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

Too Long; Didn’t Read synoposis:

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

Intro

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

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

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


The second thread:


Sadly, no, we’re not done.

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

Woke?

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

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

Kline/R. Scott Clark?

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

Summary

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

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

(Law and Gospel in Covenantal Perspective)

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

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

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

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

The Covenant of Life

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

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

Joint Federal Vision Statement

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

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

My Error

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

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

Sumpter’s Response

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

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

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

Here is what Frame said at more length:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilson’s Response

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

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

I quoted Clark’s summary points because

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

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

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

Norm Shepherd, Law & Gospel

Wilson says

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

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

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

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

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

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

White and Wilson’s Response

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

Woke Troll

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

R. Scott Clark’s 5 Points

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

Monocovenantalism

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

Adam’s Faithfulness vs Our Faith

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

Tricksy Shepherd, Tricksy Doug?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a post responding to this report, Wilson said

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

From his exam:

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

And recall from the previous post:

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

CREC Examination Q105

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

Obedience Unto Justification

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

Faith, Dead or Alive?

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

Living Faith

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

Recapitulation Drives Out Grace

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

Final Judgment

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

Objective Covenant and Union with Christ

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

Shrine to Norm Shepherd

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

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

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

Wilson’s Attitude Towards Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming Westminsterian

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

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

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

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

Faith Alone?

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

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

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

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

Obedience and Life

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

Like a Gelatinous Pudding

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

Obedience and Works

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

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

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

Obedience and Life

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

“of Works” Scripture References

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Federal Vision Baptists?

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 is more than one way of obtaining eternal life. The imputation of the active obedience of Christ necessarily requires the law/gospel distinction that Wilson rejects. He can only affirm the IAOC to the degree that he affirms an objective law/gospel distinction.


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

Neonomianism and Culture

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

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

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.

Romans 2:7 and 2:13

R. Scott Clark recently wrote a lengthy post Romans 2:13: Justified Through Our Faithfulness? As is often the case, Clark’s defense of sola fide is helpful and encouraging, while his handling of historical theology is not. Clark has a tendancy to always paint the reformed tradition to be in complete agreement with him, even when it is not.

In this particular post, Clark addresses Norman Shepherd’s erroneous reading of Romans 2:13 (“the doers of the law will be justified”) as referring to the believer at the final judgment. Clark rightly explains how “The whole of chapter 2 is a prosecution of the Jews according to the standard that had been revealed to them,” but he misleads the reader into thinking that has been precisely the reformed interpretation until 1978. He neglects to mention that many have interpreted 2:7 (“to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life”) as referring to believers at the judgment.

v7 = Gospel

Clark says “Calvin found no good news for sinners in this section [ch. 1-3] of Romans.” Yet commenting on v6-7, Calvin says “[A]s he sanctifies those whom he has previously resolved to glorify, he will also crown their good works… The meaning then is, — that the Lord will give eternal life to those who, by attention to good works, strive to attain immortality.”

On v.7 John Brown wrote “tho good works have no casual efficacy or influence on our salvation, as any meritorious cause, either procuring a right to life, or the actual possession thereof, (Christ’s merits being the sole procuring cause) and so are not necessary upon that score; yet are they necessary as the way carved out by infinite wisdom[.]”

Even Gill says “[S]uch who believe in Christ, and perform good works from a principle of grace, shall receive the reward of the inheritance, which is a reward of grace, and not of debt.”

Examples could easily be multiplied. Most of these men hold to a “mediating position” wherein they view v7 as referring to the gospel, but v13 as referring to the law. This has always seemed quite inconsistent to me. Sam Waldron agrees: “I find such a position somewhat contradictory and certainly unsatisfying.”

v6-7 = Law

Recognizing this inconsistency, others have held that v6-7 refers to the law. The Geneva Study Bible (1560) notes “Glory which follows good works, which he does not lay out before us as though there were any that could attain to salvation by his own strength, but, he lays this condition of salvation before us, which no man can perform, to bring men to Christ, who alone justifies the believers, as he himself concludes; see (Romans 2:21-22).”

