gospel promises or not, will be heard by the rebellious as intolerable demand. The fundamental division is not in the text, but rather in the human heart.

Joint Federal Vision Statement

I see that all Scripture can only be interpreted in one of two ways—either in faith or in unbelief. The division is therefore in the human heart, and never in the divine heart.

CREC Examination, Page 10

Based on this, Wilson (like Shepherd) makes a distinction between works of the law and obedience to the law.

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 (This quote is missing from Doug’s post as it currently appears on his blog, but it was part of the post when it first appeared. See here for a slight revision of his statement.)

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

“Works of the law” are “autonomous works.” They are the result of a sinful perversion of the law. “Works of the law” are a sinful attempt to justify oneself through obedience without faith, unaided by God’s grace. (Thus “we are justified by faith apart from works of the law” means “we are justified by faith apart from an incorrect effort to obey without faith.”)

Covenant of Works

It is important to understand how this relates to the Covenant of Works. Wilson has a page on his blog called the Controversy Library. Section 4 contains resources addressing the question of justification by faith alone. Wilson points readers to his CREC “exam” as the best resource for understanding his position.

I believe the covenant of works mentioned in Chapter VII is badly named. I would prefer something like the covenant of life (WLC 20), or the covenant of creation. I believe that this covenant obligated Adam to whole-hearted obedience to the requirement of God. The one stipulation I would add is that, had Adam stood, he would have been required to thank God for His gracious protection and provision. And had Adam stood, he would have done so by believing the Word of God. In other words, it would all have been by grace through faith… [T]he “covenant of works” was not meritorious and we deny that any covenant can be kept without faith.

CREC Examination, Pages 1-2, 4

The “covenant of works” used here [WCF 19.1] is fine if the terms are defined, but the phrase itself is an unhappy one. It leads people to think it carries its own definition on its face, and hence folks think of some sort of salvation by works. This leads people to assume two different ways of salvation—grace and works.

Westminster Nineteen: Of the Law of God

Periodically, great Homer nods and I believe that is the case here. While there is no necessary problem with the doctrine, the Westminster divines have badly named this covenant. To call this covenant with Adam a covenant “of works” leads people to confuse it either with the Old Testament economy, or with pharisaical distortions of the law. This misunderstanding is evident in the scriptural reference given for this point [in Wilson’s view, the Scriptures cited refer to subjective Pharisaical misinterpretation of the law, not to any objective understanding of the law]. To call it works opposes it, in the scriptural terminology, to grace. But the covenant given to Adam prior to the Fall was in no way opposed to grace. It would be far better to call this pre-Fall covenant a covenant of creation. In this covenant, life was promised to Adam and his descendents as the fruit of perfect and personal obedience. But notice the word fruit—as a covenant of creation, grace is not opposed to it, and permeates the whole. If by “covenant of works” is meant raw merit, then we have to deny the covenant of works. But if this covenant made with Adam was inherently gracious (as many Reformed theologians have held), then the only problem is the terminological one. And, with regard to whether the covenant was gracious, a simple thought experiment will suffice. If Adam had withstood temptation successfully, would he have had any obligation to say “thank You” to God. If not, then it is not a gracious covenant. If so, then it was.

Westminster Seven: Of God”s Covenant With Man

The Reformed theologians Wilson refers to held that the establishment of the Covenant of Works was gracious (voluntary condescension).* Adam/man owed God obedience by nature without expecting any reward in return. However, God condescended to offer Adam a reward that could be earned by his obedience (This distinction is a point that Klineans like R. Scott Clark do not agree with, thus complicating the discussion. See here, here, and here. Wilson himself likewise does not see any distinction between nature and covenant, thus likely contributing to his converse error as well.). However, once that agreement was established, if Adam obeyed, God would owe him the reward as a matter of debt (this is true regardless of how much assistance Adam received from God to meet the obligation). The PCA Report on the Federal Vision notes

In the pivotal text of Romans 4:4, the idea of “what is due” need not invoke the idea that “what is due” has been earned by a work that is commensurate with the reward itself, but merely that there was a covenant which promised that reward if the work was performed. Thus, if Adam had obeyed in the probation, God would have owed him the reward of eternal life, because God had promised it to him on that condition.

