In By Grace, Stay in By Faithfulness? (3)

Part 2

Why is [Covenant] Nomism So Attractive?

No one but God knows what’s is in the hearts of other people, so I’m not judging or speaking to personal intentions. We can, however, look at the history of Christian theology and draw some conclusions. This is not the first time that people have proposed the “get in by grace, stay in by works” program whereby our final acceptance with God is dependent upon our obedience. We call this “nomism.”

In every case of which I’m aware, the first motive behind nomism has been to create a system that requires people to be good, to be sanctified, to obey, to be accepted by God. Setting aside, for the moment the question whether it is biblical, it has seemed like a rational plan. After all, if employers want employees to be more productive, they set incentives that either reward success or punish failure. Schools do the same with children, so why not in salvation?

The answer, of course, is found in Paul’s explanation of the difference between works and grace in Romans 11:6

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

Paul sets out two distinct principles: works and grace. The works principle is expressed clearly in Genesis 42:18, when Joseph set a test.Our Lord Jesus articulated this principle to the lawyer who asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. In answer Jesus told him that he must keep the law of God (love God with all one’s faculties and one’s neighbor as one’s self). “do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28). The other principle is grace, i.e., God’s favor, free acceptance with God. John 1:17 makes a contrast between grace and law. Acts 15:11 and Romans 6:14 makes this contrast. Relative to acceptance with God grace is the antithesis of our performance. It is premised upon the performance, the obedience, the righteousness of another for us.

We see the very same contrast in Galatians 3:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

In his attempt to get Christians to be good the nomist sets a test: “do this and live.” When he does, he has turned (the covenant of) grace into (a covenant of) works. Biblically, however, these are two distinct, if closely related, principles.

A second reason nomism is attractive is, as suggested above, that it seems to be so reasonable but there is a difference between reason (or rationality) and rationalism. The latter confuses our understanding with God’s or chooses ours over God’s. This was Luther’s critique of the medieval consensus that we are justified because we are sanctified. He called it a theology of glory.

Acceptance on the basis of performance makes sense to us intuitively because, as Mike Horton and others have noted, we were originally wired to present ourselves to God on the basis of performance, on the basis of our doing. The implication of “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” and the very existence of the tree of life is that there is life beyond the garden. We were created “good” and we were able to meet the test God set but mysteriously we chose sin and death over obedience and life.

The great error that Pelagius, much of the medieval church, Rome, and all other forms of nomism have made is the failure to distinguish between our abilities before and after the fall.

There are two ways to confuse before and after. The medieval church found a way to do both simultaneously. They came to believe that were broken simply by virtue of being human. That’s first way to confuse things: reading the fall back into the prelapsarian (pre-fall) world. The second way of confusing them is to read the prelapsarian state into the fallen world.

Since the early 20th century there has been a widespread revolt against the idea that there was a covenant of works as “legalistic.” It is has often been rejected as contrary to grace so that grace has swallowed up everything in history. According to G. C. Berkouwer, this is what happened in Karl Barth’s theology, election (grace) swallowed up history.

That “triumph of grace,” however, came at a cost. As we’ve seen in the earlier posts in this series, Scripture has two principles grace and works. The latter is about justice. If grace swallows everything then there is no justice and frankly it is beyond me how one can read Scripture and conclude that God is not concerned with justice. Unless one takes a Gnostic or Marcionite view of the OT (where the “god” of the OT was said to have been a sort of evil demi-god) then we have to reckon with phenomena such as the cities of refuge or the 10 plagues. For those of us who still believe Scripture, who cannot dismiss 2/3 of Scripture as myth, those are taken as real events that witness to something real in God: a desire for righteousness, a desire which he himself satisfied in the active and suffering obedience of his Son, our Savior Jesus.

One consequence of obliterating the distinction between the covenants of works and grace is that the covenant of grace becomes a covenant of works. This is what has happened in the theology of Daniel Fuller, Norman Shepherd, and others who have followed in their footsteps. So, even for those who say they are “all about” grace the works principle comes back but instead of Christ fulfilling it for us, we end up fulfilling it for ourselves and thus the covenant of grace is no more a promise of free acceptance with God but a covenant that really says, “you’ve been given an opportunity: don’t blow it.” That’s a deadly message to sin-corrupted people.

The unspoken assumption behind the conversion of the covenant of grace into a covenant of works is that we really aren’t that sinful. It’s semi-Pelagian. We’re able to do, with the help of grace, for acceptance with God, what God requires. This is what Protestants have called “moralism.” See C. Fitzsimmons’ excellent book on this, The Rise of Moralism.