In 1692, in the midst of the Neonomian controversy in England, William Marshall wrote a very important book called The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification Opened. Marshall said

Those that endeavour to procure God’s salvation by their sincere obedience to all the commands of Christ, do act contrary to that way of salvation by Christ, free grace, and faith, discovered in the gospel… Christ, or his apostles, never taught a gospel that requireth such a condition of works for salvation as they plead for. The texts of scripture which they usually allege for this purpose, are either contrary to it, or widely distant from it… They grossly pervert those words of Paul, Rom. ii. 6, 7. Where they will have Paul to be declaring the terms of the gospel, when he is evidently declaring the terms of the law, to prove that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin, and that no flesh can be justified by the works of the law, as appeareth by the tenor of his following discourse, Rom. iii. 9, 10.

Owen said

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

Charles Hodge said

The question at his bar will be, not whether a man is a Jew or a Gentile, whether he belongs to the chosen people or to the heathen world, but whether he has obeyed the law. This principle is amplified and applied in what follows, in vers. 7-11… [I]t is more pertinent to remark, in the second place, that the apostle is not here teaching the method of justification, but is laying down those general principles of justice, according to which, irrespective of the gospel, all men are to be judged. He is expounding the law, not the gospel. And as the law not only says that death is the stages of sin, but also that those who keep its precepts shall live by them, so the apostle says, that God will punish the wicked and reward the righteous. This is perfectly consistent with what he afterwards teaches, that there are none righteous; that there are none who so obey the law as to be entitled to the life which it promises; and that for such the gospel provides a plan of justification without works, a plan for saving those whom the law condemns… The principle laid down in ver. 6, is here [v7] amplified. God will render eternal life to the good, indignation and wrath to the wicked, without distinction of persons; to the Jews no less than to the Gentiles.

and in his Systematic Theology, Part II, Ch. VI, S6 “Perpetuity of the Covenant of Works he says

[W]hile the Pelagian doctrine is to be rejected, which teaches that each man comes into the world free from sin and free from condemnation, and stands his probation in his own person, it is nevertheless true that where there is no sin there is no condemnation. Hence our Lord said to the young man, “This do and thou shalt live.” And hence the Apostle in the second chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, says that God will reward every man according to his works. To those who are good, He will give eternal life; to those who are evil, indignation and wrath. This is only saying that the eternal principles of justice are still in force. If any man can present himself before the bar of God and prove that he is free from sin, either imputed or personal, either original or actual, he will not be condemned.

Robert Haldane said

According to his deeds. – That is to say, either according to his righteousness, if any were found in himself righteous, which will not be the case, for all men are sinners, but it will be according to the judgment to require righteousness… [I]t will regard solely the works of each individual, and that their deeds will comprehend everything that is either obedience or disobedience to the law of God… a perseverance with resistance to all that opposes, namely, to all temptations, all snares… It is not meant that any man can produce such a perseverance in good works, for there is only one, Jesus Christ, who can glory in having wrought out a perfect righteousness… But here the Apostle only declare what the Divine judgment will demand according to the law, to which the Jews were adhering for justification before God… This shows how ignorantly the Church of Rome seeks to draw from this passage a proof of the merit of works, and of justification by works, since it teaches a doctrine the very contrary; for all that the Apostle says in this chapter is intended to show the necessiry of another mode of justification than that of the law, namely, by grace, which the Gospel sets before us through faith in Jesus Christ, according to which God pardons sins, as the Apostle afterwards shows in the third chapter. To pretend, then, to establish justification by works, and the merit of works, by what is said here, is directly to oppose the meaning and reasoning of the Apostle…

Eternal life – The Apostle does not say that God will render salvation, but ‘eternal life.’ The truth declared in this verse, and in those that follow, is the same as that exhibited by our Lord when the rich young man asked Him, ‘What good thing shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?’ His reply was, ‘If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments,’ Matt. xix. 16… Luke x. 25… The verse before us, then, which delcares that eternal life shall be awarded to those who seek it by patient continuance in well-doing, and who, according to the 10th verse, work good, both of which announce the full demand of the law, are of the same import with the 13th verse, which affirms that the doers of the law shall be justified. In all these verses the Apostle is referring to the law, and not, as it is generally understood, the Gospel…

Note what else Haldane says.

I know that the view here given of these verses is contrary to that of almost all the English commentaries on this Epistle. I have consulted a great number of them, besides those of Calvin, and Beza, and Maretz, and the Dutch annotations, and that of Quesnel, all of which, with one voice, explain the 7th and 10th verses of this chapter as referring to the Gospel…

I have noticed that from this passage the Church of Rome endeavors to establish the merit of works, and of justification by means of works.