REPORT OF AD INTERIM STUDY COMMITTEE ON FEDERAL VISION, NEW PERSPECTIVE, AND AUBURN AVENUE THEOLOGY, 2213

This is what Wilson rejects. It is not a terminological disagreement. It is a doctrinal disagreement.

The view we reject is that the covenant with Adam must be considered a covenant of works, based on Adam’s merit or demerit… A man cannot merit anything by grace through faith. But a man can obey by grace through faith.

Was Jesus Faithless?

*(Some reformed theologians have spoken of other nuanced ways in which God dealt graciously with Adam in the Adamic Covenant. However, none of these concepts negate the idea that Adam would have been owed eternal life as a debt upon successful probation.)

Justification by Faith Alone

How, then, does all of this relate to justification by faith alone? Wilson believes that if Adam had obeyed perfectly, he would have been justified by faith.

I believe that a man is justified by faith, through faith, to faith, under faith, and over faith. Furthermore, I believe that there has never been a time in the history of the world when this was not the case.

Semper Deformanda

Recall Shepherd, “the method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall.”

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

The first covenant was called a covenant of works in the Westminster Confession (7.2). I would prefer to call it a covenant of creational grace. The condition of covenant-keeping in this first covenant was to believe God’s grace, command, warnings, and promise… The second covenant is a covenant of redemptive grace. The thing that the two covenants have in common is grace, not works. The condition for keeping this covenant is the same as the first, although the circumstances are different. The condition always is to believe God.

A Short Credo on Justification

Recall what I said above. If “the method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall” then justification by faith alone takes on an entirely different meaning. What is that different meaning?

If Adam had stood the test, it would have been through the instrumentality of faith-animated obedience, graciously given by God.

Obedience and Works

Infused righteousness is an instrument of justification.

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

CREC Examination Q105

Compare the Joint FV Statement that Adam’s reward “would have been a gift of grace, received by faith alone” with Wilson’s statement that “If Adam had stood the test, it would have been through the instrumentality of faith-animated obedience.” The affirmation of faith alone does not mean faith apart from obedience.

True faith and works of obedience are never in opposition

Testimony on the MARS Testimony

Justification by Faith Alone

We affirm we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone. Faith alone is the hand which is given to us by God so that we may receive the offered grace of God. Justification is God’s forensic declaration that we are counted as righteous, with our sins forgiven, for the sake of Jesus Christ alone.

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

Joint Federal Vision Statement

Not only is “alone” defined differently, but so is “faith.” Note the inclusion of “living trust” and recall Shepherd “Faith for Adam was what true faith always is, a living and active faith.” By living trust, Federal Vision means faithfulness, covenant loyalty, obedience.

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

Obedience Unto Justification

Works/obedience is what makes faith saving/living.

[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

[OPC Report on Justification:] “14. Including works (by use of ‘faithfulness,’ ‘obedience,’ etc.) in the very definition of faith [is out of accord with Scripture].”

No. To include faithfulness in the very nature of living faith is not to intrude works. Faithful faith justifies. Faithless faith does not.

The OPC Report on the Federal Vision

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

The OPC Report on Justification notes

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.”

OPC Report on Justification, 26

If “the method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall” (faith alone) then justification by faith alone takes on an entirely different meaning. If someone follows Shepherd’s paradigm, then their affirmation of justification by faith alone is not enough because they mean something different by that phrase.

The Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ

Though Wilson follows Shepherd’s rejection of the law/gospel distinction as well as his understanding of faith as faithfulness (thus changing the meaning of justification by faith alone), he does not follow Shepherd in rejecting the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Shepherd argues that justification consists in the forgiveness of our sins and not the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.

