What Is True Faith? (10) A Glorious Omission

trustIn part 9 we considered the role of the gospel in the Spirit’s work of creating new life and granting faith. We saw that there is no tension between the direct, supernatural working of the Spirit and his use of means in accomplishing that purpose.

In this post we look at what is absent from Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 21 on true faith. There is renewed urgency to this issue since an influential evangelical theologian, who teaches at a Reformed seminary, has recently published a large systematic theology, in which he argues that Norman Shepherd’s doctrine of justification is perfectly orthodox and that the entire controversy was, in substance, a great misunderstanding. If this account of things is allowed to stand, the Reformed account of the gospel shall have been significantly damaged.

In 1978, at the height of the 1st phase of the Shepherd Controversy, he proposed 34 theses.

21. The exclusive ground of the justification of the believer in the state of justification is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, but his obedience, which is simply the perseverance of the saints in the way of truth and righteousness, is necessary to his continuing in a state of justification (Heb. 3: 6, 14).

It is essential reading a moralist such as Shepherd most carefully. In our age of text messages, and tweets we have a tendency to read the first few words and to assume that we know what the rest of the message must say. If we read these theses, however, as if they were tweets or text messages we will quite misunderstand them. As I’ve mentioned recently on the HB and as discussed in episode 55 (and listen to episodes 56 and 57 upcoming) of the Heidelcast, in the context of this discussion, the self-described Federal Visionists are dialectical in their theology. They say A and -A at the same time, about the same thing. They speak of election and justification, etc in two senses at the same time. Because they have two planes, the historical and the eschatological or the historical and the eternal in view at the same time. They are always dodging back and forth between them.

With that caveat in mind, notice the language this moralist uses. He’s perfectly orthodox when he says “the ground of justification is the righteousness of Jesus Christ….” In this thesis he did not say “imputed” but he did add it to thesis 26. Notice the next word: “but.” That is a specific sort of conjunction: an adversative. It is intended to qualify the foregoing by adding a contrary as in, “it is raining cats presently but dogs fall later.” Dogs are added to cats in characterizing the nature of the weather. When Shepherd says “but” he means to qualify his assertion that Christ’s righteousness is the sole ground of justification. He adds to it our “perseverance…in the way of truth and righteousness” as a necessary condition to remaining in a state of justification. According to Shepherd, we are in by grace (Christ’s righteousness) but we stay in by persevering. This is covenant nomism. For more about conditions in the covenant of grace listen to Heidelcast episode 46 and episode 47 where we worked through these issues. If we follow Scripture, as understood by the Reformed churches, it isn’t really that difficult.

He continued:

22. The righteousness of Jesus Christ ever remains the exclusive ground of the believer’s justification, but the personal godliness of the believer is also necessary for his justification in the judgment of the last day (Matt. 7:21-23; 25:31-46; Heb. 12:14).

Again we see the dialectical character of Shepherd’s (proto-FV) theology. If we pay attention only to the first clause we should judge this orthodox and evangelical but the thesis continues with another deadly “but.” This time he adds to the gospel “the believer’s personal godliness” (sanctification) as a condition of “justification” on the last day. You will be justified (in the same sense in which you are justified now) if you are sufficiently sanctified on the last day. Get cracking.

Because the self-described Federal Visionists teach the Romanist distinction between initial and final justification (in distinction from the Protestant distinction between justification and vindication) they can talk about grace and faith for justification in this life and then add our obedience—which, in this context, our Protestants identified with Paul’s doctrine of “the works of the law” so it is important to note that one of the first things Shepherd did was to redefine “the works of the law”—as a condition for final justification. So, in truth, when Shepherd and his self-described Federal Visionist followers speak of “grace” and “faith” for justification they are kidding because what they say about “final justification” vitiates everything they’ve said about justification in this life. It’s like being pushed down a slushy hill, when the sled grinds to a stop halfway down. Now you’re own your own. You’ve got to push yourself the rest of the way down. You might as well never have been pushed in the first place since, to bring the analogy to a gruesome end, the truth is that you don’t have any arms! You’re as stuck in the middle as you were at the beginning. The push was immaterial to the final outcome.