Accordingly, Quesnel, a Roman Catholic, in expounding the 6th verse, exclaims, ‘Merites veritables; necessite des bonnes oeuvres. Ce sont nos actions bonnes ou mauvaises qui rendent doux ou severe le jugement de Dieu!’ ‘Real merits; necessity of good works. They are our good or bad actions which render the judgment of God mild or severe!’ And indeed, were the usual interpretation of this and the three following verses the just one, it must be confessed that this Romanist would have some ground for his triumph. But if we take the words in their plain and obvious import, and understand the Apostle in this place as announcing the terms of the law, in order to prove to the Jews the necessity of having recourse to grace, and of yielding to the goodness and forbearance of God, leading them to repentance, while he assures them that ‘not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified,’ then the whole train of his discourse is clear and consistent. On the other supposition, it appears confused and self contradictory, and calculated not merely to perplex, but positively to mislead, and to strengthen the prejudices of those who were going about to establish their own righteousness. For in whatever way these expressions may with certain explanations and qualifications be interpreted in an evangelical sense, yet unquestionably, as taken by themselves, and especially in the connection in which they stand in this place, they present the same meaning as is announced in the 13th verse, where the Apostle declares that the doers of the law shall be justified.

v13 = Gospel

It is in the context of a great many commentators holding to a contradictory “mediating position” that Norm Shepherd argued that v13 refers to the gospel, just like v6. Thus it is not entirely out of nowhere, as R. Scott Clark implies (recall also Marshall above, who was writing against Presbyterian neonomians in his day). Shepherd said

20. The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified (Compare Luke 8:21; James 1:22-25).

In his rejection of the Covenant of Works, Shepherd was very much following in the steps of John Murray (see Murray on Lev. 18:5 – Why Did John Murray Reject the Covenant of Works?). On Romans 2, Murray held to the mediating position. On v7 he said

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

His rejection of the Covenant of Works left no reason for him to not follow through and carry this view on to v6, but he slammed on the brakes and argued for the hypothetical view of v13.

It is quite unnecessary to find in this verse any doctrine of justification by works in conflict with the teaching of this epistle in later chapters. Whether any will be actually justified by works either in this life or at the final judgment is beside the apostle’s interest and design at this juncture…

This holds true as a principle of equity but, existentially, it never comes into operation in the human race for the reason that there are no doers of the law, no doing of the law that will ground or elicit justification – ‘there is none righteous, no, not one’ (vs. [3:]10)

Recall Sam Waldron

Though Murray clearly argues in his comments on verses 6-11 that the judgment in view is not hypothetical and that the works in view are evangelical works which vindicate one’s saving faith in the dya of judgment, yet to my surprise Murray also takes a hypothetical or empty-set view of Romans 2:13… Let me hasten to add that, though I respect John Murray a great deal and have sometimes named him as my patron saint (!), I find such a position somewhat contradictory and certainly unsatisfying.

John Kinnaird was an OPC elder who taught Shepherd’s false gospel. He was brought to trial but was defended by Richard Gaffin. Note what Gaffin said during his testimony

[W]hile a large number of Reformed exegetes have understood the scenario there, the final judgment scenario there, on the positive side, in verse 7 and 10 and 13, have understood that in a hypothetical sense… there have also been other exegetes, within the reformed tradition, that have questioned that hypothetical understanding. And you see that at least for verses 6 to 11 very clearly in John Murray’s Romans commentary.

The prosecutor brought up Murray’s comments on v13 and said “Can you reconcile the two statements by John Murray here?” Gaffin replied

I think really it’s regrettable we don’t have Professor Murray here to ask this question because I think … my own view in the light of what he has said,  and said so clearly about the judgment according to works in two … in verse six … that… it … that would argue for understanding verse 13 here in the same way as describing an actual positive outcome.  But he does, as you are pointing out,  back away from that.  But I can’t … see I think in my own view … it is Professor Murray that is in a bit of a tension here.

John Kinnaird was found guilty of teaching a false gospel, but he appealed to the OPC General Assembly where he was exhonerated. Why? Because the OPC had just prior voted to add Romans 2:6,7,13,16 as proof texts to WLC 90. For more on this see OPC Report on Republication – Background.

Conclusion

So the issue really has a lot to do with a long history of inconsistent exegesis of Romans 2:6-7 and 2:13 that we have to wrestle with. I agree with those who see 2:6-7 and 13 as both referring to the law.