The active obedience of Christ is not the meritorious ground of our salvation because, not because of any inadequacy in it or anything like that, but because there is no such thing in the bible as obtaining salvation by the merit of works. Salvation after the fall or the gift of eternal life before the fall was never granted on the basis of the merit of works but was always a free gift that is received by faith.

What’s All the Fuss, Lecture 2, @1:03:00

We do not need Christ’s active obedience because eternal life is not earned by righteousness! It is a free gift and has always been a free gift. Once we receive the forgiveness of our sins through faith in Christ, God also gives us the free gift of eternal life through that same faith. And because that living faith is faithfulness, the righteous shall live by faith (Rom 1:17) and the doers of the law shall be justified (Rom 2:13) at the last day. Adam’s probation was a test to see if he had that faith – the condition of the free gift of eternal life. He didn’t have that living, obedient faith, so he didn’t get the free gift!

Wilson, however, thinks we still need Christ’s active obedience, frequently quoting Machen’s deathbed statement that we have “no hope without it.”

Note that, in line with everything above, Wilson believes that Christ’s faith was his faithfulness was his obedience.

In an oral exam yesterday for one of our grad students, the phrase “faith of Jesus Christ” came up (Gal 2:16; 3:22), along with the question/debate of whether this refers to Jesus Christ’s faith or to our faith in Him. I have generally taken it as the former, but that is not my point here. The point here has to do with what comes along with that — what has to be part of that package, for those who read it that way.

First, there are multiple other passages that teach plainly that we are justified through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the instrument of sola fide, so that doctrine is not at stake in this discussion. But if we take it, in this instance, as “the faith of Jesus Christ,” another doctrine is at stake. This means that the apostle Paul is bluntly teaching us the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.

This debate concerns whether our justification is secured by the Lord’s suffering on the cross and His resurrection alone (known as the passive obedience of Christ), or whether we also have imputed to us the sinless, faithful life of Christ (His active obedience), throughout the course of His life. Those who would echo the words of Machen on his death bed, when he spoke about the active obedience of Jesus (“no hope without it”), have available to them, on this reading, a knock down text. How so?

This is because there would be no basis in this text for partitioning off the “faith of Jesus” to that time frame when He was on the cross. This is an expansive phrase. This is the new Israel, finally obeying God, finally walking through all the events of their history, and doing so in faith. Christ at His baptism, Christ resisting temptation for 40 days in the wilderness, Christ invading Canaan, and so on. Contrasted with the faithlessness of the old Israel, this is the faith of Jesus Christ. All of that is the “faith of Jesus Christ,” and all of that is our obedience now, our justification now, because it has been reckoned to us. No hope without it.

No Hope Without It

Note carefully that (in line with the rejection of any law/gospel distinction) Wilson believes Jesus’ faith (“the faith of Jesus”) is equivalent to Jesus’ active obedience to the law.

If it is undeniable that the New Testament shows Christ as the new Israel (and I believe it is), and if this is self-evidently because He is being the true Israel for us, so that we can be true Israelites in Him, it follows that we are participating in His obedient life. The perfect obedience that He rendered to God throughout the course of His life was a life lived before God, and He did it for us. This is nothing other than the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Jesus Christ…

A shorthand form of the doctrine of active obedience is that Christ’s obedience throughout the course of His sinless life has been imputed by the grace of God to me. I believe this is true, but there is a fuller way to explain it, and this fuller way makes the doctrine not only true, but one of Scripture’s primary truths. Christ’s obedience as the true Israel has been imputed to us, to all of us who are the Israel of God, and therefore to me. The reason I can be an Israelite and not be destroyed is Israel is now obedient. And whose obedience was this? How did it happen? The active obedience of Christ began with His miraculous birth, and His exile in Egypt, and His restoration from Egypt. Out of Egypt God called His Son. And when God called His Son, we came too.

