Keister: Doug Wilson Denies Sola Fide

A good lot of so-called “conservative” (what are they conserving?) Reformed types have told me, “Yes, Wilson has some weird views but he’s different from the other Federal Visionists.” Really? Rhetorically perhaps, but substantially?

Lane Keister, who has been sitting in with me on the Heidelcast for the last several weeks, has spent a lot of time dialoguing with Doug. Lately, however, he has been re-thinking his view of Wilson’s doctrine of justification. If the law/gospel distinction is essential to the doctrine of justification (and it is) and if Wilson denies the same (and he does) then Wilson denies justification sola fide.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    Did you believe in justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone prior coming to a right understanding of the Law/Gospel distinction? I suspect that most of us did – and yet we really were believing in justification Sola Fide (even if further study has made this a richer concept and our personal systematic theologies have grown more consistent).

    As you observed in your recent Heidelcast, many of those associated with the FV are surprisingly naive in their historical and theological assessments. Why not simply point out their inconsistencies and errors rather than assuming the worst possible outcomes?

    For example, if Doug Wilson’s claim to teaching justification Sola Fide is inconsistent with his teaching on the Law/Gospel distinction (note the “if” – I lack your detailed first hand knowledge of Wilson’s teaching); why assume that he must give up his view of Sola Fide rather than give up his view of the Law/Gospel distinction?

    If we allow the principle that any error in someone’s theology (or formulation of that theology) is fair game to be pressed until it destroys all the orthodox aspects of that person’s theology – which of us will be left standing?


    • I think it is important to distinguish between simple ignorance and willful ignorance (i.e. being instructed in the truth and yet definitely rejecting that instruction). Church teachers don’t have the luxury of persistence in the latter.

  2. I think it is important to distinguish between simple ignorance and willful ignorance (i.e. being instructed in the truth and yet definitely rejecting that instruction). Church teachers don’t have the luxury of persistence in the latter.

    • M. Jay,

      The problem with calling someone else’s ignorance willful is that, while the category is real, we lack the magic decoder ring that allows us to determine the motives of those whose teaching we disagree with.

      Isn’t it better for us to stick with what is actually being confessed and taught than to delve into the murky realm of guessing motives? The fact is that the Church doesn’t have the “luxury” of tolerating teachers with simple ignorance either. Hence all of the NAPARC denominations have condemned teachings related to the FV and the Ordained Officers of our denominations are responsible for ensuring that such errors are not being taught.

      What makes actually doing this so difficult in the North American context is that people simply run off and start their own denominations. The number of micro semi-reformed groups over the past 40 years is astonishing. Furthermore, many individuals, churhes, and even some Presbyteries within NAPARC denominations have added their own idiosyncratic boundary markers (or refused to enforce the actual Confessional boundary markers) that we have really blurred what it means to be Confessionally Reformed. Take a look at RRC for a partial step toward rectifying these problems

      Best wishes,


  3. David, if Doug Wilson would like to respond by rejecting his previous position on the law/gospel distinction, then we can make progress. That’s actually why I’m pointing it out in this way: you can have no sola fide without the law/gospel distinction. I’m hoping that he’ll do precisely what you suggest, and affirm the law/gospel distinction, rejecting his previous position.

    • Lane,

      May I ask you the same question that I asked Dr. Clark? Did you believe in Justification Sola Fide prior to coming to your current understanding of the Law/Gospel distinction?

      Let me add that I believed in Justification Sola Fide before I ever heard of the Law/Gospel disinction. Does that mean that I really did’t believe in Justification Sola Fide? That would be a silly assertion. Growing in understanding doesn’t negate the fact that our previous understanding was actually a true belief.


      • David,

        Yes, but the title, “Doug Wilson Affirms the Law/Gospel Distinction” doesn’t have the same zing to it.


  4. I would put it like this, David, and it’s a good question. I would say that I had an understanding of law/gospel at the same time as I had my understanding of sola fide. I don’t remember knowing about one before the other. I only recently came to see just how closely the two were connected. My point is this: it is inconsistent to say “sola fide” and yet also deny the l/g distinction, at least, and retain any kind of Reformed conception of sola fide. Just because I didn’t realize this inconsistency before now doesn’t mean that it didn’t play a role in keeping me consistent. It did.

    • Lane,

      Fair enough.

      Do you think that your understanding of the Law/Gospel distinction is explicitly taught in the Westminster Standards. If so, where? If not, are you concerned about adopting an approach to our Confessions that resembles the Pharisaic attempt to build hedges around the law?