OPC Report on Republication – Background

The OPC Report on Republication was the culmination of several decades of dispute within the OPC. The dispute is particularly interesting because it represents two divergent schools within Presbyterianism that are both fighting to uphold a particular doctrine at the expense of another particular doctrine. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Westminster Confession is contradictory in what it says about the Mosaic Covenant. It’s a very detailed argument, so please read that post. In short, it is not possible to affirm both that the Mosaic Covenant is the Covenant of Grace and that there was a Covenant of Works made with Adam.

john_murray_theologian
John Murray

In the previous post, I suggested that Murray’s rejection of the Covenant of Works was driven by his attempt to resolve this contradiction. Thus he retained the Westminster teaching that the Mosaic Covenant was the Covenant of Grace at the expense of the Westminster doctrine of the Covenant of Works.

One of Murray’s students, Meredith G. Kline demurred from Murray early on (listen to the first few episodes of the Glory Cloud Podcast for some timeline on Kline). Kline began to

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Kline at bottom

move in the opposite direction, seeing the Covenant of Works as essential to the law/gospel distinction and therefore rejecting the Westminster doctrine of the Mosaic Covenant as the Covenant of Grace, arguing instead that it was a separate covenant that operated on the works principle for life in the land of Canaan. There was development in Kline’s thought over the decades on this. The OPC Report notes that

At least two controversies helped Kline sharpen his conception of the unique typological function of Abraham and national Israel, and those controversies pertain to the covenant theology of Norman Shepherd, on the one hand, and the theonomic ethics of Greg Bahnsen, on the other… Kline’s development of the typology of both Abraham and Israel depends in significant ways on his response to these controversies, as he seeks to clarify the unique features of redemptive typology pertaining to both Abraham and national Israel…

greg-bahnsen
Greg Bahnsen

Kline offers an integration of the historia salutis and the ordo salutis, seeking to give a biblically nuanced account of the way in which the obedience of key figures in redemptive history relates to the eschatological inheritance (Adam or Christ) or the typal kingdom (Abraham and national Israel). He adds nuance and clarity to his views based in part on his polemical engagement with the theology of Norman Shepherd and theonomic ethics of Greg Bahnsen, even if those figures are not always identified…

The development from Treaty of the Great King to Kingdom Prologue and God, Heaven and Har-Mageddon turns on clarifying the works principle in Israel as it finds its genesis in Abraham and his unique obedience as a type of Christ. The controversies with Shepherd and Bahnsen supplied polemical contexts for developing the unique features of redemptive typology that extend many of the insights from Vos, but in a way that does not undermine Murray’s insistence on a substantially gracious Mosaic covenant. The development of Abraham as the historical figure who supplies the redemptive historical prototype for the works principle that will come to apply to national Israel develops after the controversies with Shepherd and Bahnsen in the 1970s and 1980s, but in a way that bears organic continuity with his earlier work from the 1960’s.

For an elaboration on Bahnsen in this context, see Theonomy, Greg Bahnsen, and the Federal Vision?

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Norman Shepherd

Who exactly was Norman Shepherd? He too was a student of Murray’s. He was selected by Murray as his successor as professor of systematic theology at Westminster Seminary. Controversy arose when he students began failing their ordination exams. When asked how we are justified, they answered “through faith and works.” When asked where they were taught that, they said “Professor Shepherd.” Thus began a decade long battle to rid the seminary and the church of Shepherd’s false gospel. Surrounded by politics, Shepherd was eventually dismissed, but not officially for any theological reasons. Charges were scheduled to be brought against him in the OPC, but he fled to the CRC beforehand, where he remains today. I strongly recommend reading O. Palmer Robertson’s careful account of everything that occurred at Westminster regarding Shepherd titled The Current Justification Controversy. Shepherd is considered the godfather of the Federal Vision.

Some want to paint Shepherd as an oddity that came and went but had no lasting impact on Westminster or the OPC. However, it’s not that simple. As I said, Shepherd was selected by Murray as his successor. When Shepherd left, he was succeeded by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Gaffin is three years younger than Shepherd and was a student of Murray’s as well. He taught alongside Shepherd and was his primary defender during the controversy (see Gaffin’s open letter from 1981). In fact, he continued to support Shepherd long after he left, endorsing his 2002 book The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism with these words:

richard-gaffin
Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

This lucid and highly readable study provides valuable instruction on what it means to live in covenant with God. God’s covenant is the only way of life that fully honors both the absolute, all-embracing sovereignty of his saving grace and the full, uninhibited activity of his people. The Call of Grace should benefit anyone concerned about biblical growth in Christian life and witness.