Active Obedience as Thematic Structuring Device

Shepherd would say the reason I can be an Israelite and not be destroyed is because my sins have been forgiven by a sinless Israelite who bore my curse (passive obedience). Wilson hasn’t quite connected Shepherd’s dots. He still thinks Jesus had to obtain something by his faith, rather than, as Shepherd explains simply receive a gift. Wilson still has some law/gospel baggage infecting his view of the IAOC. Wilson says “He did it for us.” Did what? Had faith? So I don’t have to have faith? “Well, no. He had perfect, sinless faith.” Well so do I now that my sins are forgiven. So what exactly did Jesus do for me beyond bearing my curse?

If there has only ever been one way of obtaining eternal life (by grace alone through faith alone) then Jesus obtained eternal life the same way that we do: by grace alone through faith alone. There is nothing for Jesus to “do for us.” The only possible way there can be something for Jesus to “do for us” is if there are more than two ways of obtaining eternal life. The imputation of the active obedience of Christ necessarily requires the law/gospel distinction that Wilson rejects. He can only affirm the IAOC to the degree that he affirms an objective law/gospel distinction.


In light of all of the above, I cannot agree with Jeff Durbin that “Doug Wilson is one of the greatest blessings to the church in this modern era.” At best, Wilson is thoroughly confused on the gospel, having been deceived by Shepherd’s false teaching. At worst, he is a wolf “speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.”

Neonomianism and Culture

A driving passion of Apologia Church is to equip Christians to apply Scripture to every area of their lives. The theme of ReformCon 2019 was “Reformation and the Public Square.” I share their passion for developing and applying a Christian worldview. I get it. I was a Christian filmmaker (see here, here, and here) before becoming chronically ill and having to step away from that pursuit (I have written elsewhere on a Federal Vision influence in Christian film theory). I share Apologia’s rejection of VanDrunen’s dual ethic (natural law vs Scripture). I’ve been making similar criticism for a decade. I’m passionate about having a biblical understanding of justice and applying Scripture to politics and government. I’ve written extensively on issues related to it. I get it.

My concern, however, is in the details. My concern is that we properly guard the core of a Christian worldview: the Gospel. The ReformCon website says “With the guidance of some of the most influential Reformed thinkers of our day, we will spend two days soaking in pure and unadulterated Calvinistic delight while being equipped to take the good news of the Gospel into the public square.” I do not believe all of the speakers that Apologia Church chose to invite are Reformed and I do not believe they can equip anyone to take the good news of the Gospel into the public square as long as they believe another gospel. I do not think Apologia Church believes and teaches another gospel, but I do believe they are greatly influenced by those who do.

Joe Boot

As a case in point of how this teaching is influencing others, consider Joe Boot – another speaker at ReformCon. Rev. Dr. Joseph Boot (M.A., PhD) is a Christian thinker, cultural apologist/philosopher, founder of the Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity (EICC), and founding pastor of Westminster Chapel, Toronto. Boot’s passion is to equip Christians with worldview-thinking to apply Scripture to every area of their lives.

In a debate with Matthew Tuininga titled Two Kingdoms and Cultural Obedience, Boot argues

[T]he root of the theological error of two kingdoms theology, I think, is the idea that creation and man can be generalized as abstractions so God allegedly creates man in general. But I don’t think this is the case. Genesis 1-3 is part of the gospel and right in Genesis 1-3 you have the first seed promise of the gospel in Genesis 3:15…

Of course we know that Adam in the garden was a symbol of God’s power and judgment with the tree. It’s not that Adam was there to earn his salvation. He was actually made upright. There was nothing lacking in him. But he might forfeit it by disobedience. So we can, I suppose, talk of a Paradise Covenant between Adam and his Creator. God is the Lord. Adam is his creature. Any covenant between a greater and a lesser is already a covenant of grace. I put it to you there is no such thing ever as a covenant of works in Scripture whereby man is justifying himself – anywhere! He lived by God’s grace and favor. The good news of the evangelion is that God is Lord and King. That’s what it means. Now, Adam even believed that. He had to believe that and he walked in the favor of that. So God calls all men from Adam, through Noah, to the present to serve and obey him. He’s the same God. The covenant mandate was to develop and keep God’s creation in obedience to him and I don’t see any evidence in Scripture that that’s changed.