      It may be argued that your formulation of the Law/Gospel distinction was so widely held in the Reformed churches that it was simply assumed. Personally, I’m not thrilled about holding someone out of bounds on the basis of the “assured results of modern historical studies (with no offense intended to the scholar whose blog we are writing on!).”

      p.s. Of course I am aware that there are qualitative differences between the Scriptures and our Confessions – and that this impacts the interpretation of each.

  5. Lane, tell me if I’ve got this right. You’re saying that you can’t have faith alone with a law/gospel distinction, but you’re also saying that you can’t have a law/gospel distinction without a law/gospel hermeneutic. That seems like an awfully big claim to make.

  6. Hmmm … interesting, in a disturbing sort of way. Because I wholeheartedly affirm sola fide. And I don’t see faith as equivalent to faithfulness.

    And yet … I refuse to subject Scripture to “law-gospel hermeneutic” that seeks to categorize all of Scripture in a way Scripture wasn’t meant to be categorized. I believe Scripture gives the Law in the context of deliverance from slavery; and that it reveals the grace of justification through faith in the context of a command to obey.

    I don’t hold to a law/gospel distinction, and I do hold to sola fide. And the same can be said by a whole HOST of Reformed ministers, both now and throughout history.

    Of course, I won’t deny that those who hold to a law/gospel distinction necessarily, by that fact, don’t hold to sola fide. Nor will I claim that their theories are disallowed under the Confessions (which don’t even begin to require a law/gospel distinction).

    But from this post, it seems that particular street doesn’t go both ways.

    Well, that’s OK. At least in the URC, we don’t subscribe to the law/gospel hermeneutic. We subscribe to the faithful summary of Scripture known as the Three Forms of Unity. And the TFU do _not_ require us to embrace this rigorous, “necessary” (ahem) law/gospel hermeneutic.

    • I think the FV denial of the law-gospel distinction stems from their attempts to equate the Israelite theocracy with the visible church. It leads them into externalist, conditionalist thinking, law is gospel, gospel is law stuff. The gospel becomes more like a double-edged sword than good news in FV thought.

    • Doug:

      You’re kidding right? The Heidelberg Catechism not only presents doctrine according to law and gospel categories but also teaches a clear definition of those categories as they are found in Scripture.

      Ursinus, the most influential of those who contributed to the drafting of the HC, explained how the doctrines presented in the catechism were arranged after the pattern of the law-gospel distinction: “The chief and the most important parts of the first principles of the doctrine of the church…are repentance and faith in Christ, which we may regard as synonymous with the law and the gospel. Hence, the catechism in its primary and most general sense, may be divided as the doctrine of the church, into the law and gospel.”

      Another contributer to the HC, Casper Olevianus, made certain that his readers would grasp the importance of the law-gospel distinction when he penned Question 10 in A Firm Foundation: “What is the difference between the law and the gospel?”

      Knowing that the law-gospel distinction was key to the theology of two of the most influential members of the committee that drafted the HC, if you turn your attention back to the catechism, you’ll find that it is impossible to subscribe to the HC without embracing the law-gospel distinction. I suggest you pay particular attention to questions and answers 3, 4, 5, 9, 19, 21, 22, 62, 65, 83, 84, 92, 114, and 115.

  7. @ Rhett,

    I never said there’s no doctrinal difference between the condemnation of the Law and the freedom of the Gospel; nor that Scripture fails to present the Law as that which condemns us and reveals our sin, that we might be led (thru the HS) to Christ through the Gospel. Sin, salvation, service — absolutely.

    But the idea that one must (or even _may_) categorize every part of Scripture rigidly as *either* Law *or* Gospel — to this I do not subscribe; nor does the HC require such subscription of me.

    After all, as A.19 itself points out, the “holy gospel” was portrayed also in “the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law.” If you must categorize Scripture as one or the other from the get-go, then at many points, you prevent yourself from seeing the fullness of the message Scripture intends to convey.

  8. Doug,

    In the spirit of your recent CR essay co-authored with Chris Gordon:

    No one here is calling for a “rigid” classification but I don’t think you understand how important the distinction between the law and the gospel was to the Reformation. It wasn’t just a Lutheran distinction:

    Prior to the Reformation Scripture was understood to be entirely law. The distinction between the old law and the new was said to be the presence of the Spirit. The gift of the Spirit was said to enable us to fulfill the law. There was no recognition that there is a categorical distinction between gift and obligation.