Gaffin theoretically distanced himself from Shepherd by participating in the OPC Report on Justification in 2006 which was critical of Shepherd, but no explicit statement and recanting of his support for Shepherd has occurred. The basis of Shepherd’s false gospel of justification through faith and works is his rejection of the “works-merit paradigm” in favor of the “faith-grace” or “covenantal” paradigm. In a 2002 lecture titled “What’s All the Fuss?”, Shepherd explains

Well the preceding is only a sampling of the problems we run into on the works-merit paradigm. We become uncomfortable expressing biblical doctrines using biblical language. Texts get bent out of shape in order to make them fit into a paradigm that does not arise out of Scripture and is foreign to Scripture. And without meaning to do so or wanting to do so we can find ourselves compromising the integrity of what is written in the Word of God.

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.

The 1982 Reason and Specifications Supporting the Action of the Board of Trustees in Removing Professor Shepherd states

Mr. Shepherd rejects not only the term “covenant of works” but the possibility of any merit or reward attaching to the obedience of Adam in the creation covenant. He holds that faithful obedience is the condition of all covenants in contrast to the distinction made in the Westminster Confession. The Westminster Confession states in Chapter Vll that the first covenant “was a covenant of works wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” In contrast, in the second covenant, the covenant of grace, the Lord “freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved.”

Shepherd was clearly building upon Murray’s rejection of the Covenant of Works. As we saw in the last post on Murray, he slammed on the breaks when his revisions lead him straight towards a justification by faith and works, particularly in Romans 2:13, but he had no consistent reason for doing so. Murray argued 2:13 (“the doers of the law will be justified”) was hypothetical in direct contradiction to his argument in v6 that the judgment was not hypothetical. Shepherd continued the logically trajectory, further working out the implications of a rejection of the Covenant of Works. 1978 he wrote 34 Theses on Justification in Relation to Faith, Repentance, and Good Works. Note thesis 20

20. The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified (Compare Luke 8:21; James 1:22-25).

Many will object that Shepherd’s theology was entirely different than Murray’s. As this is not intended to be a full treatment of the issue, and it is a very detailed topic, I encourage you to look into it yourself and make up your own mind. However, for our present purpose, it is worth recalling what we read from Ligon Duncan in the post on Murray.

Murray held to his objections [to the Covenant of Works] and to this day, Westminster Seminary has tended to be a little bit skittish about the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace framework.

There is no indication that Gaffin rejected Murray and Shepherd’s rejection of the Covenant of Works and every indication that he agrees with them. A fuller treatment of Gaffin will have to await another day (something I intend to get to, Lord willing). However, I do want to mention an important point regarding continuity with and progression of Murray’s revisionism. We saw before that Murray added Leviticus 18:5 and Matthew 19:17 as proof texts for WCF 19.6. The OPC continued that work.

The Sixty-sixth General Assembly (1999) elected a Committee on Proof Texts for the Larger Catechism (consisting of Stephen A. Pribble [chairman], George W. Knight III, Steven F. Miller, and Peter J. Wallace). It presented a list of proof texts to the Sixty-seventh General Assembly (2000), and the Sixty-eighth General Assembly (2001) approved the proof texts (with corrections) for publication.

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

The list included the addition of Romans 2:6,7,13,16 as proof-texts 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.

Note particularly that v13 was included, which says it is “the doers of the law who will be justified.” Recall that Murray stopped short and claimed this was only hypothetical, not actual – but this contradicted his comments earlier in the passage. The OPC apparently recognized this and carried Murray’s logic through to v13, just as Shepherd did. At the day of judgment, the righteous will be justified because they are doers of the law and not hearers only. (Note that the OPC has since reversed this position and deleted the proof-text. See comment box below).

1416327524kinnairdsAnother Westminster Seminary graduate (same age as Shepherd) was John Kinnaird. Kinnaird very publicly defended Shepherd during the controversy and continued to support him long after. As an elder, he taught that “It is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous on that Day of Judgement.” “Inside the city are those who do righteousness and outside are those who do evil.”

Romans 2 puts it this way.  “God will give to each person according to what he has done.  To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.  But for those who are self seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil there will be wrath and anger.”   Now by this we know the decision, the judgement as to who enters the city and who stays outside for eternity will be made on that great day of judgement in accordance with what you have done in this life.   In fact our scripture lesson says the very same thing at verse 12.  Behold I am coming soon!  My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done….

