On Replying to Moralists (Like Tom Wright)

Tom Wright is just making up stuff about the history of Reformed theology. He’s admitted that he doesn’t know much about the history of biblical exegesis beyond Calvin and one or two others. It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t know much about the history of Reformed dogmatics.

But that’s beside the point for his followers. They don’t care about the history of Reformed exegesis or dogmatics either. They don’t like the Protestant doctrine of justification and, as evangelical and emergent biblicists Wright provides them a respectable way of chucking the Reformation while posing as genuine “back to the Bible” types.

I might be one of those who sounds like an antinomian. If I am, I can live with that. They accused the Apostle Paul of being antinomian too. Better that than moralism, don’t you think?

I’m pretty sure that the way to reply to moralists of whatever variety is not to try to show that “hey, we’ve believe in conditions too.” We do, but not in the same way the covenantal moralists do. When the Reformed spoke of conditions they were generally speaking of conditions in the administration of the covenant of grace. They were not making the covenant of grace conditional per se. If the covenant of grace is conditional per se then it’s not a covenant of grace anymore is it?

The apostle Paul did not reply to the judaizers by showing how much he believed in sanctification. He replied by the condemning their moralism and by preaching the gospel to them! We can never defeat the moralists on their own terms. The moralists have to repent of their moralism (justification by sanctification) and accept Christ on his own terms and through his own means, sola fide.

The gospel is meant to be scandalous and offensive. I’m deeply concerned that, having just gone through another paroxysm of controversy over justification we’re going slide back into the very way of thinking and speaking that made it possible in the first place.

Yes, Reformed theology is not antinomian, but by that we mean that we uphold the third use of the law. Anyone who denies the third use is antinomian but to reject the law (as if it has exactly the same function as the gospel; sure God the Spirit uses the law to sanctify us but the gospel is the power of sanctification) as the power of sanctification or as a means of sanctification or to reject an intrinsic ground for justification (even if that intrinsic ground is union with Christ) is not antinomianism.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. How to reply to Wright? Simple. Read his book and have a conversation with him. See where his ideas converge with your and where his ideas diverge with yours. Then ask why the reasons for the convergence and divergence (like what theological or hermeneutical commitments you each may have given the communities you each come from). Sounds pretty Christian to me.

  2. John Piper’s sermon on the Pharisee and the Publican, downloadable at desiringgod.org, is a good sermon and applicable to covenant moralism. The Pharisee thought that His own righteousness was the basis for his acceptance with God. He even affirmed that his righteousness was God-given (“God, I thank You that . . .”)! However, he went to hell. Offering anything to God except Christ’s righteousness as my own will incur my own damnation.

    Dr. RSC, you wrote: “When the Reformed spoke of conditions they were generally speaking of conditions in the administration of the covenant of grace. They were not making the covenant of grace conditional per se.”
    ~What do you mean by “administration”? And how do you describe conditions in the “administration”?~

  3. Been there. Done that. Has he interacted carefully with his critics? Did he engage Steve Baugh’s chapter in CJPM? Has he thoughtfully engaged Mike Horton’s book?

    You missed the point. Mark seems to want to concede a basic point to NTW. That won’t help.

  4. Stefan,

    See the last two chapters in the Olevian book. There are posts on this blog. See http://www.wscal.edu/clark -> covenant theology. See also Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

    In short: having been admitted to the visible covenant community God’s people are morally obligated to live according to their profession of faith or face discipline.

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