There were never two ways of obtaining eternal life. Only one. Before the Fall, Adam believed the Gospel! Where might Boot have learned such an idea? P. Andrew Sandlin works closely with Boot’s Ezra Institute, teaching at their Runner Academy. Sandlin notes “When I met Dr. Joseph Boot, leader of the Ezra Institute, I found a brother-in-arms. God knit our hearts together.”

It’s important to note that Boot is a baptist. He does not hold to the Federal Vision. But he is absolutely being influenced by Shepherdism’s neonomianism and it is directly impacting his view of how the Gospel relates to culture. Durbin says Boot is a spitting-image of him theologically and that every member of his church needs to read Boot’s “The Mission of God” because it is their manifesto. My intention is not to call for a boycott of Apologia. Far from it. If I lived in Phoenix, I would very likely be a member of Apologia (if they would have me). My desire is to offer some sharpening so that they may be more effective in their ministry and not be hindered by neonomianism influences in their systematic understanding of the Gospel and its relation to culture.

Theonomy

Apologia Church is very well known for their advocacy of theonomy. Wilson said that

this [FV controversy] was nothing more than a simple continuation of the theonomy fracas in the Reformed world a couple decades ago… During the original Shepherd controversy, he had strong support among the theonomists — Greg Bahnsen and Gary North, to mention two. North even devoted an entire book — Westminster’s Confession — defending Shepherd. Other supporters of Shepherd included such notables as Cornelius Van Til… In short, when you look at the scorecard, and take in the names of the players, you see a lot of the same names.

More to Being Reformed Than Believing in Jesus and Smoking Cigars

The link between theonomy and the Federal Vision is the rejection of the law/gospel distinction (CoW/CoG distinction). Rushdoony said

The Westminster Confession is one of the great documents of the Christian faith but at one point it has rightly been criticized over the years… This problem in the Westminster Confession is it’s concept of a covenant of works… Now it’s this idea of a covenant of works that is the problem in the confession and of course this doctrine has led to dispensationalism and a great many other problems. It is a deadly error to believe that any covenant that God makes with man can be anything other than a covenant of grace… So Paul is saying in Galatians 3:12 that when we walk in terms of covenant faithfulness we receive God’s blessing.

Lecture: Is There a Covenant of Works?

Steven Wedgeworth notes

Greg Bahnsen had died in 1995, well before the “Federal Vision” was its own project, but his own history shows a fairly strong pro-Shepherd but anti-Jordan disposition. Several of his friends and students went on to have some association with FV.

Bahnsen’s son David, while “combing through my late father’s files” found “evidence that Greg Bahnsen repudiated the notion that Norm Shepherd was a heretic, and in fact, embraced the core thesis of his work on justification, faith, and works (the heart of the controversy).” See his post for details.

Norm Shepherd was Bahnsen’s thesis advisor. Bahnsen initially had a strong law/gospel distinction – in fact his interpretation of Matt. 5:20 was far better than R. C. Sproul’s (lecture 309, I think). But as I show in this post, as time went on and Bahsen faced criticism of his thesis, he revised his law/gospel interpretation of key texts like Rom 10:4, coming to favor Shepherd and Daniel Fuller’s rejection of a law/gospel distinction (specifically telling people to read Fuller’s work for a full explanation; North notes the change in Bahnsen’s interpretation). Bahnsen also embraced Shepherd’s monocovenantalism as a crucial foundation to his theonomic thesis.