    Further, the distinction as being discussed here and as rejected by the FV, has never been
    a historical distinction, i.e., between Moses and Christ. Yes, Calvin and others did frequently use the older (patristic and medieval) language and assign “the law” to Moses and “the gospel” to Christ and I admit that is confusing. It took a while for us to clear up our conceptual categories.

    What is at stake, however, in the FV rejection of the law/gospel distinction or the law/gospel hermeneutic is nothing less than the Reformation gospel, the biblical gospel. One of the reasons that the medievals particularly thought that we are to be justified by being sanctified (and not on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed) was their old law/new law hermeneutic.

    This is why Beza said

    Theodore Beza (1534-1605). We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558)

    As Rhett noted, Ursinus built the distinction/hermeneutic into the fabric of the HC:

    Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83) on the organization of the Heidelberg Catechism. The chief and most important parts of the first principles of the doctrine of the church, as appears from the passage just quoted from the Epistle to the Hebrews, are repentance and faith in Christ, which we may regard as synonymous with the law and gospel. Hence, the catechism in its primary and most general sense, may be divided as the doctrine of the church, into the law and gospel. It does not differ from the doctrine of the church as it respects the subject and matter of which it treats, but only in the form and manner in which these things are presented, just as strong meat designed for adults, to which the doctrine of the church may be compared, does not differ in essence from the milk and meat prepared for children, to which the catechism is compared by Paul in the passage already referred to. These two parts are termed, by the great mass of men, the Decalogue and the Apostles’ creed; because the Decalogue comprehends the substance of the law, and the Apostles’ creed that of the gospel. Another distinction made by this same class of persons is that of the doctrine of faith and works, or the doctrine of those things which are to be believed and those which are to be done.

    There are others who divide the catechism into these three parts; considering, in the first place, the doctrine respecting God, then the doctrine respecting his will, and lastly that respecting his works, which they distinguish as the works of creation, preservation, and redemption. But all these different parts are treated of either in the law or the gospel, or in both, so that this division may easily be reduced to the former.

    There are others, again, who make the catechism consist of five different parts; the Decalogue, the Apostles’ Creed, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Prayer; of which, the Decalogue was delivered immediately by God himself, whilst the other parts were delivered mediately, either through the manifestation of the Son of God in the flesh, as is true of the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, and the Eucharist, or through the ministry of the apostles, as is true of the Apostles’ Creed. But all these different parts may also be reduced to the two general heads noticed in the first division. The Decalogue contains the substance of the law, the Apostles’ Creed that of the gospel; the sacraments are parts of the gospel, and may, therefore, be embraced in it as far as they are seals of the grace which it promises, but as far as they are testimonies of our obedience to God, they have the nature of sacrifices and pertain to the law, whilst prayer, in like manner, may be referred to the law, being a part of the worship of God.

    The catechism of which we shall speak in these lectures consists of three parts. The first treats of the misery of man, the second of his deliverance from this misery, and the third of gratitude, which division does not, in reality, differ from the above, because all the parts which are there specified are embraced in these three general heads. The Decalogue belongs to the first part, in as far as it is the mirror through which we are brought to see ourselves, and thus led to a knowledge of our sins and misery, and to the third part in as far as it is the rule of true thankfulness and of a Christian life. The Apostles’ Creed is embraced in the second part inasmuch as it unfolds the way of deliverance from sins. The sacraments, belonging to the doctrine of faith and being the seals that are attached thereto, belong in like manner to this second part of the catechism, which treats of deliverance from the misery of man. And prayer, being the chief part of spiritual worship and of thankfulness, may, with great propriety, be referred to the third general part.

    Check out these quotations:

    The historic law/gospel hermeneutic is not magic. Asking the question that Perkins advised preachers to ask,

    William Perkins 1558-1602). The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect, stimulates and stirs it up. But it provides no remedy for it. However the gospel not only teaches us what is to be done, it also has the power of the Holy Spirit joined to it….A statement of the law indicates the need for a perfect inherent righteousness, of eternal life given through the works of the law, of the sins which are contrary to the law and of the curse that is due them…. By contrast, a statement of the gospel speaks of Christ and his benefits, and of faith being fruitful in good works (The Art of Prophesying, 1592, repr. Banner of Truth Trust,1996, 54-55).

    Is not an easy one, nor will everyone reach the same conclusion. The point is that the interpreter, preacher, is to ask the question: How do these two relate in this passage?

    In other words, it’s a way of analyzing Scripture. It’s not a way of forcing Scripture into a straightjacket.

