Why Do Some Reformed People Corrupt the Gospel of Grace?

Because it is our natural tendency to do so. It is our natural tendency to add works to grace as part of the way we are accepted by God because grace, being utterly free and unconditional to us sinners, seem so unlikely, so unreasonable, even impossible. We also tend to corrupt the gospel of righteousness with God by grace alone, through faith (resting and receiving) alone because we are “hardwired” (as Mike Horton puts it) by creation for the covenant of works. Mike didn’t invent this way of thinking. David Dickson said the same thing in the 17th century:

Unto this Error of seeking Righteousness by our Works, after entering in the way of Justification by Grace, we are all naturally inclined; for, the Covenant of Works is so engraven in all Adam’s Children, Do this and live, that hardly can we renounce this way of Justification, and howsoever it be impossible to attain Righteousness this way, yet hardly can we submit our selves to the Righteousness by Faith in Christ, which not only the Expereince of Israel after the Flesh maketh manifest, but also the Experience of the Galatians lets us see; for, they having once outwardly renounced Justification by Works, and embraced the Covenant of gracious Reconciliation by Faith in Jesus, did turn about for a time, to seek Justification by the Works of the Law, and were on the way of falling from Grace and Communion…
David Dickson, Therapeutica Sacra (Edinburgh: Evan Tyler, 1664), 298.

Read more of and about Dickson at James Durham Thesis.

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  • 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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7 comments

  1. I think this is absolutely true, but I wonder if the most common path taken to corrupting the gospel of grace today doesn’t start with a misunderstanding of, or even a denial of, the covenant of works.

    Since all people inherently know that God demands good works; a key safeguard to keeping grace entirely grace is the knowledge that Christ has provided perfect and perpetual obedience in our place. Whenever people remove “perfect and perpetual obedience” from the covenant of works (which Christ alone has perfectly fulfilled) – they will inevitably end up trying to add their own works into their acceptance before God.

    • I want to end up at the same position from a different starting point.

      pace Mike Horton, I don’t think we are hardwired to works. Adam was told to subdue; he did not need to be told to rest. Shalom has more of a sense of peace than of activity. The lion will lie down with lamb, rather than work alongside.

      I can’t make too much of these verses out of their context, but I suggest that a disposition to works comes straight out of the post-Fall fear that is the enemy’s weapon second only to pride.

      It is not therefore that we find ourselves working at our salvation, almost unconsciously because it is hardwired in us and we need to be rewired; it is because, out of a new and unnatural fear, we simply do not believe that God has done it all in Christ.

      Fear has stirred us to works; works are a symptom. It is fear we must grapple with.
      If Mike H means that the Fall hardwired us to works, then I can go with that (though I would prefer to say that the Fall rewired us towards works)

  2. Luther observed the same thing. He called for singing, praying, catechetizing, teaching, preaching…and then again, again, again, and again some more…lest we forget. Yes, it’s “hardwired” in us.

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