The perpetuity of God’s commandments follows from the eternality of His covenant of which they comprise an inalienable part… The law, both prior to and after the fall, is gracious… Continued blessing for Adam in paradise, Israel in the promised land, and the Christian in the kingdom has been seen to be dependent upon persevering obedience to God’s will as expressed in His law. There is complete covenantal unity with reference to the law of God as the standard of moral obligation throughout the diverse ages of human history.

Theonomy in Christian Ethics, p. 184, 235, 201-2

In the last couple of years, Joel McDurmon (former president of American Vision and Gary North’s son-in-law) has written two works critical of Bahnsen’s theonomy (Bounds of Love and Consuming Fire). Together they form a very good refutation while maintaining the same presuppositional view of justice, but they do so precisely because McDurmon is more cognizant of a law/gospel distinction. I highly encourage baptist theonomists to prayerfully consider his books and consider whether his view or Bahnsen’s is more consistent with a baptist understanding of covenant theology.

Spreading Among Baptists

Regretfully, Founders’ Ministries has lately been cooperating with CrossPolitic producer David Shannon (Chocolate Knox) in the production of a documentary on social justice called By What Standard? (Federal Visionist Marcus Pittman also directed parts of the documentary). Founders also invited Toby Sumpter to speak at and CrossPolitic to broadcast from a Founders’ conference on social justice. It appears to me that perhaps a large motivation for doing so was that these Federal Vision theonomists appear to have a solid, worked-out biblical standard of justice that baptists suddenly realize they are in need of. Personally, I believe their decision to work with these men was foolish. (in addition to the law/gospel problems under discussion, Federal Vision theonomists’ understanding of justice is actually unjust). I appreciate Founders and the stand they are taking against the social justice movement (see my 3-part series on social justice), but I personally think their choice of alliance was near-sighted. It seems to have already caused them significant problems and I believe it will continue to do so. (That said, I look forward to watching the documentary and I pray that it will bring much needed light to the social justice issue).

I received an email from Founders today asking for support (which I gave). The email noted “Over the last four years Founders has given even more attention to three areas of importance for spiritually strong churches: 1) confessionalism; 2) law and gospel; 3) pastoral theology.” They have a conference this week in Florida on the topic of Law & Gospel. The website for the conference says “Founders Ministries has been teaching a confessionally reformed and biblical view of the law and the gospel since 1983, and by God’s grace, will continue to do so. The need in the churches of God is as great now as it has ever been.” Hopefully this post will make it clear just how great that need is and, by God’s grace, they will address the law and gospel error currently closest to them.

CrossPolitic is scheduled to be a part of the next G3 conference as well.

Conclusion

One may object “At the end of the day, what practical difference does it make? If these men have helpful things to say about our current culture, can’t we just overlook these differences about the gospel?” The answer is no. A Christian’s understanding of how the law and the gospel relate is as practical as you can get. In the face of our collapsing culture’s rejection of God’s norms and the rising threat to Christians, it is easy to see ourselves as more righteous as others because we are the ones correctly understanding and applying God’s norms. We are the “doers of the law” (Rom 2:13), according to the men above. Sandlin notes

This is what God is doing in the earth; He is restoring and enhancing creation, what man lost in the Garden of Eden. The consummate kingdom will come in its fullness when the New Jerusalem descends to the resurrected earth in which both God and man will live eternally (Rev. 21:1-4). This is the kingdom populated by the blood-bought, the present deputies of the cultural mandate, whom God intended all along to be His people overspreading the globe and cultivating it for His glory. They will be victorious in this task, and then the Lord returns and the eternal state (on earth) begins.