These good works are a required condition if we would stand in the Day of Judgement and they are supplied by God to all His people.

Every description of the Judgement events speak of these good works. Without them, no one will see God.  Our God is not unjust.  His judgements are always righteous and in accordance with the facts of the case

Who are these people who thus benefit ‑ who stand on the Day of Judgement? They are those who obey the law who will be declared righteous…

There will be glory, honor, and peace on the Day of Judgement for everyone who does good. [Romans 2] verse 10. Who are these people who thus benefit – who stand on the Day of Judgement? They are those who obey the law who will be declared righteous, verse 13. When God declares them righteous, that is a forensic declaration of righteousness…. This is a judicial scene, the Day of Judgement. It is an act of God sitting as Judge. It is justification – a forensic act of God whereby he declares a person righteous. God is able to make this declaration on That Day because it is a truth. Something has happened to change those who were once sinful. What is it?… Paul says, verses 14 and 15, these are those who by nature, a new nature, do the things required by the law.

SOURCE

(Note the verbatim wording of Murray with regards to God’s judgment and the principle of equity).

An elderly couple in Kinnaird’s congregation brought charges against him for teaching justification by faith and works. The congregation (“session”) found him guilty. He appealed to his presbytery, which upheld the guilty verdict. So he appealed to the OPC General Assembly. The General Assembly determined that the session and presbytery had erred in convicting him. A main point in the GA’s decision to overturn the prior verdicts was that Kinnaird’s language was in keeping with the OPC’s standards – specifically WLC 90’s reference to Romans 2:13, which had just been added 2 years earlier. “There is strong evidence that it is allowable in the OPC to interpret Romans 2:13 (as Mr. Kinnaird does) as a description of something that will be done to the righteous at the day of judgment.” (GA Advisory Committee)

I encourage you to read through the trial documents yourself.

During the original trial, Gaffin was called to testify as an expert witness in defense of Kinnaird. I encourage you to read the transcript. Keep in mind Gaffin’s defense did not save Kinnaird in trial. He was still found guilty. One section is particularly pertinent.

RG: We could point up that as to the Romans (I believe Dr. Lillback did this last week if I am correctly informed) that at the …. so far as the Romans 2 passage is concerned, while a large number of Reformed exegetes have understood the scenario there, the final judgment scenario there,  on the positive side, in verse 7 and 10 and 13.  Have understood that in a hypothetical sense – or as we might put it – as a genuine offer of the law – not the gospel – a genuine offer of the law as a means of justification, or salvation which no one, in fact, can fulfill. While that is an established reformed understanding,  there have also been other exegetes, within the reformed tradition, that have questioned that hypothetical understanding.  And you see that at least for verses 6 to 11 very clearly in John Murray’s Romans commentary.  And I would refer us to that discussion,  if none other in that regard…

RG : Murray in his Romans commentary, the passage in Romans 2 that runs, particularly the segment that runs through verse 11.   2:6 to 11.  He understands that to be describing what will actually be the case for believers.  At the day of judgment they will … when God’s righteous judgment will be … when God will give to each person according to his works … that will, in terms of verse 7 … believers will be those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality.  And they will receive eternal life.  That is John Murray’s teaching on that passage.

AW :   John Murray in commenting on Romans 2:13 … I believe probably to 15 … but it’s at least on 2:13.  Here’s a quotation from his commentary. He says

It needs to be noted, however, that at this point the apostle restricts himself to the judgment of condemnation.  And this advises us that he is dealing now with the equity of God’s judgment of damnation as it is brought to bear upon men who fall into these two categories.  This is significant.  Whatever is meant by those who are >without law’ there is no suggestion to the effect that any who are >without law’ attain to the reward of eternal life.

It’s page 69 of  The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Romans as published by Eerdmans.

So … on the one hand … can you reconcile the two statements by John Murray here?

RG : Yeah,  I think … Sorry.  I didn’t bring my commentary along and … [Mr. Gaffin is given a copy of the commentary from one of the panel members.]   This is from page 71 on 2:13.  Let me read it, what Murray says and then comment.

It is quite unnecessary to find in this verse any doctrine of justification by works in conflict with the teaching on this epistle in later chapters.  Whether any will be actually justified by works either in this life or at the final judgment is beside the apostle’s interest and design at this juncture.