    The axioms I sometimes use (law = “do” and the gospel =”done”) are basically true but they are just axioms. Obviously, in the typological period, as Scripture looks forward to Christ, “done” will not always work and yes, as I’ve recognized here:

    and here:

    Part of the difficulty is that this distinction came to be regarded as so basic, so essential (as John Murray said in Principles of Conduct) that we stopped articulating it. By the time I began to become Reformed in 1980, almost no one in our circles seemed to be talking about it. It was not much discussed at WSC when I was a student. I only really discovered it reading the older writers while doing my doctoral research. So, we’re in the process of recovering a classic Reformed distinction and there are bound to be bumps along the way.

    I’m sorry that I have sometimes given the impression that it puts Scripture in a straightjacket. That’s not true, but the distinction is as important to Reformed theology, piety, and practice as air and I hope that we can all continue to work toward recovering and applying it in our preaching.

  9. Scott,

    I appreciate this:
    “In other words, it’s a way of analyzing Scripture. It’s not a way of forcing Scripture into a straightjacket.”

    And this:
    “I’m sorry that I have sometimes given the impression that it puts Scripture in a straightjacket. That’s not true, but the distinction is as important to Reformed theology, piety, and practice as air and I hope that we can all continue to work toward recovering and applying it in our preaching.”

    What worries/concerns me is that, by over-simplifying (as Perkins does in the statement you quoted), young preachers — and young disciples in general — are inadvertently led to misread Scripture in a way that misses out on the richness of its message. Passages determined to be “law passages” are reduced to unattainable revealers of our sin, period. And while that may be (and likely is) one of the intentions of a given passage, it also may (and likely does) have a parallel intention of teaching the redeemed how to respond to their redemption. Unless the exegete is allowed to see that, half of the message is lost.

    I appreciate the idea of the distinction as a tool for analyzing Scripture, but I often find it to be an unhelpful tool, because it tends to flatten out distinctions that are better brought forth through a careful, biblical-theological analysis of the text within its time. My concern might be compared to the concern of an archaologist whose companions recommend the use of a sledgehammer to access a fossil that remains partially encased in the rock. The sledgehammer is fast and relatively easy … but other methods (e.g., a chisel and rock hammer, used with painstaking care), while requiring more work and skill, will better preserve what lies within.

    My concern is not with you using the distinction as a hermeneutical tool. My concern is with your claim that the use of the tool is essential to holding and defending sola fide. Because there is a substantial difference between recognizing the doctrinal distinction between law and gospel (as it is set forth, e.g., in Galatians); versus requiring the use of a “law/gospel hermeneutic” which seeks “to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or the gospel.”

    The former, I whole-heartedly recognize, teach and defend — because, I agree, that doctrinal distinction lies at the heart of the gospel. But it is a far different thing to say that the latter (the “law/gospel hermeneutic”) is of one and the same cloth with the former. It is to that which I object.

    • Doug,

      I’m not sure how to say this, and I hope it will be received in spirit in which it is offered but I wouldn’t be so quick to write off William Perkins. I’ve been out of sem since 1987 and I’ve been studying these guys professionally since 1993 and I find that I am still their student and not their teacher. Perhaps Perkins has something to teach us?

      Why not take some time and look into the matter more fully before you decide that Perkins is wrong. If you’ll check out the quotations I give at the resource page you’ll see that he’s in good company. He was only repeating Calvin, and his approach was echoed by a host of others. I could have filled many more pages with quotations from Reformed writers who spoke just as he did.

      If you’ll analyze Perkins’ passage (or better, read the whole book!) you’ll see that it is really quite nuanced.

      I wouldn’t juxtapose biblical theology with law/gospel distinction. Same fellows who gave us the distinction or who recovered Paul’s distinction also gave us the basics of our biblical theology. We can trace our biblical theology, i.e., our reading of redemptive history right back to the very same writers. Cocceius, arguably one of the most sophisticated biblical theologians of the 17th century (if controversial), learned his theology from Ames and he from Perkins!

      One of the mistakes made by early 20th-century anti-Kuyperians in the NL was their reaction to the tradition. G. Vos gives us better model of appropriating the tradition sympathetically. No one did biblical theology more carefully. No one has accused Vos of putting Scripture into a straightjacket, yet he took these basic distinctions and employed them in his analysis of Scripture. The same would be true of Louis Berkhof, who was biblical studies prof and a student of Vos. The same would be true of Mr Murray, also a student of Vos. No one has accused of straightjacketing Scripture.