The two main reason reasons nomism finds favor are both sub-species of what Luther called “the theology of glory:” rationalism and moralism. Neither have anything to do with the Christian religion, the theology of the cross, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection for the justification of sinners.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    It seems to me that big T theonomy (Rushloony/Bahnsen) is much like covenantal nomism / moralism. Do you have any writings that deal directly their theology?

    The reason I ask is that I just came out of a church (by the Grace of God) or rather I would say cult where the leadership mentored under Rushloony and Bahnsen. I see much of what you are discussing here in their theology. For example, many sermons mentioned phrases such as: Faith = Obedience, Living by every Law Word, God’s Law Word. Every sermon would start out with a prayer that God would remove and or frustrate the efforts of the leaders of our nation who do not bow to and obey His commands. It sure seems to me that this type of theology leads people to think that they are or remain righteous by living out the ethical commands of the Law.

    • Hi Brett,

      Near as I can tell the theonomists/reconstructionists are split on covenantal nomism. Bahnsen supported Norman Shepherd during the first go-round on this at WTS/P from 1974-81. Bahnsen’s supporters, however, are split as to whether he agreed. His son, David, says that his Dad, Greg, agreed with Shepherd’s definition of faith in justification as “faith and works” or “faithfulness” but other supporters of Bahnsen denied that he was heterodox on justification.

      Here’s an essay I did a few years back and revised on the relations between theonomy and the Federal Vision (a form of covenantal nomism).

      At least one theonomic denomination has explicitly rejected the FV movement but I have had a similar experience as you. A fair percentage of the theonomists/reconstructionists I’ve known have also been covenantal nomists. Many of the leading federal visionists have roots in the theonomy movement. Some have described the FV as the ecclesiastical side or face of the theonomic movement.

  2. I echo the thanks above, Dr. Clark, for the entire series.

    It seems to me that perhaps one of the motivations behind this kind of errant theology is fear. It’s as if the proponents are scared that if they don’t stress human obedience, then their congregants will become antinomian. I wonder if fear is one of the root causes of the rationlism and moralism that these folks use to justify this covenant nomism. I also wonder how much of it comes from an intellectual species of pride. They have carefully studied the works of these prominent modern theologians like E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright and have integrated this sophisticated historical and theological work into their thinking and theology while they think the poor benighted crowd is still obsessed with psychological coping mechanism of a neurotic 16th-century German monk, namely sola fide.

    As soon as I have the time, I’m planning on reading Where is Boasting, a book by Simon Gathercole, a conservative theologian who teaches at Cambridge. Gathercole did his Ph.D. under Dunn, and this book is in part, if I understand correctly, a refutation of at least part of the historical case that Sanders and Dunn make for covenant nomism.

    Are you familiar with Dr. Gathercole’s work, Dr. Clark? Have you read this work above and would you reccommend it?

    • Gathercole is a good scholar. Highly recommended generally. I remember working through that vol some years ago and finding it helpful but it’s been a while. More recently I read his book on the Gospel of Judas. It was very well done.

  3. There are two ways to confuse before and after. The medieval church found a way to do both simultaneously. They came to believe that were broken simply by virtue of being human. That’s first way to confuse things: reading the fall back into the prelapsarian (pre-fall) world. The second way of confusing them is to read the prelapsarian state into the fallen world.

    Golf clap.

  4. ‘It became clear that he adopted this view for the very same reason that the medieval church adopted its view, and that Rome….adopted her view: to ensure that her people would be sanctified.’

    ie., To live a morally good life.
    But the problem was far more serious, they had thousands, maybe millions, who were not regenerate! THAT was the problem!
    And now after 150 years of Finney / Graham decisional evangelism, the evangelicals have the very same disaster, hence the resort to preaching “You will only stay in if you behave!!”

  5. John Piper & others seem to posit TWO justifications, One at the beginning of our faith, by faith, and another at the judgment, by faith-proving works. Seems to me like what we are talking about here.

    May we have your opinion Dr Clark?

  6. Dr Clark,

    Thanks for this. My understanding is that ‘covenant nomism’ builds on the reading of OT Judaism of Sanders and others. It seems to me that one’s reading of the OT is key.

    Would you agree that the solution is not to deny the existence of OT material which fits into covenant nomism (which some Reformed do in their attempt to say everything here is ‘grace’) nor to make covenant nomism the only truth of the OT, but to understand that under the administration of the covenant of grace in the OT, and subservient to it, a works principle (that looks very much like ‘stay in by faithfulness’) is also sometimes presented? If this is denied, then as you say, the covenant of grace often ends up being filled with those strict demands for faithfulness, thus looking like a covenant of works in practice.