That … I think is to my mind,  what needs to be highlighted here.  My own view would be that following … well, my own view would be … that … I think Murray is leaving it an open question here.  He’s not addressing … he is saying two things.  Number one, no conflict with what Paul teaches later in the letter.  Number two, whether or not there will be anyone at the final judgment justified by works – as Paul expressed there – is beside the apostle’s interest and design at this juncture.  I think really it’s regrettable we don’t have Professor Murray here to ask this question because I think … my own view in the light of what he has said,  and said so clearly about the judgment according to works in two … in verse six … that… it … that would argue for understanding verse 13 here in the same way as describing an actual positive outcomeBut he does, as you are pointing out,  back away from that.  But I can’t … see I think in my own view … it is Professor Murray that is in a bit of a tension here … and the question really needs … I can’t reconcile Murray for you on that regard,  which is the question I heard you asking me.  And I would just accent again that in his understanding of verses 6-11,  he has broken with a large number of Reformed interpreters in arguing that that describes a real judgment scenario with a positive outcome.  Which is also how I would understand verse 13 … and well, you can ask Mr. Kinnaird how he understands it.

AW :  I guess my point would simply would be that John Murray did not definitively use this chapter in Romans 2 to teach … you know, a judgment for … let me say it this way, that John Murray did use his understanding in this to affirm a more traditional – if you want to say –  a traditional or long held view that Romans chapter two was affirming universal condemnation more than any particular manner in which believers are justified.

RG :  Sorry about that, I do have to differ with  Y

AW : O.K., that is fine …

RG :  I think in verses 6 to 11 he does break,  if you will with others, Charles Hodge, Haldane, in arguing that the judgment according to works is not hypothetical on it’s positive side… but will have a positive … it’s describing a positive, a real positive scenario in the case of believers.  And see that I think is really the issue here.  Let’s concede what Murray says about the verse 13 which … this is not … this is not a … this is a point that I am willing to be corrected on, that verse 13 does not describe an actual, an actual scenario at the final judgment.  You still have the final judgment according to works as a reality, according to Murray.

meredith_g-_kline
Meredith G. Kline

So there we see the consequences of Murray’s rejection of the Westminster Confession’s doctrine of the Covenant of Works. Meredith Kline was one of the most vocal critics of Shepherd. In 1994 he penned a very important essay for the OPC magazine New Horizons titled “Covenant Theology Under Attack” in an attempt to defend the doctrine of the Covenant of Works and its corresponding works-merit principle. However, its content was deemed too controversial and was edited for publication. The original essay can be read in full here. Kline said

Recounted in the lore about the founding of our movement is the stirring testimony of the dying Machen in a telegram sent to John Murray: “I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”…

The assault on classic covenant theology of which [Daniel] Fuller has become a vociferous spokesman is being endorsed by some prominent leaders within even the broadly Reformed wing of evangelicalism. And the sad fact is that this theology, which undermines the biblical truths that provided Machen with his dying comfort, has had its aiders and abettors within the very movement that Machen founded. Strangely, it was the one who received Machen’s deathbed telegram who opened the door a considerable crack for the views inimical to the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ…

The door left ajar by Murray was thrown wide open to Fuller’s theology by Murray’s successor… Though the ensuing controversy over Shepherd’s views led to his departure, his teaching was not officially renounced by ecclesiastical or seminary arms of our movement, and key elements of the Fuller-Shepherd theology continue to be advocated among us.

Regretfully, in this same essay, Kline argues that in order to defend the Covenant of Works, the concept of God’s voluntary condescension in rewarding Adam’s obedience (WCF 7.1) must be rejected. So Murray rejected 7.2 and in order to refute Shepherd, Kline rejected 7.1.

But the primary manner in which Kline sought to defend the law/gospel distinction was by recognizing the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works. Contrary to Murray, Leviticus 18:5 was in fact a statement of the principle of works in antithesis to the principle of faith – but it was limited to life and blessing in the land of Canaan, not eternal life. Thus to retain the Covenant of Works, Kline recognized it was necessary to jettison the Mosaic Covenant of Grace (thus rejecting WCF 7.5-6, 19.2).