      This isn’t just a doctrinal distinction. If we lose the hermeneutic we lose the Reformation. The medieval church read Scripture very carefully for 1000 years and the fathers before them for 400 years but they often missed the point because they often operated with the wrong hermeneutic. One can often find them espousing true doctrine but it was often corrupted because they had a poor hermeneutic, because they didn’t think about law and gospel hermeneutically. it would be tragic for the Reformed churches to fall back into the errors of the pre-Reformation church because it lost this basic building block.

  10. I found Dr. Kline’s teaching on grace as “demerited favor” in a legal, forensic context very helpful in my understanding of Sola Fide. Kline writes:

    “The drift toward Rome is evidenced by the fruits as well as the roots of the views that repudiate the idea of merit and the law-gospel contrast. For blurring the concepts of works and grace in the doctrine of the covenants will inevitably involve the blurring of works and faith in the doctrine of justification and thus the subversion of the Reformation message of justification by faith alone.”


  11. David A Booth said

    “As you observed in your recent Heidelcast, many of those associated with the FV are surprisingly naive in their historical and theological assessments. Why not simply point out their inconsistencies and errors rather than assuming the worst possible outcomes?”

    While I can’t speak for Dr. Scott, it is my personal understanding that his assessment refers to the background of FV proponents, with the baggage with which they came to the table and engaged the reformed churches in conversation. While they may be excused for their ignorance at that stage of the interaction, it is difficult to think of them as naive as they were years ago when the entire FV fuss started. After many books written on this subject, after theologians and historians had written a lot in order to inform the FV people about their historical and theological mistakes, I can hardly see how they can be evaluated as theologically and historically naive or ignorant at the current stage.

    Regarding the law/gospel distinction, coming from a church that denies this important distinction and also sola fide, I quickly found that it is impossible to defend sola fide without defending the law/gospel distinction. Justification by faith alone is the formula to express the biblical statement “justification apart from works.” That “apart” cannot be sustained as long as the response to law, namely obedience or works, is identical with the response to the gospel, faith. If gospel and law are indistinguishable in what they require, faith cannot be taken as distinct from works and the “apart” element becomes impossible. The law requires obedience, to love God and our neighbor, to share our love with others, it also points to our failure in performing what God required from us, while the gospel delivers Christ’s obedience as a gift to be received, and this reception is defined as faith, trusting and resting in Christ. The difference between giving and receiving is the difference between faith and works. It is true that faith is also commanded by God’s Word, but this command is different than the commandments we find in the law, it’s a command to receive something, not to give something, not to love God and our neighbor, but to trust in God’s love toward us in Christ’s Son. The biblical distinction made in justification when faith is postulated as being “apart from works” functions only if the proper response to the gospel, faith, is distinct from the proper response to the law, works. If law and gospel are practically requiring the same response, faith and works become indistinguishable one from the other because they are conflated as the proper response to God’s “Golawspel” and with this stoke, the “apart” from the biblical expression of sola fide, “justified apart from works”, is gone, sola fide is gone. It’s still fide, but not sola, faith, but not alone.


  12. Gabriel,

    Thank you for your thoughtful interaction. Four quick comments:

    First, I didn’t mean to convey that historical and theological naivete is somehow an excuse for our errors. As R.C. Sproul has rightly observed – all of our theological errors are the result of sin.

    Second, you write: “While they may be excused for their ignorance at that stage of the interaction, it is difficult to think of them as naive as they were years ago when the entire FV fuss started. ” I wish that were so. Regretfully, simply righting good theology to refute bad theology does not keep the those holding bad theology from remaining theologically naive. Dr. Clark can correct me if I am mistaken, but my own limited reading of FV authors leaves me to believe that their lack of theological sophistication remains to this day.

    Third, you rightly imply that remaining in theological error, after it has been pointed out and refuted, increases the culpability of those in error. I would simply add the more significant fact that every single NAPARC denomination has condemned aspects of the Federal Vision. I believe that this increases the culpability of those teaching such errors far more than some of the excellent literature that has been published in this field.

    Fourth, my reticence about claiming that someone who is denying the Law/Gospel distinction is also denying that Justification is Sola Fide flows from my concern about adding extra-Confessional requirements to the boundaries of orthodoxy apart from actually emending our Confessions themselves. To my (very limited) understanding – the overwhelming majority of the significant teachers in the Reformed Tradition (from Calvin through the Westminster Assembly) held to some sort of Law/Gospel distinction (see Dr. Clark’s references above). I would simply say that not everything that is important is confessional (I, for one, didn’t vow to uphold the Formula of Concord). If Pastor Keister and Dr. Clark believe that their formulation of the Law/Gospel distinction is essential to the gospel – they ought to work to get it included in a new confession of faith for our churches.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful interaction.


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