    By the way, welcome back!

    • Stephen,


      I’m not sure it’s as much about the OT as “Second Temple” Judaism. That’s a little different. I do agree, however, that part of the answer is to understand properly the legal aspects of the Mosaic covenant. There’s a chapter or three on this in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. How to describe that legal element is, of course, difficult. That’s part of the controversy over “republication.” Historically, the Reformed have almost universally attributed a legal aspect to the Mosaic covenant. Not all have construed it in exactly the same way, so we can’t flatten out the story. This is the mistake, from a historical perspective, in the move to make the Mosaic covenant purely gracious. Yes, grace continued to operate under Moses. Anyone who denied that really would be in jeopardy of Pelagianism but I don’t know Reformed folk denying the operation of grace under Moses.

  7. Thanks, Dr Clark. I will try to check out CJPM.

    Yes, it’s specifically the legal aspects under Moses I had in mind, which as you say are difficult to construe. I do wonder whether in practice one’s view of these elements might not have a greater impact on one’s theology than whether one accepts a covenant of works with Adam. After all, it seems there are some who are perfectly happy to believe in an original covenant of works but who place everything under ‘grace’ post-fall.

    When this is done I can’t for the life of me see how one evades moralism (going down the path of Shepherd even if one shies away from his language of ‘faith and works’) – unless one makes the common move of seeing these elements simply as the grateful response of God’s redeemed people (as I came across recently in Graeme Goldsworthy’s ‘Gospel and Kingdom’), which of course is how it should be, but which, it seems to me, does not do full justice to the strict demands and warnings there.

    • Stephen,

      Historically, those who’ve shied away or rejected the covenant of works have had a difficult time accepting a legal aspect to the Mosaic covenant. The hostility evident presently to the idea that there was a legal aspect to Moses seems to be rooted in a rejection of the prelapsarian covenant of works. There is a strong connection. The 17th c. covenant theologians routinely appealed to the legal aspect under Moses as evidence, by analogy, of the prelapsarian covenant of works.

  8. It seems to me that any fair reading of the Psalms will result in position on Judaism that is quite close, if not exactly the same as covenantal nomism.

    Paul’s letter to the Galatians was dealing with the Mosaic clean laws v being clean “in Christ” without respect to physical mutilation, dietary laws, etc. His argument was not against the obligation of the people of God to faithfully keep the moral law. Again – the paradigm of enter via faith, maintain via faithfulness works quite well in Galatians. Paul did not see an antithesis between law and gospel, he only wanted the Galatians to understand the proper role of “law” within the gospel. Thus, statements such as:

    walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

    the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

    those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

    If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.

    Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

    the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.

    let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

    And of course, 1 Cor. 7:19 and Romans 2 . . . Paul is quite clearly saying in the first part of Galatians, that mutilation of the flesh is no longer the entrance into the covenant. The entrance is now open to all men, regardless of ethnicity – all men who fear Him, as Peter said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” – Acts10:34

    The clean laws have been replaced by Christ, the moral laws are still in effect for those who claim to be the people of God. God did not all of a sudden decide to overlook fornication, murder, rebellion, lying, etc. under the New Covenant.

    • Josh,

      I don’t think that religion of the OT is Judaism. Certainly the NT does not read the Hebrew/Aramaic Scriptures thus. Jesus himself did not read Scripture thus (Luke 24; John 8:56; John 12; 2 Cor 1).

      The question in Scripture is NEVER whether to be sanctified but always why and to what end. Moralists/nomists want us to be sanctified to be justified. The Christian faith wants us to be sanctified, by grace alone, because we have been justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

      Read the Heidelberg Catechism. You seem to be battling dispensational ghosts that aren’t entirely relevant in a confessional Reformed setting.

      Do you understand what the “third use” of the law is?

    • I agree with Dr. Clark. This is quite similar to what Michael Horton and others have gotten on NT Wright for. He looks at the state of anti-intellectual American Evangelicalism and assumes it’s complete continuity with the Reformers, which is blatantly false for anyone who knows history (as is apparent NT Wright doesn’t). They see sort of charismatic evangelical circles promoting a OSAS and a carnal Christian doctrine to completely separate justification from sanctification. So NPP and FV thinks the solution is to completely overreact and go back to the Tiber to ensure people become holy. That doesn’t make sense and was talked about by the Reformers who denounced antinomianism stating that if you are truly justified you can be assured by your fruit, but you are not justified by it. Again rather you are shown to have been justified.
      This reading of Paul you propose is only to tickle those who like the background of the OT times and think this ‘cultural’ reading is the only reading not the ‘legal’ reading.

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