Kline’s revisionism began to cause a stir. One of Kline’s disciples, Charles Lee Irons was brought to trial for his Klinean view of the Mosaic Covenant, specifically the relationship between the Decalogue and the moral law [Irons helpfully corrected the original wording of this section – see comment section below]. Irons lost the trial and his appeal to the GA was rejected. He chose to withdraw from the OPC and said the following in his letter of withdrawal:

I am not prepared to say that the OPC has fallen into irreparable apostasy, but something is terribly amiss with a denomination that is willing to indefinitely suspend me from the ministry for holding a position that is part of “a significant and vital stream of Reformed, Presbyterian, and confessional thought,” and then turns right around the very next day and fails to censure a man who teaches a doctrine of justification that has never been part of any stream within the orthodox Reformed tradition, indeed, that denies the very reason for the Reformation itself. The implication is staggering:  Murray’s recasting of covenant theology is now an essential test of orthodoxy in the OPC, but the historic Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone is not.

These two rulings of the 70th GA have caused me great sadness, but perhaps they will become a wake-up call to the OPC. I hope and pray that the OPC corrects its course and renews its commitment to the doctrine of justification as clarified by the Law-Gospel contrast taught by Paul and reaffirmed by the Reformers.

Several men began working to demonstrate historical precedent for Kline’s view. In his popular thesis paper “WORKS IN THE MOSAIC COVENANT: A REFORMED TAXONOMY” Brenton C. Ferry explains that he began working on the thesis

during the time of the Lee Irons’ trial in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Lee was proposing and affirming Samuel Bolton’s (1606-1654) view of the Mosaic Covenant, creating the assumption that this was Meredith Kline’s view, which it is not. Worse, Lee was portrayed by men in our denomination as an antinomian, which he is not. The result: he was wrongly deposed. I was a delegate at the General Assembly when Lee lost his appeal. It was most disheartening, but also confirmation that the church needs an accessible outline which reflects the contours of our tradition’s conception of the Mosaic Covenant.

He also recounts his ordination exam.

The research for this thesis began following my ordination exam by the Presbytery of the Southeast in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in October 2000. Towards the end of an otherwise mundane exam, a minister named Patrick Ramsey asked if the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works or a covenant of grace.1 “A covenant of works,” I answered. The room became enlivened. My exam was sustained on condition that I study this issue.

A simplified summary of Ferry’s thesis became a chapter in the Westminster Seminary California-led book “The Law is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant” (2009). The book opens with a 6-page “fictional” narrative of the ordination examination of someone who follows Kline’s view (the intro is written by Westminster Seminary California faculty Bryan Estelle, David VanDrunen, and J.V. Fesko). “The preceding fictional narrative introduces the real issue with which the book deals, namely, the doctrine of republication, which holds that the covenant of works was, in some sense, republished in the Mosaic Covenant at Sinai.” Thus “republication” became code for Kline’s view, even though Kline never used the term, and at the same time introduced considerable confusion by the qualifier “in some sense.” Because it was “in some sense” republished, they could call upon historic support from men who were diametrically opposed to Kline’s view, yet who also affirmed the works principle in the Adamic Covenant of Works in opposition to John Murray. Thus “republication” became the historic idea that Murray rejected, and at the same time the new revision Kline introduced. The book caused more heat than light, largely because of its intentionally vague thesis (“in some sense”).

Many, many more writings have been published that are either directly or tangentially related to this dispute in the OPC over the works principle and the corresponding law/gospel distinction. Just as Ferry and others sought to find historical precedent for Kline’s theology, Mark Jones and others took on the task of finding historical precedent for Gaffin’s theology. The debate has largely centered around Westminster Theological Seminary (representing Murray) and Westminster Seminary California (representing Kline) – or East vs. West as it is referred. The debate often becomes quite heated.

So that is what has led to the OPC Report on Republication. Two leading reformed theologians of the 20th century attempted to retain different aspects of Westminster’s contradictory view of the Mosaic Covenant and the Covenant of Works, leading each theologian to reject other essential aspects of Westminster’s system of theology. In an attempt to save their own confessional skin, Klinians have mistakenly conceded that Murray’s rejection of the Covenant of Works did not affect Westminster’s system of theology.

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

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

This is how, then, Murray can still subscribe to the Standards—his conclusions, though through a reconstructed and revised route, do not affect the overall system.

-J.V. Fesko The Legacy of Old School Confession Subscription in the OPC

Opponents of Kline have not made the same mistake. They recognize that his rejection of several points of the Westminster Standards do affect the system of theology. The OPC Report states

One may hold that the Mosaic covenant differs in substance from the covenant of grace, without necessarily compromising the idea of the one way of salvation throughout history. The question our report is addressing is whether one can hold to such positions without compromising the system of doctrine taught in our standards…

in the case of substantial republication, an aggregation of tensions has arisen at times such that, when taken together, they create dissonance that begin to reverberate system-wide