The Eschatological Arc of Christian Apologetics

and

God didn’t abandon His cultural plan for the earth; He re-issued it to a newly redeemed people. “Because of the atoning consequences of the cross,” writes Scott J. Hafemann, “God is finally fulfilling His mission of revealing His glory through (re)creating a people who will exercise dominion in His name by keeping His commandments. [Whereas humanity failed in the garden and Israel fell in the wilderness, the church, under the sovereignty of Christ, who is ‘the ruler of kings on earth,’ will fill the world with the glory of God as ‘a kingdom, priests to his God and Father’ (Rev. 1:5–6; cf. 1:9; 5:10; 12:10).]” This is our calling as God’s people, washed in the Lord’s blood. We are His dominion people, our Lord’s new humanity. This, to put it bluntly, is the goal of the Gospel.

Reclaiming Culture is Gospel Ministry (Note that Hafemann lists Daniel Fuller as an influence at the beginning of his essay)

We will do what Adam failed to do. We will be victorious because we are the doers of the law! This is the goal of the Gospel. This is how the glory of God’s kingdom is revealed: our faithful obedience!

Again, my goal is not to denounce Summer, Jeff, James, or any of the other baptists involved. My aim is for them and their followers to very carefully consider the ramifications of neonomianism on one’s worldview and one’s practical life.

Another White/Wilson Debate?

James White recently said, “Doug Wilson is a Christian with whom I have differences primarily upon issues relating to baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” Hopefully all of the above makes it clear that White and Wilson disagree on more than just baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In his response to Clark, White suggested that he and Wilson hold a debate in 2020 to end this discussion for good. Resolved: The ordinances Christ instituted for his church are for believers alone. While that would make a good debate, it would not address the concerns about Wilson. Instead, the following debate would be a great blessing to the church:

Resolved: Since creation there have been two different ways of obtaining eternal life: through obedience to the law or through faith alone apart from obedience to the law.

[Added Clarification: The main purpose of this post is not to tell others how to direct their affairs or to pronounce what actions are tolerable or intolerable. The purpose of this post is to show as clearly as possible what people believe. What one chooses to do with that information is up to them.]

Further Reading

Note: An earlier version of this post referenced a tweet from Summer Jaegar posting from Deuteronomy 30. I assumed she was posting it because she read it along the lines of Andrew Sandlin and theonomy in general. Summer has clarified on Twitter that she rejects theonomy. This was news to me in light of previous conversations I have had with her and Durbin on Facebook. It is not clear how Summer does interpret the passage, but I have asked her for forgiveness for misunderstanding and thus misrepresenting her. I have removed the reference.

Leithart’s Monocovenantalism

March 30, 2016 4 comments

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.

Guy Waters on Leviticus 18:5

July 25, 2015 22 comments

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.”

An “Objective” Covenant

March 23, 2015 5 comments

Baptists need to make sure they are familiar with how the Federal Vision is different from confessional, orthodox paedobaptism. The Federal Vision is a heresy that redefines traditional words (as all heresy tends to do). They stress “objectivity.” They reject the visible/invisible church distinction in favor of the church militant and the church triumphant. You enter the covenant of grace, the church, through baptism. There is no inner/outer covenant. Only the objective covenant entered through the sacraments. Once baptized, you are united to Christ through this objective covenant (rather than through invisible faith). But those who are united to Christ can prove to be unfaithful spouses and break covenant. What keeps them in covenant is their faithfulness – that is, their works. At the final judgment, Christ will determine who has been faithful. Those with works to show will pass the test and be part of the church triumphant. When Federal Vision talks about election, they use it in two senses (as they do many things). They refer to the election of the objective, visible church, but also say that God has unconditionally elected certain individuals to persevere in their works. Thus the church triumphant is that elect group of individuals who have been faithful (as opposed to an inward membership consisting of those who simply believed the gospel). In this way, there is never any “invisible” or “inward” Christianity. It is always objective and visible. Below is an extended quote from an excellent rebuke of Doug Wilson written be two paedobaptists in a book called Not Reformed at All.