Please understand that there’s nothing wrong with the adversative “but.” In the hands of a gospel preacher it’s our friend.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy,because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved… (Ephesians 2:1–5, ESV)

When Paul says “but” he means it for good rather than ill. He contrasts our lostness and inability with God’s free, unconditional grace toward sinners. That’s not how Shepherd puts things, however:

23. Because faith which is not obedient faith is dead faith, and because repentance is necessary for the pardon of sin included in justification, and because abiding in Christ by keeping his commandments (John 15:5, 10; I John 3:13, 24) are all necessary for continuing in the state of  justification, good works, works done from true faith, according to the law of God, and for his glory, being the new obedience wrought by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer united to Christ, though not the ground of his justification, are nevertheless necessary for salvation from eternal condemnation and therefore for justification (Rom. 6:16, 22; Gal. 6:7-9).

Shepherd thinks that by opposing merit he was anti-Roman. Tragically, because he has never demonstrated an understanding of what the issues of the Reformation really were—our problem with Rome was never merit! Our problem was the location of the merit. Rome has it that we accumulate (condign) merit by grace and cooperation with grace (Spirit-wrought sanctity). We say that Christ merited our acceptance with God and that merit is imputed to us freely and received through faith alone resting on and receiving Christ’s work for us—he repeated the same medieval mistakes from which the Reformation delivered us.

How so? He changed the definition of faith. In his effort to resist antinomianism, he stumbled backward to the Romanist definition of faith as “formed by love.” On this  see part 3 of this series. He turned works, which James and the Reformed take to be the evidence of justification, into that which makes faith what it is. In contrast, the Bible and the Protestants say that it is Christ, the object of faith, the one to whom faith looks, who makes faith powerful. We say that faith is an empty hand. Shepherd, however, would fill our hands, as it were, with our sanctification and our obedience and our perseverance.

Think of all that Shepherd includes in his definition of faith:

  • Spirit-wrought Obedience
  • Repentance
  • Keeping his commandments
  • Perseverance

How much obedience does it take to make faith true? How much repentance and how sincere must it be in order for faith to be considered genuine? How well must one keep the commandments in order to successfully persevere and to be qualified to be finally justified?

This is the doctrine that well-regarded evangelicals are now commending to you. Here’s my Christmas present to you: Bah humbug!

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

O foolish Evangelicals!

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 asAbraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? (Galatians 1:6–10; 3:1–6; ESV)

Contrast Shepherd’s doctrine with Calvin’s teaching on Galatians 5:6

When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle.

That “exclusive particle” to which Calvin referred is the sola as in justification sola gratia and sola fide. Shepherd’s is a doctrine of justification through faith formed by love.

Contrast Shepherd’s definition of faith in the act of justification with Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 21:

21. What is true faith?

True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

The Heidelberg never mentions or even hints at Spirit-wrought sanctity and obedience (works) in its definition of faith in the act of justification.

As we saw at the beginning of this series, there are three qualifications of true faith: knowledge, assent, and trust. The same Spirit who grants true faith will produce good works as evidence of faith and new life, just as a good tree produces good fruit (Belgic Confession, Art. 24).

These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification—for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.

The fruit does not make the tree what it is. That’s the Roman error. No, the tree produces fruit as evidence of new life and that new life is to be lived, by grace alone, through faith alone, in conformity to God’s holy law but that sincere striving toward sanctity doesn’t make faith true. No, Christ, our only Savior, he alone makes the empty hand of faith powerful enough to move mountains.

    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.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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6 comments

  1. My pastor inserted “saving” faith alone into the answer of WSC Q33. The more I think about this it troubles me since the definition of Saving Faith from the WCF includes sanctification.

    He is no closet Shephardite or FV; however, I don’t see the need to revise the catechism’s answer.

    Also, Dr Clark, have you had a chance to review Doug Moo’s new Galatians commentary?

    • Hi Michael,

      True faith is always accompanied by the grace of sanctification but those gifts don’t make faith justifying. We must resist the temptation of “faith formed by love.”

      Re the commentary, no plans to read it. Sorry.

  2. You cannot perform good works to GET saved, and you cannot perform good works to STAY saved. Good works come only AFTER salvation, out of gratitude and thankfulness to God. It really is that simple, and is a demonstration as to why Ephesians 2.8-10 is such an important passage in this debate.

    If you are going to collapse sanctification into justification, you have two problems, immediately: (1) a quantity problem – how many good works are enough to keep you justified?; and (2) a quality problem – how do I know my good works are good enough to keep me justified?

    Collapsing sanctification into justification is the perfect theological recipe for giving a sincere Christian who believes this a nervous breakdown.

  3. Thoughts on this statement: “If you remove enjoyment of God from faith in God, it ceases to be faith.” It seems to me that joy is a fruit of the Spirit though not of the essence of faith.

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