NRAAcover

Wilson’s overriding concern, as his book’s subtitle shows, is recovering the “objectivity” of the covenant. Unfortunately, he does not tell us when the covenant was “objective,” and so can be “recovered,” nor when it became subjective. But it is clear what he means by“objectivity”: He means “photographability,” visibility. Through out the book he denigrates the “ethereal,” the “invisible.” This is most unfortunate, for a covenant is invisible. A covenant is an agreement; the Covenant of Grace is a divine promise to the elect, and a promise is a proposition. A sign of a covenant, such as baptism, or a rainbow, is visible (that is why it is called a“sign”), but a sign is not the covenant. Wilson’s attempt “to recover” -‐ the correct verb would be“to invent” ‐- a visible covenant is not only an attempt to draw a square circle, it is a repudiation of God’s Covenant with Christ and his people. There is no Reformed confession that describes the Covenant of Grace as“objective.” The objective covenant is a fiction that Wilson has invented.

Here is how God, but not Wilson, describes the Covenant of Grace, in both Old and New Testaments:

Behold the days are coming, says the Lord,when I will make a new covenant With the house of Israel and with the house of Judah -‐ not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt [the Mosaic covenant] . . .. But this is the covenant that I will with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will p u t my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying “Know the Lord,” for they all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more [Jeremiah 31:31-34].

Notice that God says, “this is the covenant,” and immediately defines the covenant as a proposition: “I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” That promise is God’s Covenant of Grace. By reducing the promise to writing, the proposition is accurately represented by Hebrew or English letters, but the proposition, the promise, remains invisible. The proposition is intellectual, and Wilson despises the intellect. He prefers sensory titillation; hence his demand for a square circle: a photographable covenant.

And here is the Covenant of Grace from the New Testament:

But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8:6-13 ESV)

In these passages God describes his Covenant of Grace in terms Wilson foolishly rejects: The Covenant of Grace is invisible, propositions written in the invisible minds of his people; it is a promise made to individuals, for only individuals have minds in which the Covenant can be written; and the Covenant is unphotographable. Wilson is an earthy, sensate man; what he describes as“objective” are things he can see. point at, and photograph. Everything else is “ethereal.” Wilson demands an “objective” covenant, that is, a covenant that can be photographed. I enclose Wilson’s word “objective” in quotation marks, for God’s invisible Covenant of Grace is objective, despite what Wilson says. Wilson’s sensualistic epistemology requires him to say that visible things are objective and invisible things are not. Of course, that makes God, truth, justice, righteousness, faith ‐ none of which is visible and photographable -‐ ethereal and non-objective. By imposing an un-Biblical theory of knowledge on Scripture, Wilson is inventing another, Antichristian theology, using Christian terminology… (30-32)

The first reason for justification by faith alone that Paul presents is that the promise was not made to Abraham or his seed through the law, that is through their law-keeping, as the Jews misunderstood the Covenant, but through the righteousness received by faith alone. Paul says that if those who are of the law – those who bear the marks of the covenant and keep their noses clean, those whom Calvin called “saintlings” – are heirs of the promise, then the promise is made of no effect, for they are not saved, but objects of wrath.

Notice Paul’s argument here: The Jewish misinterpretation of the Covenant makes the promise of the Covenant ineffective (“of no effect”), for the circumcised are not saved, but are objects of wrath, just as he had proved in chapter 2. This is the same Jewish misinterpretation of the Covenant that infected medieval churches, Reformed churches in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and American Presbyterian and Reformed churches in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In the place of an effective, efficacious Covenant of Grace, in which God writes his laws in the minds of all the members of the Covenant, these churches substitute an ineffective, objective covenant in which reprobate (children of the flesh) and elect (children of the promise) alike receive the promises of God in baptism. In opposition to this counterfeit covenant, Paul teaches a Covenant of Grace in which ìthe promise might be sure to all the seed.î There is no sure promise of salvation in Wilson’s counterfeit covenant. His appeal to ritual baptism for assurance is asinine, for he admits that some baptized people go to Hell. (90)

-John Robbins & Sean Gerety, Not Reformed At All